INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY INDIAN ARTIST THOTA VAIKUNTAM
Known for his boldly colorful depictions of the rural people of Telangana and recognized for his particular bright yet earthy color palette, Thota Vaikuntam is one of the most popular Indian artists living and working today. On my recent trip to India, I sat down for a chat with Mr. Vaikuntam to share his story with Laasya Art, having had the pleasure of knowing him for over a decade.
What follows is our conversation — I was taken in with the immense dedication and perseverance he demonstrated in his artistic pursuits. Throughout his career, Mr. Vaikuntam has continued his quest to distill his unique sensibility as an artist, a skill that helps establish an artist as a ‘brand.’
Do you remember when your interest in art was aroused?
I guess it must have been in childhood, can’t really say. Like all children in a village, I used to watch street plays, puppet shows and folk dance dramas that would be enacted regularly through the year. Often, these performances would go on throughout the night. I was fascinated by the characters they portrayed — Bhima, Hanuman — their costumes and supernatural strength. I would come home and draw them from memory! As my skills improved, I was able to fine-tune these drawings, closer to reality. When I became older, I sometimes even participated in the performances — I loved to put on colorful costumes, paint my face. I would say that is how I ‘entered’ the area of ‘art’ without knowing what art is!
Then, when I was in middle school, I would go to the nearby temples and draw the figures sculpted on the pillars and walls. I would sometimes skip school to do that! And, one of my friend’s family had a shop, and I would make posters for special deals they were offering or new products. I did not know anything about design or the commercial part of it, but still I did it.
I also had a teacher later in school who would often talk about what is design, what is landscape, how to depict nature, and so on. I learned many things from him. After matriculation, I didn’t know what to do. Somebody mentioned a college in Hyderabad called the College of Fine Arts. That’s when I got the feeling I should go there.
How did you get into art school? Was your family supportive of the idea?
We are from the bania/vyapari community. My father was a trader, a businessman. He traveled a lot. He made sure the house had all the commodities it needed. So money was not a big problem in the family. The bania community is thrifty, always believing in saving money. We were not very rich, but not poor either.
After I finished school, I did not want to continue academic studies. One day, I heard about the College of Fine Arts and was intrigued about studying art, sketching, drawing, painting all day. But my father refused to give me the money to enroll in such a college. What will you earn making paintings, he asked.
What was the experience like to go to art college in a big city like Hyderabad, especially growing up in a small town?
I was quite frightened initially. Most students and teachers were of the opinion that nobody gets a job just by studying fine arts; you will always go hungry. I countered that by saying I am not worried, my father has enough money. Though a job guarantee was important, I never really thought about that. I did well in college and my father did send me the money. My seniors were Laxma Goud, Surya Prakash and many other good artists. Every day we would go out and sketch and draw, sketch and draw. We went to the railway station, public gardens… In two years, my drawing improved immensely.
What did you do after you graduated from JNTU?
I went to MS University in Baroda, where I stayed for two years. When I went to Baroda, my teachers asked me upfront, what do you want to do? You have already studied for six years. But still, I had not planned a particular subject matter or style for my practice. I was also interested in music. Then legendary Prof. KG Subramanyan (Manida) met me and we had a detailed talk. He told me upfront, first you decide what you want to do — figure out what you want to paint about, something that is unique to you. He asked me to think about the subject, focus on what is going on in my head. It made sense. I could see everyone around me working towards some kind of a subject, or goal.
After much thought, finally I said I wanted to work on the theme of culture in our villages. So Manida suggested that I go to my village for 15 days — Kaam karke aao (do some work and come back). He advised that I should not blindly imitate the style of successful artists, but I should study how they have developed their own signature style. Manida told me gently, I should pay keen attention to the details of the village, understand it in depth, not just superficially. And he said to come back to him when I was ready. He was such a gentleman!
I used to do abstract work at that time. Then I turned to figuration. I made many different kinds of paintings in the 15 days that I had gone home. Every day I asked myself, what should I do? Why did I do it? I had gone to the right teacher.
What was it like to have Manida as a teacher?
I was very close to him. So wise, so knowledgeable. He would look at my work and say, yes, you are getting there. Continue to develop your style. But he spoke very little and never much about the work.
Where did your artistic journey go from there?
That was a problem … and a great mental torture. What should I do? I had taken one subject — relationships. But every day there was internal conflict, should I do this or that?
When did you start getting some recognition as an artist?
About when I was 45. I was married with children. I had found a job, working as a teacher in Bal Bhavan. This job was like a second mother to me. It gave me stability. I was quite happy; I would sit at my desk and draw. The students watched me and began drawing too!
When did you get the job at Bal Bhavan?
When I was 40, I think. For 10 years before that, I had no job and faced hard times, living in a small room. Even when I got the job, the salary was Rs. 150 or something, but in those days things were not so expensive and we managed. Senior artist Suryaprakash helped me a lot. He organized exhibitions in which my works were displayed, so I was able to sell my works and that increased my confidence. I was about 50 years old then. I also started getting invited to art camps. There I could make large paintings as the organizers got us all the materials. Money started trickling in slowly.
When did you leave the job at Bal Bhavan? Did that free your mind to devote yourself to painting?
I worked there for 15 years and left when I turned 55, well after I had begun to sell my works. Leaving did free my mind, but my wife’s support was invaluable through all the tough years. She made sure I was not disturbed at work, got me a sturdy good table and chair to work on. I would take a bus to Bal Bhavan. There was a garden opposite where I would spend some time sketching, and then go to work.
What was the most challenging time in your life?
The decision regarding what to do was the most difficult — trying to find something unique as an artist. That took a very, very long time for me. Then when I got married and began raising a family, there was little money. I used to make some money doing illustrations.
Between the ages of 25 and 40 when you found a job at Bal Bhavan, did you ever think of leaving art?
Yes. Many times. But I could not do anything else. My wife was most supportive and the children most undemanding…
Can you name three people you consider important to your success as an artist?
First was Mohan — when I strayed away from art, he brought me back. And when I came back from Baroda, he supported me. Laxma Goud promoted me as well for large exhibitions. Surya Prakash was the ultimate champion — he put my name in the big art camps. It made my art and my name popular, to reach this stage in life — at 80! I still work with the same intensity, though I like to spend time with my grandchildren too now!
Of course, you found your signature and have developed your own distinct style of depicting village life. You use a lot of bright, primary colors in your works — why so much attraction to these colors?
My subject has always been the village. And villagers like only bright colors!
Lastly, which medium did you like the best?
Charcoal is very important. Everybody starts from drawing — pencil or charcoal.
Thank you so much, Vaikuntamji.
To browse our curated collection of contemporary paintings and fine art prints by Indian artist Thota Vaikuntam, visit https://laasyaart.com/thota-vaikuntam. If you would like to make an appointment to see these works in person at our Indian art gallery in Palo Alto, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or +1 650-770-9088.
— Sonia Patwardhan