Thota Vaikuntam was born in 1942 in Boorugupalli in the Karimnagar District within the Telengana, the
heartland of Andra Pradesh. Notable for his portrayal of Telangana women, in a career that spanned nearly
four decades, he has been regarded as one of the most prominent figurative painters of today.
Vaikuntam spent most of his childhood in the intensely rustic surroundings of Telangana. Within this rural
cycle of life, Vaikuntam learned to appreciate the simplicity, beauty, and innocence of the village people.
Home to weavers and farmers, his village, will be his constant source of inspiration throughout his career.
Initially educated at Shatarajpalli, he move to the temple town of Vemulavada after a few years to continue
his education. Though not a poor performer, he was never interested in his studies. He often set aside his
books engrossed by the sound of temple music, rituals and festivities. It was not until his time at the Siricilla
High School that Vaikuntam begin to uncover the depths of his imaginations. With the encouragement he
received from his teacher, Ramacharaya, he started creating scenes in paper and costumes for performances
for school functions, family weddings and village celebrations. Fascinated with art, his dreams were
concentrated on a future as a musician, an actor or a painter.
Despite pressure to join the family business, he managed to gain his mother’s blessing to train as an artist. He
joined the College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad in 1960 determined to make a living through
his art. What followed was a difficult period of instability and a long struggle for survival. Impoverished by
circumstance, like most of his counterparts, Vaikuntam was unable to afford canvas or expensive paints. He
had to stick to cheaper medium of charcoal, pencil, pen and ink. He used the reverse of bills, discarded works
on paper by his seniors, occasionally even empty cigarette packet or newspaper. He depended on the
generosity of his friends and took what odd jobs he could to keep himself going. His varied exposure and
tenacity to earn his living through art would proved valuable in achieving his success later in life.
Reflecting this tumultuous period in his life, Andra Pradesh was going through a period of unrest between
1964 and 1969. This put a halt on his art studies. With the college closed and hardly any work, he decided to
return to his village to complete his matriculation. In interim, his parents found him a bride in 1966, Suguna.
This was an unrequited union that instigate self destructive pursuits in the 70s, not only was he unable to
earn a living as an artist but his personal life was in turmoil. After ten long years,
given the struggles and breaks, he received his diploma in painting in 1970.
Unable to make a headway as an artist, Vaikuntam, taught art to children in
Hyderabad Bal Bhavan for 15 years. It was during this time that he started black
and white drawings on erotic theme. He then went on to draw nudes called the
‘Woman Series’. For two decades, he continued to draw and paint without much
recognition and appreciation. In 1971, on a fellowship from the Andra Pradesh Lalit
Kala Akademi, he was able to refine his painting skills and learn printmaking under
the artist-scholar K.G. Subramanyan. Upon earning the diploma, Vaikuntam toyed
with the idea of abstraction.
Whilst attempting to discover his creative identity, Vaikuntam, joined other likeminded
artists like Suryaprakash, Brahmam, and Manmohan Dutt, as they
pondered over what make the European masters, like Picasso, Cezanne, and Van
Gogh, so different from the rest. These sessions along with the influence of K.
Laxma Goud, made him contemplate a new way of seeing and painting. “I realized
that art was much more difficult than I had imagined. It made me realize how
important it was to study ourselves, instead of always looking to the West. We have
to take inspiration from our own surroundings. While people of the world are doing
the copies of Picasso and Matisse, I have to look back to my village.”
In the early 1980s, while nursing his ailing mother, Vaikuntam spent long stretches
of time in Boorugupalli where he perfected his draughtsmanship. In an attempt to
immortalize her, he spent most of his time drawing things associated with her.
From this sketches he produced a series of charcoal drawings called ‘The Doors’
and organized a solo exhibition. Relatively unknown, sale was mediocre. His
mother died soon after and in the wake of his loss, a dark phase in his life ensued
resulting into a serious illness and eventually a period of introspection.
At a turning point in his life, he started following a more disciplined routine. His
wife joined him to start a family not long after. Slowly he started to take interest in
the family and settled into family life. Concurrently, between 1978 to 1985, he
started to work on films continuously. With the huge variety of themes and subjects,
his art flourished. This was considered the most fecund and eventful of his life as an
artist. While working on the film, “Palleturi Pillagada” (Village Lad), he arrived at
the concept of his now famous women of Telangana. Notable for the womencentric
universe of his work, Vaikuntam’s focal point of inspiration is his devotion to
his beloved mother, Satyamma, which he fondly referred to as his fountain of
creativity. He also drew inspiration extensively from women, primarily strong
women and mother figures(…) These sketches soon came to include the priests, the
teachers, the laborers and the farmers, usually in charcoal, or pen or ink with
occasional watercolor. “I’ve taken from my people in Telangana. I draw them. I take
my colors from them. I’ve taken details from their everyday lives, stylized them and
make them look grand. That’s my intention.”2 His work bears a witness to his love
for rural life, his innate knowledge for his subjects, and a desire to create a picture of
the innocent world untouched and uncorrupted by ‘civilized’ society. Like many of
his contemporaries, he has tried to seek a new inspiration in tradition and culture and has managed to
develop his own personal style as embodied in his paintings of Telangana beauties.
People finally began to show interest. His first big break came when he introduced more colour into his work
and concentrate on his now famous Telangana women. Accolades followed. He received an award for his
paintings from Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal and later won the national award for art direction for ‘Daasi’. He
started receiving commissions and request from far and near for his work. Invitations for shows in Indian
metros and art centers around the world followed in quick succession. His work began to be exhibited
extensively. 4 Often referred to as the man of vibrant spaces, he uses primary colors of the earth in depicting
the rural landscapes and the chronicles of the people of Telangana. The endless spectrum of village life
became his main theme and the modern concept of distortion as part of his style. His rich palette and easily
recognizable faces and figures have given his artwork acceptability; paintings that are strikingly modern
without any allegiance to anything usually associated with modernity.
After decades of evolution of his dusky icons, his quest to paint the perfect Telangana woman is still on. “As a
man, I love a woman’s form and beauty(…)Hardworking and with a lot for physical energy. And their abiding
innocence. For me art is important, intellectualizing their physically isn’t. I have never hidden the fact that I
blatantly take from them my lines, colours from their bright saris, decorative designs, their static features,
heavy lips and utterly dark complexion which is of enormous beauty. Without them, beauty would cease to
exist. Their rustic simplicity holds enormous appeal and charm for me(…)Though it has taken me a whole
lifetime of work, I am still working at getting her perfect.”
After toiling years after years in obscurity, today he is famous. His art is showcased both in India and abroad,
he travels extensively along with his art shows and his paintings have become a status symbol. He lives in
Hyderabad with his wife and three children.
Excerpts from the book Ragas: Inner Melodies of Thota Vaikuntam by Aditi De, Krishen Khanna, and
SH Raza published by Timeless Books, New Delhi and AbMaa Publishing, Saket, New Delhi
Excerpts from the book Thota Vaikuntam by Sushma Bahl published by Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi