MANVINDER DAVAR, owner of India Fine Art gallery, had been putting together a retrospective of Thota Vaikuntam’s works for the last three years, collecting more than 200 works the artist has created in his career spanning four decades. Now, it is finally on display at the Jehangir Art Gallery till November 21. “The exhibition was purely his initiative. I had no idea where most of my paintings were,” says Hyderabad-based Vaikuntam over the phone. Davar had to hunt down people from all over Mumbai and Hyderabad and persuade them to lend him works of Vaikuntam in their possession. Alongside, he put together a coffee table book of the paintings that are on display at the retrospective.
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Davar’s fascination with Vaikuntam — acclaimed for his depiction of the rural people of Telangana — started two decades ago. Recounting his first meeting with the artist in 2001, Davar says, “After trying for a long time, I finally managed to arrange a meeting with Vaikuntam through a mutual friend. Through him, Vaikuntam warned me not to expect any free paintings from him. But then we met and hit it off immediately. We ended up chatting for six hours, and I walked out of his house with 15 canvases.” It’s this simple and generous spirit that Davar hopes to bring out in the book, which includes light-hearted conversations with his family and interviews with art critics.
At Jehangir Art Gallery, Vaikuntam’s art is arranged chronologically, with one hall dedicated to his work up to the present, and the other showcasing his works from the last two years. Though Vaikuntam is now 74 years old, the lines in his paintings have grown sharper than ever, and the colours he prefers are brighter.
His muses — the sensuous and rustic women of Telangana — are slowly becoming shadows of the past rather than reflections of the present, as modernity creeps into their lives. “But Vaikuntam is not necessarily interested in replicating the real. The gold ornaments swinging from the aquiline noses of his subjects, or the inevitable parakeet clinging onto a shoulder, are meant to display the richness and beauty within his people,” says Davar.
This style is a clear departure from Vaikuntam’s earlier depictions of Telangana women. In his smaller-format paintings of the 1980s, their faces are distinctly different from one another and seem to depict actual people; a woman might have a goiter on her neck or a boil on her cheek. Colours are duller too, and the expressions on some faces reek of sadness. In Vaikuntam’s most recent work, however, all subjects are dressed in vivid primary colours, and have perfectly interchangeable heart-shaped faces with voluptuous lips.
The progression is interesting to see, especially since most people are not as familiar with Vaikuntam’s earlier works. One gets the impression that they’ve grown larger than life. Vaikuntam’s muses will always remain the same; he was inspired decades ago by what KG Subramanyan, one of his teachers, had said: “Do what is in your story.” Born in Telangana’s Burugupalli, Vaikuntam has always been driven to paint subjects close to his roots.
The retrospective is on till November 21 at Jehangir Art Gallery, Fort