THE festival has begun in the tiny hamlet of Burugupalli, Telangana. Men and women, draped in vibrant printed yards of pancha and saris, stand as the music and colours surround them. One can even catch a whiff of the village’s savouries and sweets. There are moments when mere scenes of the famous flower festival of Telangana, called Bathukamma, on artist Thota Vaikuntam’s canvas feels like a real celebration.
For the 72-year-old, the experience of the festival itself is overwhelming. “I have travelled a lot, but nothing comes close to the experience this festival gives,” he says. For over five decades, the Hyderabad-based artist has kept close to his heart and his paintbrush, his inimitable birthplace Burugupalli and its people. Vaikuntam brings back the familiar faces as he returns for a solo show titled “The Telangana Icons”, after a gap of 10 years. The exhibition will be held at Grosvenor Gallery, London, from September 25 to October 10.
Vaikuntam’s folk fables evoke a raw, almost purist, approach while portraying the hardworking men and women of Burugupalli. The rustic landscape of his hometown may be missing from his work, but the life of toil and simplicity reflects on his compositions. The masked expressions on the faces of his figures — with kohl-lined eyes on a face set in fractal geometry — come alive with the dynamic natural colours that fill up the clothes and accessories.
In fact, even though he resides in Jubilee Hills now, Vaikuntam still travels more than 440 km just to get a fresh perspective. “I visit my village all the time. I go because I can feel the difference after coming back. It feels so fresh. But I don’t stay very long as I am habituated to my life in Hyderabad,” he says.
It becomes important for the viewer to dissect the plethora of elements that Vaikuntam plays with. “Lines are important, and so are colours” says the artist, “These support my feelings. Look at the dots, for instance. These are prints that come from the weaving culture of my village.” Over the years, the forms that Vaikuntam painted, especially of women, have become more refined. “They are sharper and more angular. It is as if his works have evolved from the rustic to something more sophisticated,” says Sunaina Anand of Art Alive Gallery. The presence of emotion is strong, and the artist also makes that clear through hand gestures.
For instance, in Gossiping Women, three women hold hands and partially cover their mouth, or in Telangana Couple III, a woman listens to a man play the flute as she clasps her hands in earnest. Even the recurring motif of parrots adds to his simplistic symbols. “It’s quite easy. It denotes love and affection,” he says.
Even though it has a strong hold over Vaikuntam’s artistic identity, the artist’s birthplace has undergone several changes over the years. “There are all kinds of economical problems now. The weaver community is suffering a lot. Money-making organisations have opened their outlets in the village in large numbers. I feel very sad when I see how conditions have worsened,” he says. This change, however, is inconspicuous in his paintings. “He paints out of nostalgia. He sees all the change and he wants it to be how it used to be,” says Anand.
Vaikuntam felt strongly about the impact on the arts after Telangana was separated from what used to be Andhra Pradesh. “We are different from each other on so many counts. Culturally, for instance, they don’t celebrate Bathkamma. Earlier, people of Telangana used to be looked down upon as those lacking culture. The difference is not just on paper. It was very clear in drama, cinema and painting as well. Now that things are different, we must build our own way of living,” he says.
The artist hasn’t been entirely free the last 10 years. The condition of spondylitis, which has ailed him for 30 years, prevents him from working for long stretches. However, Vaikuntam has also been busy showcasing as a part of several group shows across the country. “I can’t paint many paintings in a short span of time. I’m a slow painter. Group shows work better because they require three to four paintings. To give as many as 25-30 paintings that a solo requires is hard. Each one takes one or two months to complete,” says Vaikuntam.