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Cold chai with Vaikuntam

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RUSTIC REFLECTIONS: "Village women like bold, gaudy colours. Those colours are the fabrics of their life. They make you feel so happy. That's why I use them, " says Vaikuntam

The famous artist talks about how he might have ended up being a 'kiranawala'.

There was an art exhibition in Hyderabad recently, where it was said that one of the paintings on sale was going to be a small Vaikuntam. That morning, as the gallery's doors were being opened, a smartly dressed woman pushed her way through and walked straight across to where the Vaikuntam was hanging. Before anyone knew what was happening, she'd taken the painting off the wall, paid for it in cash, and walked out. She got into a waiting cab, and took the next flight out to Mumbai, from where she'd flown in earlier that morning. Some say she was a buyer; others think she was a dealer. No matter: the story tells you something about how sought-after Vaikuntam's paintings are today.

I tell this story to Vaikuntam, and he smiles benignly from under his shaggy white mustache. We're sitting at a small restaurant, drinking chai. "I remember the time I sold six paintings for Rs 1,200. That was not so long ago," he muses. "Your paintings used to sell for just Rs 1, 200 each," I ask. "Nahin, nahin, " he says gently, "Six of them for Rs 1, 200. I mean Rs 200 each."

So what goes into the making of an artist? "I was a very sickly child, " Vaikuntam recalls, speaking so softly I have to lean forward to hear him. "My mother used to tell me stories of Hanuman, and I wanted to be strong, like him. I used to pray to Hanuman, and draw pictures of him. I used to draw all the time, I didn't do anything else. My father couldn't understand it. My family are Komtis, the trader caste, and my father would talk to me about vyapar (business), but I was totally disinterested. He was fed up of me and used to complain to my teacher. But luckily for me there was an art competition in my village. The judge was the District Collector and he didn't know anything about art. He awarded me the first prize - probably because my picture showed children waving the national flag." Vaikuntam chuckles quietly under the shaggy white mustache.

"My teacher was a great support. He taught me all about line, visualisation, detailing. Once he ordered a paintbrush for me all the way from Hyderabad. But back then one had to make the paint oneself, from coloured powders and water, and then add sugar to make it solidify. " Vaikuntam chuckles again under his mustache. Those shrouded chuckles are a leitmotif of our conversation.

"After matriculation I wanted to join art school. But my father couldn't understand it. He said, if you want to paint, why don't you get a job with Sharma sign-board painter, he paints big-big signboards. To make my father happy, I worked in his kiranashop for two days. Then I pleaded with him: all I have is my art, I told him. He said, but even artists come to my shop to buy things, and even they have to have money. What will happen to you?"

Vaikuntam's chai is cold now, and I ask if he wants a fresh cup, but he brushes that aside, and continues chatting. About art school. About how he did only black-and-whites, because there was no money for paint. About Satyanand, the most brilliant artist in his class, who dropped out and became a building contractor. About how talent goes away if you don't use it. About the endless conversations of those early days, over quarter cups of chai: What is Gauguin's line? What is Pissaro's style? What about Matisse? And so it went till the 1980s. Other college friends like Laxma Gaud and Surya Prakash had become very successful, but Vaikuntam, now in his forties, seemed to be going nowhere.

So what was the turning point? "My teacher in Baroda, KG Subramanyan, used to tell me, you have to find yourself, I can't tell you what to do," Vaikuntam reminisces, "You have to find your own candle, that is the most important thing. And that was the beginning of my journey. In India every region, every area has its own folk art, murals, visual styles. Bollywood and regional cinema, each has its own flavours - which are different from Hollywood, which is different from European cinema. But the question was, what about us Indian artists: were we just second-hand copies of European artists? It was a very long journey."

"Then, in the '80s, my mother got paralysed, and I went back to my village. It was a very emotional experience: I visited all the places where I'd played as a child;I wandered through my mother's house. And I painted everything in it, every door, every utensil, everything that belonged to her. I discovered then that everyone has their place, and mine is my village. I sold my first paintings after that, for Rs 200 each. " His palette became more vibrant after that. His fortune slowly began to turn.

I ask him about his paintings: why are the women he paints so strong, and the men so weak in comparison? "Village women are very strong, very hard working, " he replies. "The man comes home from the fields and smokes his hookah. But the woman comes home, and then she has to start doing all the house work. My mother, for example, never stopped working. Even when she was paralysed, she'd say give me some work, I don't have anything to do. That is the truth that I paint."

What about the bold, gaudy colours he uses? "Village women like bold, gaudy colours, " he shrugs. "You'll always see them wearing reds, purples, yellows. Never greys or browns. Those colours are the fabrics of their life. They make you feel so happy. That's why I use them."

And what about the motifs that run through his work, like a theme: the little parrots and the mirrors that his women look into? "Parrots are auspicious;they're welcoming;village doors always have parrots painted on them. " And the mirrors? He chuckles and says, simply, "I'm attached to them."

Before we leave, Vaikuntam takes a piece of paper and starts drawing on it: a pattern of small, irregular forms. I can't make out what he's doing. He then adds a profile to it, and suddenly it becomes a woman's face. He hands it to me shyly, and departs into the dusk. I have something to remember our conversation by, apart from the soft, mustache-shrouded chuckles.

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