Land as the Canvas:
It was the first year of twenty first century. The venue was Hampi, a Unesco site of archaeological relevance. A ten-day national art camp consisting of prominent Indian artists in their mid-50s was on. Hampi, the fifteenth century monument is a ‘site’ that connects two neighbouring Indian States of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in multiple ways with a common history. Often parallels are drawn between Hampi and Pompei, particularly regarding their tragic aspects.
Vaikuntam’s Telangana Woman, logistically looks to be in her mid thirties forever and is equally old, realistically, for Vaikuntam began painting her somewhere in the 1970s. Hampi and the Telangana figures both ‘seem’ to have been static from a long time. Such images and sites, frozen in time, develop an ‘overwhelming impact’ on the viewers’ eyes for the same reason. Casual art history might term the non-changing attitude of these women as stale, stylized—with a negative tone. What if the women and the place she resembles have decided to be self-consciously so, and also with a justification of a kind wherein the question of stylization is seen in a new light? You can see what you want in Vaikuntam’s Telangana women, provided you are informed about the circumstances that she has been born into, emerged, that is beyond the verbally expressive logistics of the artist himself.
A Farmer’s Physical Application:
The amount of physical energy that Vaikuntam applies in realizing each one of these pictures is as good as taking an elaborate walk in and around the uneven surface of the tragic site of Hampi. Vaikuntam’s images of Telangana women, for which he is so well known, shares a lot of similarity with this earthenscape. The age-old notion of woman as ‘nature’ or Prakriti is the first thing that occurs in one’s mind. But it is not as simple as it sounds, and I am aware of the danger of using the Indian concepts about cultural practices, that too while trying to perceive a known, typed media of expression—the art of painting.
Telangana is a nearby district, and those women of the district, like the typical Marathi women of Maharastra State have something special about themselves which share the width that any given size or frame of a picture surface is unable to contain. The women are rustic, strong and sturdy. There is a masculine aspect about their appearance in reality that coincides with the painted ones as well as the strange gut feel that the onlooker gets, if he tries to re-enact the way Vaikuntam would have executed the whole picture, so meticulously, yet not too gracefully.
Vaikuntam picked up the habit and skill of holding a sharp brush and drawing unnervous lines from the painting traditions of Mysore and Tanjore schools, which in turn are the off shoots of the Vijayanagara style of painting, that was in vogue as mural paintings, in and around Hampi going back over four hundred years. Vaikuntam had enough reasons to feel very much at home at the Hampi camp, and one could find one or two of those Telangana types in the main streets of Hampi.
Visual psychology suggests that any visual beyond a thirty-degree, on either side of the line that is erpendicular to the plane of the eye is out of one’s eyes’ realistic control. Telangana women–as ‘depicted’ by Vaikuntam over three decades–share the essence of Hampi in the way they spread throughout his canvases as well as beyond this sixty degree ‘angle of vision’, generally speaking. In other words, there is no background to the artist’s women, and they themselves serve as background as well as the image. In a way, there is no bifurcation between the form and background in his case, which the art historical writings have tried to identify, while speaking about the artworks of Vaikuntam’s generation of Indian artists.
There are very few modern Indian artists like Vaikuntam, who can be identified immediately by the ‘image’ they have created. K G Subramanian, under whom he studied at Baroda on a scholarship, is identified simply by his ‘styleless-style’ of rendering. A few other master painters are also known by the ‘category’ of art genres they fall into; take the abstracts of K M Adimoolam, for instance. But Vaikuntam’s image, like one of his younger fellow artist Ravindra Reddy’s sculptural portraits, poses a dialogue, which is subtle, but nevertheless of great importance.
Vaikuntam has rendered the same imagery like a farmer tilling the same land to reap a new harvest, year by year, with the same type of crop. But it is the way Vaikuntam paints that counts. Layers and layers of the same colour, with the same intensity and hue, laid upon the same drawn boundaries give a glow to the appearance of these Andhra-maids. Perhaps this is the only aspect that is hidden to the audience while looking at Vaikuntam’s works. The rest–that includes almost all the working process–is literally spread out throughout the canvas like an open book!
The question here is why does Vaikuntam treat his canvases like agricultural fields and anthropological sites and why doesn’t he deviate much from them. To quote Naozar Daruwallah, “He stopped thinking on the day he began painting”. And J.S.Rao’s adds, “why experiment and vary ones images every year?” offering us two
seemingly opposite standpoints, with some grayer shades in between.
Pictorial description of cultivating the aesthetic space:
If one tries to ‘recall’ what Vaikuntam has created in the last three decades, some traits can be easily identified. Usually he works in small size, smaller than a 5’x5’ standard canvas meant for painting oils but bigger than a full imperial sized drawing paper meant for watercolours. Though he often paints on canvas, his acrylics and watercolours are equally effective. Voluptuous women literally dominate most of his picture surface leaving no space for anything else, let alone what we understand as ‘the background’ though one can trace the background ‘within’ the figure itself. In other words, there are many pictorial ingredients assembled ‘within’ a form, which is compiled together to make a meaningful, identifiable figure. Yet they tend to always remain independent.
Interestingly, the weight seems to rest on the top half of the picture surface in his works, in general, though our natural instinct is for seeing things in landscape format. Vaikuntam’s images tilt and refute this normal psychological expectation of the sight and the artist doesn’t actually mean his figures to be seen sidewards, or on the wall but stuck on the ceiling or laid on the ground, metaphorically.
Speaking about the space wherein the body is supposed to be, below the neck portion, is a ‘field’ wherein he ‘sows’ many visual elements of varying kind. Consider the way a saree is articulated (painted). The boundaries are drawn in thick lines and a triple zero brush is used to draw a ‘shade’ to it. If one could, at this point, only get into his hands and fingers (not into his shoes, as the popular saying goes) to get a feel of what I indicated as taking a walk in the rugged surface of the uneven Hampi site or the feel of cultivating a given farming land.
A Mysore or/and Tanjore traditional painter’s skill and dexterity is required to draw those lines on an already painted surface, which is painted several times—on the same given space, with the same colour of similar hues, tones and tints. Those traditionalists had sufficient amount of leisure, were rural and mechanical– a few of those essential abilities necessary to create such traditional images. Though Vaikuntam lives in what can be generally classified as a postmodern, urban phase of the new media art, he paints the same surface repeatedly to get the right glow out of the flat coloured ‘area’ and justifies this quoting the example of innumerable miniature watercolourists and their work. One needs to question the credibility of a new ness in the name of neo-avant-garde even though the latter seems to be the rule of the day.
New Footprints on the Known Paths:
Vaikuntam applies uniformly spaced and sized dots on the area of a saree. The paddy sprouts are to be similarly laid in a field, filled with water, up to the knee of the sower and a closer association would defunct both the grains if laid closer to each other. This is exactly what the French realists like Millet and Corot did while laying their brush strokes meticulously and innumerably, which predicted the arrival of the Impressionists at the turn of the 20th century. The widest line that Vaikuntam draws can stretch to a scale of about three and a half feet. And the shortest one would be a few centimeters. In between the lines there is a twist and turn to form a complete image. So a breast might recall the silhouette of a face, a few inches above itself. More important is the fact that the breast might not represent a breast but might be getting the ‘meaning’ of one, due to its placement in that exact position, between the women’s hands and heads. The head brings in the ‘meaning’ of a breast, in fact!
The jewellery on the head, around the neck, the nose ring, bangles—every independent and self complete object thus represented also catalyse our understanding of a woman. There is nothing extra, out of place. Yet all of them seem to float, mainly due to the way the predominant lines that define a saree are associated with thinner lines that emboss the lines. There could be several layers of images (and hence meanings) floating one upon the other!
It is at this point that I would like to understand Vaikuntam’s Telangana woman as not real but a symbolic representation of what we understand as genderless ‘Prakrithi’ (nature), a sense deeply rooted in the Indian customs. In fact, the male figures that emerged late in his works and hence younger to his women, appear meek and pictorially lean against the women. The women in turn have aged with Vaikuntam, something very similar to the women in Jatin Das’s works.
However, Vaikuntam’s women were never sensuous in the sensory sense, but voluptuous, in the sense we understand the ‘ripeness’ of mother earth. As an artist, Vaikuntam started rather late, and got his diploma at the age of 29. At Baroda, during his higher studies under K.G.Subramanyan, he would have been initiated into what could be a traditional re-evaluation of the Indian past visual grammar. Thus he had a career building up when his personality was almost already that of a matured one, avoiding the nuances of a young student.
The Whole Physique as the Painter’s Hand:
During the time of the Hampi camp Vaikuntam was past fifty years of age. It really needs an athletic presence to walk and jump around the maze like streets of Hampi or the seemingly never ending labyrinthian distance of the Vijayanagara capital, let alone the challenges posed by the irregular rocks. As a camp artist, most of the time, Vaikuntam was either drawing vigorously or taking an unpredictable walk in the afternoon heat. He would blend both of them in such constant ambiguity, that one could definitely see him walking while not drawing, and drawing if not walking.
During the talks we used to have in the cooler evening hours, the question of stylization became a major topic of discussion. Why do artists paint images and forms recurrently? Given that the visuals resembling his women of Telangana, whether standing singly or in groups with an addition of a few male figures of priests and others, here and there, confirms that Vaikuntam could easily have been pray to criticism about para-stylization. Discussions continued evening after evening, with arguments and counter arguements, deliberations and justifications about stylizations but Vaikuntam will not say much, leaving us to our own interpretation of his work. Some of us argued, that he had both design and tradition painted in a personalized style in his works. But the more relevant question was: what is his stance about the voluptuous females he draws. Are they ‘prey’ to the ‘male gaze’? Do they contain elements of sensuality like those sculptors who turned every strand and handle of his functional- sculptures into female figures, mainly torsos? Do they celebrate womanhood or do they deliberate voyeuristic gazes from the onlooker? Writings and criticism have already branded his works as decorative, sensuous, voluptuous, ethnic and eyepleasing. It would be equally amateurish to try to counter argue against stray thoughts in the name of criticism.
In other words, Vaikuntam’s pictures have a lot to do with farming, tilling, harvesting, and traditional culture of image making. But his images do not end at that. Interestingly, most traditional and folk images were the ‘marks’ of the culmination of a good seasonal harvest. They were not meant for mere visual consumption/appreciation. In this sense, his work is an earthwork of a sort, where one could even smell and feel the space like one does with a map, and choose visual elements, some to be seen, some to travel upon and others to gaze and engross. Thota Vaikuntam is a farmer-painter. Whatever the given canvas size is, he ensures that the boundaries are ‘marked’ like a farmer ensuring his/her farmland from his/her neighbours. Hence there is very less background. The classic difference between the viewed (figures) and the framing element (background) is absent, just like there would be no wasted land after it is tilled and sown.
If you are familiar with the way he works at it, he brings in all possible layers of process-which is so alien to the contemporary understanding of image-making-involved in getting a good harvest. Each of his Telangana women, be she alone or in group or even with an occasional man, is actually the ‘plan’ of a field, and also appears as it might look from, say, an aeroplane. Interestingly, the field itself does not look as lush and green, similar to the immense possibility of sensuality in these woman-which seems to be there, while looking at it hurriedly on the surface. Interestingly, as though to help me out calling him as a farmer, he himself admits that he has the spirit of Anjaneya and Bhima, the two Gods known for their immense physical energy. Vaikuntam speaks about the necessity of immense physical strength to produce the images that he does! Thus when he draws, it is a whole set of his fingers, palm, wrist, the strong and sturdy right hand and arm, the shoulder and the stiffness of the neck that makes him move his pencil or brush to get those lines. Strong thick charcoal-like lines in case of drawings and meticulously etched out lines with perfect brush ‘curves’ in painting; which are similar to the act of tilling the land.
It would be rather too simplistic to categorise and analyse his works in a conventional art historical tone. Many have done it, by branding these images as just voluptuous. His imagery is something more than that. It is perhaps Vaikuntam’s paintings and Ravindra Reddy’s sculptures that use the form of a woman as a point of deviation rather than an empty canvas–to express themselves, often to explore what womanhood means for them, as well. If one could survey the way the Telangana women have evolved over the decades through the hands of Vaikuntam, there is an interesting story that unveils. The woman stretches herself, to reach all sides of that imaginary field- into the edges of the picture frames, speaking realistically. Over the years, as the artist aged, the sense of sensuality assumes a newer meaning. The face, hand and torso that are exposed exchange identities and evoke other living beings, almost like chamelians and no longer look doll-like. The only possible way to read his works creatively, is to study ‘how’ these images have evolved rather than ‘what’ they are. In this sense his woman has always existed. This is the reason why she doesn’t get aged and has remained ageless since the past three decades!
Let us not get into TV’s shoes, but into his arm and try to experience what goes into making of each one of those women. There is a lot of memory ingrained into these fingers, wherein every hand and breast drawn, is aware of what lies between and beyond the drawn. Often the non-hand, non-breast could be achieving the shapes and meanings of the hand and breast, as if like a mirror image emerges when placed close and next to the drawing that is evolving. If each one of those definable body organs are to be termed as the live harvest, the clothed (mostly) areas often occupying vaster areas than the flesh, suggesting the underneath organs in relation to the identifiable, exposed ones. But it is not always so. A bit of sensuousness is lost as a dispassionate, platonic sight begins to develop.
The image of Vaikuntam’s Telangana woman seems to turn into a motif. As he goes back to his work, he finds he cannot do without her and even if he was to paint “horses and railway images’’ as one of his critic points out, they would turn into his women. The women farmers of Andhra Pradesh are known to control everything from harvest to running a family. May be Vaikuntam is paying homage to her not by merely painting her constantly, which would end up as a mere cliché, but he takes off from there. All his subject matter is realized ‘on’ the image of his Telangana women! In other words, it is by the ‘way’ he paints that he should be known rather looking at his ‘already painted’ imagery- a unique way of imitating a women’s cultural day-to-day practice, in order to pay homage to her visually.