In her yellow sari and an orange blouse, a woman lies on the floor, staring anxiously at the mobile phone placed next to her arm. On a wall behind her is a poster of Osmania University in Hyderabad, a hub of the violent protests and student suicides that have accompanied Telangana politics over the last three years. The woman is possibly awaiting a phone call, perhaps from her son about his safety, who might be studying at the university. This is Ringtone, which was on display at Jehangir Art gallery in Mumbai last year, as part of the exhibition “Fellow Travellers”. It is one of the many paintings by Hyderabad-based artist Laxman Aelay which capture the struggles of the inhabitants of Telangana.
Forty-nine-year-old Aeley’s journey is often reminiscent of MF Husain’s, whose tryst with art began as a painter of film posters, while the former worked as a signboard painter. “When I went to study in Hyderabad, I was working as a book illustrator and I had done nearly 1000 illustrations for non-fiction, Dalit and Bahujan literature, poetry and feminist books. I worked with feminist activists and was highly influenced by their vision of Telangana,” he says. When he returned to his village, Kadirenigudem in Nalgonda district, its harsh realities offered a stark contrast to the city life he had experienced. “There was no water and the area was very dry. I had not noticed this as a child,” he says. Soon, his work would be inhabited by the humble men and women of the village.
Aelay’s paintings tell stories of villagers struck by poverty and trace their daily chores. He says women play a very important role in his work. “In my village, women are responsible for farming as well as their homes. My paintings bring out the role of women in the armed struggle for Telangana,” says Aelay. A Telengana identity is at the root of his oeuvre. Left Myths features an elderly man in a red shirt and an off-white dhoti, with his back to the viewer. His shirt is adorned with motifs of horses and bulls, which seem handpicked by the artist from the painted scrolls used by the Mandahechulu tribe in their performances, a blend of singing, storytelling and illustrated scrolls, which reveal the history of the cattle-rearing Golla caste in the Deccan.
Thota Vaikuntam, often referred to as the “Jamini Roy of the south” or “Vaikuntam from Telangana”, was one of the first to portray the region’s sensibilities in his works. His paintings bring out a deep-rooted fascination with his native village Boorugupally. “In my village, one will find certain strong colours like red, green and yellow in the attires of people. I studied what they wear, how they sit and what they hold and I gave form to these studies through my paintings,” says the 72-year-old artist.
Women appear to be frequent subjects of his works as well. His canvases portray a simple life — men carrying toddy pots on their shoulders, women engaged in temple rituals, or standing alongside flute-bearing men, almost like Radha and Krishna. While making use of polka dots, Vaikuntam employs the complex wash painting method to decorate his women in vivid hues. “I want to bring out my cultural identity through my art,” he says.
Though the colours used by him might appear to signify happiness and peace, the turbulent history of his land is subtly entrenched in his paintings.“I did not want my paintings to look happy. If you see the women I paint closely, you will see the suffering on their face. By looking at the colours, you might think they are happy but they are sad. We had other similar movements in ’78 and ’79. My friends were tortured in police stations. I could not do anything. My feelings are there, on the canvas,” he says.
How will a new state affect the Telangana art scene? Artists from Telangana hope that the creation of the new state will revitalise and promote Telangana culture which, they feel, has been neglected, and many of its art forms are quickly disappearing. “There are experts who draw or paint small images on temple walls or on cloth depicting a scene from the Mahabharata or describing a scene from local folklore. This art is becoming rare, so are Burrakatha and Pandulu which are oral storytelling forms. There was a time when Burrakatha used to be the main entertainment in every village of Telangana,’’ says Vaikuntam. “Of course, while we should try to nurture art, we need hospitals and schools urgently as well,’’ he adds.
Vaikuntam also feels that certain areas of Telangana require government support, encouragement and funds to prevent them from becoming extinct and to help artists who could not get an opportunity to break into the mainstream art world. “The real art lies in the villages and towns, where it often goes unnoticed. I know many good painters and craftsmen who eke out a living as drawing teachers in Hyderabad and other nearby cities while silently pursuing their passion. Government-funded exhibitions and galleries, where artists can display their work, are urgently needed,” says Vaikuntam.
Artist Annavaram Srinivas agrees: “The government should establish an exclusive Telangana Arts Academy.” Painter Surya Prakash is sceptical about government support. “Telangana will become a state after two-three months. We have to see what kind of people run the government and whether they would be interested in salvaging Telangana art. A few accomplished painters and artists from Telangana receive government support but there are entire families and communities who are into some kind of art or the other that is very unique and they need a lot of support,” he says.
In the coming years, Prakash predicts that painting and music, may see several changes as people celebrate the new state and the landscape starts changing. “I will continue to paint my women but I am also looking at starting to paint changing Telangana landscapes and other things,’’ says Vaikuntam.
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