Thota Vaikuntam is one of Telangana’s most well-known painters. Like many creative artists, his foray into the art world happened once he declined formal training and took inspiration from the pulse of his native village. The lives of rural men and women are the nucleus of his bright, surreal, and almost grotesque paintings. Vaikuntam is unique in his representation of the bottu, and the sandal-turmeric stained foreheads of Telangana women.
The following ekphrastic poem is inspired by numerous of his paintings; vivid, sensual yet earthy to the core.
Delay claims the forehead
of women who choose vermillion lovers.
Bucolic bodies between kohl-rimmed eyes,
harvest days of useful toil; as the sun belongs
to the Deccan sky, the bottu belongs
to these women — expanding into cylindrical households.
Everyone knows her price, her curves waiting for calamity—
a resting face possessed by a dense red sphere.
A languid green sari invites the air,
unloosening vanished men on charcoal shadows.
Temples of the infrequent
About foreheads, Vaikuntam was never wrong;
a measure of magnificence.
Once, Angelina’s wrinkles rode over her slit dress.
Back in college, we in our mulmul* saris
occupied the red dot; our Marxist dalliance in cheap cafes.
Usha Uthup* held a city between her brows — Kolkata’s ‘ক’*
Vaikuntam’s muses widen into temples,
a thousand drunken moons on plateaus of pastoral ciphers
Bodies rising from the elephantine stones of Telangana.
Once you see them, you can never forget,
how simple it is to be brave.
Frida’s sisters, an art critic would say.
Monobrowed fullness on a thoughtful child of pain.
Frida painted her reality. So did Vaikuntam.
Women and leisure
Disenchanted — the artist became village bound,
filled his canvas with daily bones defying
schemes of art schools.
Atomic wholes; women and their beatific leisure;
a parakeet nestled between fingers opening ripe like a lotus.
Kaali’s* hibiscus on cool turmeric temples.
Their cows back from the field,
mooing at weary men floating on water.
Hands do not go akimbo over deadlines,
nose-pins bend in benevolence.
Breasts do not slice the air; they expand
into fleshy hemispheres of milk and mythology.
Shorelines arch on their broad waists,
anklets sing to lonely boatmen.
In the cool brilliance of cotton translucence,
Vaikuntam releases unfeigned wives of Telangana.
They have claimed walls of opulence
and flown over miles of frost.
Still, I believe these faces that widen
like the Peepal* in summer, fear the wrath of rain.
An echo of hungry bellies — the wheel of time,
turning and turning on their scenic faces.
*Bottu: an ornamental or sectarian mark (such as a dot on the forehead) worn by Indian men and women. Popularly known as ‘Bindi’
*Mulmul: a soft variety of muslin cloth
*Usha Uthup: Indian pop singer well known for her soulful songs and her unique style of wearing the Bengali alphabet ‘ক’ (k) as a Bindi on her forehead
*Kaali: Indian God who is symbolically worshipped with the Hibiscus flower
Jhilam Chattaraj is an academic and poet based in Hyderabad, India. ‘Noise Cancellation’ is her latest collection of poetry. Her works have appeared at Room, Colorado Review, Ariel and World Literature Today among others.
Featured image: A painting by Thota Vaikuntam/artsy.net