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A symphony of strokes

ADITI DEADITI DE

The Symphony of Life series does not represent Thota Tharani at his best. It is just an interlude between creative phases. Perhaps the artist needed to re-assess the familiar before he ventured into unknown terrain.


Time for stock-taking: Thota Tharani with his works.

THOTA THARANI means many things to many people. Some know him best as the artist who has held an exhibition of his work every year, a promise he had made to himself after college. Some admire him as the Swarna Kamal-winning art director for films such as Nayagan, Mouna Raagam, Sathya, and Anjali. Some are smitten by the naturalistic colour drawings that resulted from his stint at the Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan in 1971. Others were moved by the spontaneous colour sketches on black that he executed over sleepless nights in response to the early strife in northern Sri Lanka, briefly on view at the Sakshi Gallery in Chennai. Some think of him as shy, retreating and introverted, while others try to puzzle out his secret life. Yet, he was credited with the décor for the wedding of Jayalalitha's "adopted" son years ago.

Symphony of Life, an ongoing exhibition of Chennai-based Tharani's paintings at the Lakshana Art Gallery at Race Course Road from September 5 to October 3, proves to be equally puzzling. A display of works done in the year 2000, selected from the gallery's acquisitions, it captures the artist in a time warp of his own making, unusually for a spirit as creative as Tharani.

For each of the paintings at the gallery link back to series by Tharani that are familiar to the eye from the 1980s or 1990s - Force or Symphony or Symphony of Life. Explaining the impetus behind the music-inspired series, the late Chennai-based art critic Josef James wrote: "Tharani moves to the intuitive sense of harmony, rhythm, and continuity to integrate his urges for freedom and refinement. Music generally and symphonic western music particularly have been his inspiration for these spirited excursions. It gives out much colour, in bold harmonies, flashed out in each instance, over strong linear rhythms."

The acrylic colours on canvas spring with gay abandon through the multi-hued borders holding them in, as if seeking to intermingle in free-spirited exultation. Colours so joyous and all-pervasive can seldom be contained by a title, but Tharani tries. The Symphony series began while Tharani was travelling in France in 1976.

"This is my response to the orchestration of music, mainly western classical instrumental. I hear music and I love music, but I don't know anything about music, so don't ask me for details," Tharani had explained during a 1988 encounter. "In Indian music, see, there is either one sitar or veena or tabla; it is a solo thing. Whereas, a western classical orchestra has 60 to 100 violins, about 10 to 20 cellos, and guitars and pianos. There is a lovely break-up of sound that I was interested in. You listen to the music, pick out the notes you need, and make of drawing of it. Then, playing the music, put on the colours. I can identify certain pieces which are influenced by Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite or The Four Seasons by Vivaldi."

To Tharani, technical innovation has always mattered as much as execution. In his Delhi-born Force series, for instance, inspired by a tornado that hit Delhi in 1978-79, different strokes were initially etched on a metal plate, which was broken up - as if from the impact of a cyclone - before the final print was made. Later, in 1987, he chanced upon the Chinese Tangram, the square cut into six triangles, a rhomboid and a square, which fed into the series as patterns in water colour.

The border has always been a crucial element in Tharani's paintings and drawings. It suggests a work that is larger than its actual size, he says, especially when strokes break out of its boundary. This device is much in evidence in the current series, with its patches of colour broken through by lines of contrast that catapult through the often rainbow-like frame. Perhaps offering variants on perspective. Or celebrating the moods inherent in symphonic evocations of a score.

While Tharani's work in cinema has won him accolades and recognition, including the Padmashri, he has always been at pains to keep his art direction distinct from his art. While the former is characterized by extraordinary realism, his paintings are decidedly abstract by choice, defining the borderlines with clarity.

Perhaps the Symphony of Life series does not represent Tharani at his best. Perhaps it is just an interlude between creative phases. Perhaps the artist needed to re-assess the familiar before he ventured into unknown terrain. Perhaps the 2002-launched gallery was limited by its access to Tharani's more creative oeuvre.

No matter what the reason, when the viewer leaves Lakshana, he or she carries with her an unresolved puzzle.

"An artist is free. I don't want to be trapped by one subject or a single style," Tharani once declared. "The best thing is to do what you want to do when you want to. I give myself gaps between subjects, often returning to one every two or three years, to avoid boredom and to prevent myself from getting stale."

What has Thota Tharani done in his artistic life since the year 2000? That's an answer Bangaloreans look forward to with anticipation.

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