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Thota Vaikuntam: A study of the evolution of the iconic Telengana women

Acclaimed Indian figurative artist 73-year-old Thota Vaikuntam is best known for his paintings of the dusky, brightly coloured Telengana women. Did he always paint these part-exotic part-grotesque figures?

Author – Ria Sarkar

Acclaimed Indian figurative artist 73-year-old Thota Vaikuntam is best known for his paintings of the dusky, brightly coloured Telengana women. Did he always paint these part-exotic part-grotesque figures? This article explores the implications of developing an iconic motif and tracing its evolution spanning decades. What was initially propelled by an obsession with women became a motif that is now synonymous with the artist’s identity. Interestingly, even after painting these exotic earthy beauties for over 30 years, his fascination with them is not quite finished yet.

“I can’t stop myself from drawing these women. To me they represent strength that’s so inherent in most Indian women,” says Vaikuntam who was born in Boorugupali, Andhra Pradesh, where his father was a local supplies shopkeeper who struggled to make ends meet.

Vaikuntam’s parents supported him even when they didn’t know what art was. Their general state of penury was probably the reason why he was constantly sick as a child. His physical weakness made him feel helpless. Painting was a welcome escape that helped him in coming to terms with his weakness and helplessness.

Every artist has a signature style that defines his or her individuality and artistic expression, but very few create images that garner instant recognition from the viewer. Vaikuntam’s Telengana beauties have an arresting quality that has the capacity to hold the viewer’s attention and make them yearn for more. Whether he intended to or not, they have successfully placed him on the list of some of the most celebrated artists in India today.

“The Telengana women are not beautiful but they are lovely people, warm, robust and spontaneous,” claims the artist.

In his effort to capture life, he observed local women from his village in their natural surroundings. His first and strongest muse was his mother and in fact a lot of the qualities that make up the Telengana woman motif are derived from her. They are strong, confident and are mostly women of a certain age, alluding to the dominating matriarch that is common in South Indian family structures. The focus of his depictions is on the decorative aspect and bringing their physicality to the fore.

The obsession with women can also be traced back to his fascination of male artists impersonating female characters in the travelling theatre groups that performed in his village. He admits finding the women of his village very sensuous and that he only attempts to capture their vibrancy.  In an interview, the artist explains his early apprehensions when it came to art. “…In private I began sketching images which were very Indian, but which I thought were quite shocking. They were very obviously inspired by the spiritual and sensuous tradition that’s part of Indian mythology and art. I hid them from public eye, because I thought they were very sexual.”

His paintings depict women in rural settings. According to him they are a reflection of the culture of his region – local festivals, day-to-day activities, visiting the temple and simple things such as sitting or standing together and gossiping.  One could say there is a strong culture vs nurture paradigm at play here – on the one hand Vaikuntam is obviously inspired by the protective and caring nature of his mother, while simultaneously being influenced by the culture that he has known all his life.

Early life

Vaikuntam completed a Diploma in Painting at the College of Fine Arts and Architecture, Hyderabad, in 1970, and went on to pursue another diploma in Painting and Printmaking from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, in 1972. Within a year he held his first solo exhibition at the Kala Bhavan in Hyderabad, and since then has had regular shows at various galleries in Hyderabad, Bangalore, New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. All this while he was dismayed with what he learnt of Western art, feeling that it was bound by structure and theory, unlike Indian art that is spontaneous and intuitive. “I tried to copy the European masters, as a result of which I had no personal style. It left me very disillusioned.”

It took Vaikuntam longer than he expected to resist and reject the lure of the old European masters. He only understood the true value and complexity of rural life after he turned 40, beginning to see it as potential material for his art, he told the Sunday Guardian. But the end result of his long struggle with western concepts was the creation of a unique motif solely his own. This motif captures his goals and ideals of imbibing the essence of Indian mythology and art into his works giving them an epic-like charm.

Today Vaikuntam’s unending obsession with the women of his land has paid off.

His works are universally loved because they are intuitive, possessing a raw vitality that projects the culture of his region.

Development of the world famous motif

His early works in charcoal from the 1980s, currently in possession by the Hyderabad Art Gallery include a variety of local figures such as priests, musicians and shepherds among others. Eventually though, he became almost singularly obsessed with drawing and painting women. Multiple figures of stocky, muscular almond-eyed women who often seem grotesque in their portrayal now populated his frames. Interestingly, he does not draw to scale or parameters.  “What you like, you enhance” he says. Huge red bindis centered on a turmeric-smeared forehead dominates the face. The upper parts of their bodies sometimes overwhelm other features giving them a voluptuous feel. The figures on his canvases are often seen in their natural state, exuding a sense of comfort which one associates with home or daily life.

The artist’s technique

The artist has not experimented with a lot of media. During his formative years he worked with charcoal. Later he moved on to acrylic on paper and painted with oil on canvas.  His signature is the bright pigments he uses and the small patterns to depict textiles and jewelry.

Most of the colours he uses are primary. He does not believe in composite colours because he feels they are unnatural, as they do not exist in nature.

Many people believe that his expertise lies in the use of controlled lines, definite tones and fine strokes that convey a sense of power. The use of charcoal amplifies this sense and gives a raw earthiness to his style.

Initially, Vaikuntam preferred to include only the face and neck in his figures, or the entire body, whereas in later works he gradually went on to focus on three-fourths of the body. With this measured shift towards partial depiction of the body, as well as particular emphasis on varied angles and postures he tries to create a three-dimensionality in his frames that offers a naturalistic perspective.

The artist’s true talent is revealed in his execution of figures, infusing them with a vibrancy that is lifelike, brilliantly capturing the essence of the Telengana people. In terms of composition, these figures occupy his entire frame on their own without a background or accompanying details. The detailing is restricted to their jewelry and attire. As mentioned above, their presence fills the space and teamed with the bold colours it gives them a three-dimensionality, which is unique. One can say that it reveals the artist’s purpose to glorify his subjects and put them on a pedestal, showcasing their individuality through their positioning.

Figural evolution of the ‘Telengana women’

These early figures in charcoal possess the raw essence of the Telengana village folk, which carries forward in his future works. But there is a marked difference in their rendering, especially when juxtaposed with his works in the next decade. The women here are not particularly beautiful but reflect their natural selves. It is clear from the treatment of the lines that he was still exploring western concepts and honing his skills. The emphasis is on observation rather than decoration, and while these charcoal figures lack the vivacity associated with his painted figures, Vaikuntam’s preoccupation with detailing can be spotted here in its nascent stage (Figures 1 & 2).

In the last decade of 20th century, Vaikuntam’s Telengana women started evolving into the elegant renditions that we are familiar with today. Brightly colored attires, turmeric on the forehead decorated with large red bindis and the passive-introspective gaze materialized into the stylization of the motif. Even the charcoal rendition (Fig 5) made in 1992 is noticeably well defined as compared to the ones he made in the 1980’s, mentioned above (Fig 1-3).

Another decade on, the Telengana woman leaves behind the grotesque voluptuousness of the 90’s and takes on a sensuous quality that is reflected in her calm and serene expression, sharper face structure and in her intricately designed attire. The bindi has become larger and is often accompanied with a small yellow dot on one cheek. In Fig 7 we can see the miniscule dots on the saree that is similar to the popular Madurai saree from Tamil Nadu.

A major difference between the 1980’s-90’s works and those made from 2000 onwards is that his women are rarely seen in full profile view anymore. His frames only show close-ups of the face and neck, or three-fourths of the bodies, giving them a statuesque feel. Moreover, their silent, somewhat motionless postures lend the paintings a photographic element, arresting them in time and space.

The motif reached its peak in this last decade up until the present. Vaikuntam’s intelligent detailing, boldness of brush strokes and subtlety in composition have achieved a level of precision that establishes him as one of the leading figurative artists in India today. In his recent exhibition in Grosvenor Gallery, London, the works have more male characters and a uniformity of form and color. The number of figures in a single frame has also increased from two’s and three’s to six, sometimes seven figures in a row (Fig 10 & 13). Vaikuntam seems to have consciously attempted to show a large group, or multiple scenarios side by side (Fig 13), which is different from his previous works.

Laurels and accolades

To his critics who say that he is obsessed with the almond-eyed beauties and that his works are repetitive, he says, “ at this age, what can I do that is new? Even if you take Picasso, he may have changed a lot of things in his paintings, he took influence from many places, but basically they’re all the same. Even Matisse did the same thing all his life.”

Vaikuntam won the Bharat Bhavan Biennale Award in 1988 and the Lalit Kala Akademi’s National Award in 1993, and has participated in several solo and group shows across the globe.

He’s worked as an art director of a National Award-winning film, was a student of K.G. Subramanyan — a pioneer of Indian modern art — and has taken his canvases to Germany, USA and UK. Armed with a career that spans over 40 years, Vaikuntam returned to London with a solo exhibition in October 2015 after a decade. The artist currently lives and works in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.