Kanakavalli’s January Vignette, Thota Tharrani, needs no introduction. An award-winning artist and art director who has effortlessly straddled the worlds of fine art and film, Thota Tharrani’s career has spanned over five decades. His paintings have travelled to over seventy exhibitions around the world while he has art directed close to two hundred feature films. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Blog, Thota Tharrani takes us back in time to his childhood; a time of joy and discovery, as he lost himself in the music of symphonies, accompanied his father to film sets and soaked in the beauty of the exquisite kolams drawn outside his home. His deep love for music, film and design continue to inform his sensibilities today. Finding inspiration in everything—from a ribbon in the wind to the beauty of language and script—Thota Tharrani weaves magic with visuals, transporting the viewer in time and place with his powerful paintings and set designs. Reflecting on the ups and downs of his journey, he also shares his views on the evolution of multidisciplinary creative fields. For him, there is beauty everywhere, and the kanjivaram weave is the epitome of elegance and simplicity.
Pausing to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, Thota Tharrani curates a selection of saris and menswear that celebrate his love for colour and form, elegance and beauty. Excerpts of the conversation below…
The years of wonder
As children, we are faced with a world of possibilities, and it isn’t easy to make decisions or think about the future. Having said that, though, I always wanted to become a music conductor. I was fascinated by the symphony, and deeply influenced by the background score of the films I watched and loved. Music was a big part of my childhood.
I was also exposed to design early on and in unique ways. I remember being intrigued by the beauty of the kolam. Our domestic help at home used to draw the most exquisite and perfect kolams—so perfect, you could trace the outlines using a compass. The kolams were enormous in size, often stretching from the front of our house all the way to the neighbours on either side. Looking back now, I realise how profoundly those simple but beautiful designs influenced me.
Above: A kolam design in process, photographed by Thota Tharrani. The simple but beautiful line drawings continue to intrigue and influence the artist today.
The other aspect of my childhood that had a big influence on me was film. My father was an artist and theatre person from Machilipatnam who came to Chennai with dreams of becoming an actor in Tamil cinema. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it in acting, but he started working as an assistant to AK Sekhar, the art director best known for the film Chandralekha. From the age of two or three, I would accompany my father to work. I remember being terrified by some of the sets I saw, and fascinated by others. I loved to see how they used stencil powder to create different effects.
Above: Thota Tharrani's father as a teenager, playing the female role of Vidhyarani in his hometown of Machilipatnam.
In truth, there was very little that didn’t influence me when I was a child. Since then, I have come to realise how anything you touch in this country of ours can become a story—so rich is our cultural heritage—and this has formed the basis for all my work since.
At the age of four or five, I asked my mother for a 1 anna coin—the equivalent of something like 12 paisa—and went straight to a shop where I bought two pieces of chalk. Thrilled with my purchase, I started drawing the torso of the Buddha that I saw in our pooja room on the floor. When my father came home and saw my drawing, he went out again and bought me a drawing book, the pages of which had freehand drawings of simple objects. I remember that once I started on the drawing book, I couldn’t put it down. With the typical stubbornness of a child, I didn’t even take a break when my mother called me for lunch, and by that afternoon I had finished the entire book! I suppose that’s where it all began. Funnily enough, I noticed my daughter doing the exact same thing when she was around the same age - being unable to tear herself away from a drawing book. People assumed that my wife and I were forcing her into art, but my daughter and I still draw the same way even today!
Above (clockwise from top left): A young Thota Tharrani; The artist as a child, pictured here with his parents, brothers and sisters, who always encouraged and supported him; Thota Tharini with his wife and daughter who inspire him to do his best work.
A student of art & film
I was a relatively good student, but unfortunately, I failed my matriculation examination. I thought I’d take the exam again, but in the meanwhile my father took me to the Government College of Arts and Crafts. Even though I was one of eight children, my father always made time for me, taking me to places he thought I would enjoy. At the art school, I saw people painting and sculpting, and I was fascinated. The son of my father’s guru was studying at the school, and he suggested I join the art club which was a casual forum for people to learn how to draw. The two teachers who advised the art club—Rani Poovaiah who taught sketching and drawing, and Surendranath, a watercolourist—helped equip me with all the basic skills I needed to form the foundation of my career as an artist.
When the art college began accepting applications to the diploma course, my teachers encouraged me to apply. Before long, I found myself a student of art. I thoroughly enjoyed college, but it was never easy. I remember walking a long distance every day to catch a bus, and each day after I returned home, I would work on one watercolour painting. This was my daily routine, and I worked hard to improve my painting skills. I also managed to get a fellowship from VTI that helped finance three or four years of my study. In 1968, I won an award at the Mysore Dasara Art Exhibition, and this really gave me the boost I needed to more seriously pursue my art.
Above (clockwise from top left): A pencil drawing by Thota Tharrani; A felt pen sketch of the atelier that Thota Tharrani studied at in Paris; A study of a woman on a one-inch scraper board, part of a series of 900 works; A sculpture in wood from the series 'Mechanical Deities'.
Years before I began formally studying art, when I was about 12 years old, I started working with my father, who was an art director. Ever since then, I have constantly been involved in the world of film, even after my painting career took off. People often assume that my fine art work slowed down or stopped entirely when I started taking on more film projects as an art director myself. However, the truth is that I have never stopped painting. There was never really a shift from fine art to art direction, or a pause in my film work to focus on painting. Instead, my work in both the fields evolved simultaneously.
My fine art work constantly influences my art direction, while my work in film also has an impact on my painting. I did a print making and lithography course in Paris, and this form helped me figure out unique ways of achieving effects in film.
I have always been a wanderer, and this has helped me observe life from different perspectives, offering me new ways to approach my work.
When it comes to film projects, I’m usually busy for a week or ten days, and during that time I work on nothing else. However, I fill the gaps between films with painting. I concentrate on one thing at a time, but I’m always working on something and ideas are constantly striking me. I’m often working on multiple subjects and series at a time, and I keep going back to different paintings depending on what I am being exposed to or inspired by at the time.
Above: Thota Tharrani's sketch for the set of the 2018 Telugu film 'Mahanati'.
I find every film project I work on challenging. And even if everyone raves about the beauty of the art direction, I always feel as though I could have done something more or better. I think it is important not to let praise get to your head.
I have learnt something from every single film I have ever worked on, from the smallest to the most elaborate. While every project has been memorable, I will never forget Mouna Ragam. For a now famous song sequence, we created the entire set in just three days on a very low budget. Nayakan also holds a special place in my mind because it was the first non-artistic film that won the National Award for Best Art Direction. I also received the National Award for the film Indian, and a Filmfare Award for Arjun, a Telugu film in which we created a huge replica of the Madurai Meenakshi temple—a visual that is still talked about today. I remember that for Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay, only one scene was actually shot in Bombay—the rest was shot here with the help of our set designs.
Above: Sketches for the sets of the 1987 film 'Nayakan' for which Thota Tharrani won the National Film Award for Best Art Direction.
My work in film has been constantly inspiring and interesting, informing my painting and other work projects. I will always be grateful to everyone who I have worked with in my film career over the last 50 years - especially the maistries and carpenters who helped bring my visions to life.
On multidisciplinary creative fields
Acting was not something I planned to do, but when I was asked to play the role of Chinmayananda for the film On A Quest, I decided to do it. I don’t really know how to act, and I’m used to being behind the scenes, not in front of the camera. In fact, I get nervous when I’m in the spotlight, even while doing interviews! People often ask me about acting, but in fact it was a one-off thing, and an extension of my other work as an artist.
I don’t usually give advice, but I have made some observations about the evolution and specialisation of creative fields. In my father’s time the art director was the main production designer, but the latter title didn’t exist. Even when I started working, the art director took care of the entire look of the film, including costume design, set design and interior design. We had teams that worked very hard together to get everything into place. I was involved in choosing fabrics and giving them to tailors to stitch costumes, as well as going out myself and picking cushions or curtains for a scene.
These days however, the department has branched into many individual roles—with a separate art director and production designer, as well as costumer designers, interior designers and others. While this in itself is wonderful, allowing for more people to be employed and for greater depth of involvement within each element, it does come with its share of problems. It can often lead to conflict in the team or cause unhealthy competition and unpleasantness on set. However, if there is unity and cooperation between every person on set, great things can happen.
There is so much specialisation these days, and this specialisation requires better communication and cooperation between the crafts. The best way to occupy multidisciplinary creative roles is to be open to learn and engage with other experts in the field. That is my only advice.
The evolution of subject & style
I think everything is fascinating, it depends on how you view it. I started off doing watercolours like my father, influenced by the Bengal school of painting with its washed drawing effects. My first application to the Mysore Dasara Art Exhibition in 1967 was rejected. The following year, I thought a little more about the style I wanted for my painting, and I chose a more decorative approach to a scene of the Dasara procession which went on to win the award.
Above: Watercolour paintings of gods and goddesses in Thota Tharrani's signature style.
My watercolour style gradually changed from a traditional Indian form to a more decorative mode. From there I went in a more abstract direction, with an impressionistic style. And that is how it has evolved. In all my works, the influence of the kolam is visible, usually in the form of line drawings. I have been particularly influenced by the impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. Whenever I have the chance to visit Paris, I never miss an opportunity to go to the museums and galleries to soak up the beauty of their works.
In the early years of my career, after a year spent exploring watercolours, I began to experiment with the form of the collage. While working late one night at my father’s office in Prasad Studios, I stumbled into the editing room next door and was struck by the way bits of film were placed in a box and stitched together in different ways to tell a story. I wanted to try to do the same with paper, and that’s how I started creating large collages. I tried to achieve the same quality as that of a painting, so a viewer wouldn’t be able to see where the paper was stuck to the background.
Above (clockwise from top left): From a series of decorative works done on plywood; Watercolour flowers in classic Thota Tharrani style; A piece from the 'Bikaner' series which comprised almost 700 paintings; Early in his career, Thota Tharrani experimented with the collage as a medium, creating large and beautiful works.
I work in all mediums. I draw in pencil when I don’t have anything else. I enjoy working with mixed media bringing together acrylics and oils. I still love watercolours, and have dabbled in charcoal and crayons as well. I don’t allow material to restrict me in any way. There is always a work in progress in my studio, and I’m currently working on my last subject, which I will show sometime next year.
Art, to me, is like eating—one cannot eat the same food every single day, but must have some variety on the plate. In the same way, I constantly experiment with different forms and techniques, subjects and mediums. I have been intrigued by photography since I was a child and first picked up my father’s old Kodak camera. I figured out how to manually measure distances and fix the aperture—something that has influenced all my work. Almost 20 years later, I bought myself a Ricoh Kr10, one of the best cameras for black and white photography. Since then, my passion for cameras has led me to work with different models, from the Nikon Nikkormat, to a Canon and a Leica. My last camera—the most beautiful and most professional I ever used—was the Contax RTS. With a camera in my hands, I find beauty everywhere—in a fallen branch, in dried leaves of a tree, or in an expanse of sand. Photography has been a big part of my journey as an artist.
Above: Thota Tharrani discovered a passion for photography as a child, and continues to capture moments through the lens on his travels around India and the world.
I find inspiration for subjects everywhere I go. While travelling by train along the outskirts of Paris years ago, I saw a ribbon tied to a fence, blowing in the wind. That striking visual had a profound impact on me and found its way into a series I went on to paint. I am constantly inspired by music, particularly the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. My wife is a classical Veena player and a trained vocalist, while her father is a very well-known Veena teacher. Thus, I am always surrounded by music.
Several years ago, when I lived in Delhi, the city was hit by a tornado, causing a great deal of destruction in the span of a few minutes. I was deeply affected by this event. I kept thinking about how quickly and dramatically the world could change right before my eyes. When a natural disaster hits, no matter what the Meteorological Department might announce, there is a shift in the way we perceive the elements. This immediately became a subject I grew fascinated with. I didn’t want to show the suffering and destruction, but I interpreted the event in a black and white series with sweeping brush strokes, and called the series ‘Force’. I continued to return to this subject over the years, and the series has evolved to include hints of silver and bold colours.
Above: A piece from Thota Tharrani's 'Force' series inspired by a tornado he witnessed in Delhi.
I was deeply moved by the Vande Mataram album by A.R. Rahman and Bharat Bala and for the album cover art, I chose to depict the Indian flag in a modern way. Through the paint and brushstrokes, I tried to capture the movement of the flag, a feeling of freedom.
Above: Thota Tharrani's beautiful and modern interpretation of the Indian flag for the Vande Mataram album cover.
In addition to capturing visual moments and the drama of nature, I have also always loved languages. I truly believe that every mother tongue is beautiful in its own way. When I’m travelling to Bangalore, I try to speak in the little Kannada I know, and similarly, when I’m in Kerala I try to speak in Malayalam. I have always been struck by how beautifully some people are able to speak in several languages.
Around the time that I was studying in Paris, I began to think about language afresh. I was struck by the stylistic and unique beauty of India’s scripts, which are many and varied. I thus began to play with various languages and scripts, including Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali. I drew inspiration from mosaic murals as well as the beautiful craftsmanship of Urdu lettering carved into mosques and other structures. I started out using my own name, Thota, which means garden. I began to write this single word repeatedly, taking the form of a creeper shape. I started with huge sheets of coloured paper, writing my name in black against shades of blue that looked like the sky or shades of yellow like the sunset. I had about 20 works to start with, but when I left Paris, I tore all the artworks up and returned home.
Above: From the 'Script' series that reflects the artist's fascination with the beauty of languages and scripts.
On my return, I continued my script series, using watercolours which I’ve always found very beautiful. I then started working on these pieces in more detail, only in black and white which are the two strongest colours—and these are what finally formed the series.
On beauty & tradition
I think tradition is beautiful and beauty is traditional. Tradition is important to me as a foundation, but I have also moved into the modern world. For example, when I paint a Ganesha, I always start off with the traditional form of the elephant god. However, I might then add an abstract effect in application. Without tradition, we have nothing, so I will always go back to my roots when it comes to painting.
There is beauty everywhere, as long as you take the time to see and observe it. I believe that there are no rules when it comes to beauty, and that nothing is not beautiful. Even a diamond will sparkle in the dirt.
On the kanjivaram weave
I have always found the kanjivaram weave very beautiful. I love anything that is simple and elegant, and the Kanakavalli kanjivarams as well as the Anga Vastra menswear are very lovely.
Thota Tharrani is wearing a handwoven kanjivaram veshti in black from Kanakavalli’s Anga Vastra collective of wedding and occasion wear for men. Diamond and geometric patterns in gold zari adorn the borders.
- Thota Tharrani, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Vedesh Rajan.
View Thota's accompanying guest curation here.