Laxman Aeley has depicted the lives and concerns of the men and women of his village for more than two decades. (RVK Rao/ EPS)
Long before Telangana was a political slogan and a geographical reality, it was very much part of the psyche and work of well-known artists, Laxma Gowd, Thota Vaikuntam and Laxman Aeley. They now live in Hyderabad. “In Nizampur village (in Medak district), there was a potter, who while turning the wheel would recite the most beautiful poetry to himself. He was uneducated, but it didn’t matter. During the nights when he performed in the jatra, he would morph into a magnificent Ravana,” recalls India’s well -known contemporary artist, K Laxma Gowd. Known for depicting the men and women of his village in Telangana, many times, in all their suppressed sexuality surrounded by goats and fecund trees, Laxma confides that they form the wellspring of his creativity. “These are rituals and myths I continue to draw upon as an artist,” says Laxma who, it almost seems, has never really left home.
It were Vaikuntam’s dark-skinned and buxom women with thick lips, who wore bright saris, bangles and nose rings and came to be known as “Telangana women”. It was his artistic oeuvre that established the term “Telangana art” in the modern Indian art parlance.
“I am not sure when the term ‘Telangana’ was applied to my work. But I was trying to find my personal idiom. It was to my village I turned to because this was a world I knew so well,” says Vaikuntam who hails from Boogurupalli in Karimnagar district. In the 70s and 80s when he was trying to find his “language” even while teaching at Hyderabad’s Bal Bhavan, he asked himself why he should think of art as only the large canvases of Rembrandt when the local women of his village were so beautiful and voluptuous and they could be depicted (for a poor man like him) in charcoals.
Vaikuntam’s mother, on the passing away of his father ran a small grocery shop from their home in Boogurupalli to support the family. “In Boogurupalli, after a degree from the arts college in Hyderabad, I would watch these sturdy women come and go, buying things like kerosene or jaggery and sometimes staying back to gossip,” he recalls. The first charcoals were of these women, who were to find a full fruition in his later works as the lusty Pochammas and Yellamnnas that stunned art collectors for being so earthy, raw and sexual. “People in my village Kadireni Gudam in Nalgonda district were strong. We come from the weavers’ family. And my mother would weave at home as well as go out on coolie work,” recalls Laxman Aeley who has been depicting the lives and concerns of the men and women of his village for over two decades.
These artists are concerned about the withering away of the arts and culture of their Telangana hometowns. “We must revive the state academies. Lalit Kala Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi should make serious attempts to revive the disappearing arts of the region, like ikats and telia rumals, the Nirmal or Cherial paintings, the Bhagavatams that have been eroded by popular culture like cinema,” says Laxma.
Vaikuntam says, “The arts, culture and language of Telangana have disappeared. What is the Telangana we are looking forward to?” The Telangana village where he grew up may have been backward, but there was no poverty or starvation as we know of it today. “Life may have been tough, but no one went to bed hungry. Everyone had two meals a day and in the nights we went to see jatras,” Vaikuntam recalls. Laxma rues so much of what was idyllic in their world is now lost forever. “The soil has to be nurtured by changing the crops with every season. Now you have farmers growing a single crop throughout the year—cotton—for the prices it fetches. When the crop fails, you have farmers committing suicide,” says Laxma.
Change is inevitable, feels Laxman, who is painting his Telangana women armed with cell phones and sim cards and whose lives have changed with the coming of television. “Let’s not romanticise issues and sing songs of freedom. We should revive the happier times when everyone was content and there were not the aspirations of today. We must take up, each one of us, the development of the region on war-footing,” urges Laxma. Vaikuntam says, “If we can’t have a school and hospital in every Telangana village, what use it creating another state?