Brought into a life of art through art: Tharrani’s father, Thota Venkateswara Rao painted this piece to mark his son’s birth.

The Painted Caravan

The ever-changing world of Thota Tharrani


It’s been an extraordinary journey for Thota Tharrani the elusive artist from Tamil Nadu in South India as he looks back on a tumultuous life.

At times he is the inward-looking artist sitting alone in his caravan of images from a storied past. At other times Tharrani becomes the triumphant charioteer restless to discover the world whipping himself forward with pen, pencil and brush in hand.

He is often celebrated as an artist with two lives. One, the independent artist who resolutely holds at least one major solo show, or takes part in a group show every year in different cities and parts of the world. He’s kept his tryst with art galleries for the last 55 years. His second avatar is as a famed Art Director in the film world. It is for this that he received one of India’s prized awards for artistic achievement-the Padma Shri Award in 2001 amongst numerous other individual accolades for his contribution to film-making across the spectrum. He is altogether a different person on a film set.

At different points of his journey, a new Tharrani emerges from his cocoon and presents his work in a kaleidoscope of different genres and themes. At times it might be a devotional tribute to the seven mother goddesses, the “Sapta Matrikas” radiant in a blaze of colors. At others in a series called “Symphony” Tharrani responds to the music of the great composers of Western music such as like Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi with canvases that dance to the music of color and seeping movements of lines. The effect could be termed ‘Synesthesia” where the brain translates sound into a language of signs. In the series called “Force” he could be imitating the delirious dance of Nature in a continuous circle of creation and destruction.

Once when he glimpsed the newly burnished copper vessels lying outside his Mother’s kitchen these became a study of the mundane objects that are a part of a family’s life. In his travels and interactions with craftspeople in different countries, Tharrani has a keen insider’s understanding of the potter’s art, the weaver’s use of indigo to create abstract patterns and those of the skilled painters creating the leather shadow-puppets in the region. The importance of Islamic Calligraphy that underpinned the art of Kalamkari as it is called in his native Telugu country is one that must be mentioned. Tharrani has an innate feeling for the curving letters and scrolled forms of the many different variations in the written script of the Indian sub-continent that he almost unconsciously uses in the form of horizontal lines creating an ideograph as it were when he finishes a painting. All these recurring effects are such an integral part of his artistic language that it is difficult sometimes to separate form from the composition. They are part of his vocabulary.

There are early images of sunburnt glory from the dessert landscape of Rajasthan where peacocks streak in a flash of brilliant blues and greens; or of Fighting Cockerels sharpening their razor-claws in the manner of warriors circling each other in a dual of death. Equally a series on the Oil rigs at Texas undertaken during a tour of the USA led to a meditation on how the discovery of oil pumped out in an endless current from inside the earth has transformed the way in which we live. They underline a constant theme that underpins all his subjects: the life-force that animates both his search and his philosophy.

In many of his drawings the lines flow effortlessly creating imaginary circles of energy, or vibrations caused in his artistic mind as he captures the essence of a Ganesha, the most well-known of his works, Amongst Tharrani’s afficionados, it his Ganesha images that have won him a steady audience. Just like a well-known musician who must please the audience, no matter what symphony he plays, Tharrani understands that what people want to hear is his homage to Ganesha. He creates these in black on white, or silver on black, in a blaze of acrylic strokes, or even as gigantic metallic sculptures wrought from found materials.

Thota Tharrani’s initiation into the artistic world started very early. His father Thota Venkatesh Rao graduated from being an actor taking on female roles in a travelling theatre group in what was then Andhra Pradesh into an artist and film set designer. Madras as Chennai was then known was a training ground for diverse talents in the newly discovered arena of filmmaking. It was a world where the giants of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema rose to an epic status. They borrowed ideas and methods from world cinema. While actors took on roles that projected themselves as demi-gods promising to liberate the common man and woman from the bondage of a feudal past. Most often it was the set designer with the rudimentary materials of canvas, plywood and paint who created these mythic dreamscapes.

It was in this heady world that Tharrani found himself. “I once found a small statue of a Buddha in the cupboard of our house. Immediately, the thought came to me that I wanted to re-create that image. I asked my Mother for a piece of chalk. It cost just One Anna for two pieces of chalk that were longer than my fingers,” he recalls. Using that piece of chalk, the young Tharani drew his first lines of a portrait in white lines on the black stone floor. “I marvelled at how a small piece of chalk could hold so much power in it to create that sense of beauty that I had glimpsed in the figure of the Buddha.”

What is amazing is that five decades later he is still filled with the passion of that childhood in the shadow of his cinematic background. He is like the child in “Cinema Paradiso” looking at the world through the lens of a camera projected onto a large screen creating moving images. Except that in Tharrani’s case the canvas, or paper, on which he paints or draws, is his lens, the larger screen the ever-changing scenes of his life. His Father took Tharrani, the second of his eight children of four daughters and four sons, as his apprentice at a very young age. By the time the seventeen-year old Tharrani was old enough to join the very prestigious at the time Government College of Arts and Crafts at Madras, now Chennai, he was working whole nights on his father’s film sets at night.

“Do you know when I was a child, I used to look through the barbed wire that separated the rest of the ordinary world from the this very same place where my Father was the Set director. To me it was a magical place.” We are sitting in the now almost deserted debris of a once famous Film Studio. Tharrani looks at a charred stump of bamboo. Like Hamlet picking up the skull of his departed friend Yorick and talking to it, Tharrani seems to question the bamboo stump on what has become to it. That bamboo stump had once been a sturdy pillar holding up an entire canvas palace of mythical proportions. When he is on a set Tharrani transforms himself into a wholly different person, an artist with the mind of an architect.

He is able to make abstract ideas multi-dimensional. He might have already drawn every detail of the set design long before arriving at a place.

He sketches his instructions on a black board, finds solutions to technical problems and uses all his practical experience as a trained craftsperson used to working with different materials such as clay, straw, jute and of course perspective once the process of painting starts to delude the eye into making two dimensional objects look three dimensional with the light falling across it in real time as needed.

Apart from the practical training he received under his father’s tutelage the importance of a formal education in the arts was what made the difference to Tharrani at a very impressionable stage of his journey. It also led to a very prestigious invitation to go on a walking tour of France extended by the French Government. The novelty of a completely different landscape of elegant tree-lined boulevards with gracious mansions on either side or the vistas leading up to a Cathedral in the distance, honed Tharrani’s understanding of architectural perspective and a gentler colour palate. He did quick sketches as he walked with a felt pen in his notebooks and used washes to flesh them out later. It was however at the famous “Atelier 17” under the legendary S.W.Hayter in Paris in the year 1976-1977 that Tharrani learnt the precision required of print-making and the professional eye needed for every aspect of the work, from the choice of paper, inks, and the precise timing that would lead to a perfect print.

Of his time spent at the Fresco Training camp at the Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan what Tharrani recollects is the initial haze of heat obscuring the dessert, “I wanted to convey the feeling of white, the dessert is a total area of whiteness at first, then you begin to see the little bits of colour, a turban, or a small line of decoration around a hut. I wanted to find a way of giving this feeling, so I have left large areas of white and only put in bits of colour.”

With that the painted caravan of Thota Tharrani moves on as other destinations and dreams beckon him.

 – Geeta Doctor 30th July 2020