The plurality of Thota Tharrani’s artistic journey is beautifully reflected in his spacious office-studio at Mylapore. As the eye moves from the huge mural featuring his signature peacock and well-contoured village belle to the majestic Ganesha sculpture in wood and the row of vibrant abstracts, what strikes you is the sweep of his style and his control over colour.

But Thota the man is quite a contrast. In a simple white cotton shirt and black trousers, he seems to imply that life isn’t half as colourful as his canvases. “It’s been over four diligent decades, but sadly my commitment to art has been overshadowed by my set designs. I draw every single day. I cannot sleep without drawing,” says the artist, who is busy cataloguing his 1,000-odd works for an upcoming retrospective.

With a far-away look, he says, “I didn’t expect to get into films. But that seemed the natural course because of my art director dad. Painting was a passion since childhood. I was active in the Art Club in the 1960s and later joined the Government College of Arts and Crafts. I feel blessed to have known the ‘masters’ of those golden years — Paniker, Dhanapal, Santhanaraj, Murugesan, Alphonso et al.”

With a daily allowance of Re. 1, Thota set out to establish a toe-hold in the art world. “It was 50 paise for conveyance and 50 paise for tiffin. I used to walk all the way from Egmore to Santhome, board the bus at the terminus and quickly sketch whatever I saw on my way. Those were my baby steps to mastering the art of reproducing images from memory. I also dabbled in cubism and abstract art. I knew how to break up a realistic picture even as a teenager. Those were my best works. They were absolutely bold. When you study too much, it affects your work. You are stifled by too many questions. Sadly, most of those works — some thousands — were destroyed by rain in my thatched-roof residence,” he says cupping his chin sadly.

Recognition, not remuneration

Despite a strong academic base (he did his post-graduation diploma too), Thota got into Kollywood and designed sets for some of the best new-look films by promising directors in the South. “Films got me enormous recognition, but not much remuneration. Ironically, I’m rated very high, but paid very low. People assume I don’t need the money. Not many will believe it took me years to move from a three-digit to a four-digit salary. It’s sad some producers/directors underestimate the contribution of the art director,” he says with bitterness. “Besides, promises are easily broken and filmmakers take their own sweet time to wrap up work. But art to me is about autonomy. It’s my canvas, my colour and my imagination. Sheer love and dedication to work have seen me through tumultuous times. But in future, I will not take up film projects unless they are worthy of my time and effort.”

Having grown up pushing trolleys and painting the backdrops on film sets, Thota’s flair for scale, light and colour is incredible. People associated with him know he can calculate measurements and tell angles in a jiffy. Not many can do architectural drawings manually like him. “Creatively, Thota the art director and Thota the artist have complemented each other over the years. It’s a rare experience,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

Many shows

Unmindful of the surges and pauses in his film career, Thota relentlessly painted over the decades and presented critically acclaimed shows such as “Rajasthan”, “Symphony”, “Force” and “Ganesha”. “I keep revisiting some of my themes. My favourite images include the cycle, the rooster and the peacock. I love works that suggest movement. Passion drives me. I don’t believe in sitting under a tree and philosophising about my work,” he says, showing a large format abstract that engages you with its elliptical narrative.

Airily brushing off the trendsetter tag, he says, “I only tweaked existing techniques and styles. Pen or paper, colour or canvas, I don’t compromise on quality. Besides, my painting comes from here,” he says pointing to his heart. “That makes a big difference.”

Papa won’t preach

Thota’s 14-year-old daughter is following in his footsteps. “She’s got a flair for art. Her strokes and colours are amazing. But like me, she’d prefer it if she’s left alone to do her work. So, I don’t interfere with her painting pursuits.”

Sets appeal

Some of the Padmashri and Rajat Kamal awardee’s unforgettable film sets:

The apartment blocks in “Anjali”

lThe Dharavi slums in “Nayagan”

The transparent fibreglass bus in the ‘Oorvasi, Oorvasi Take it Easy Oorvasi’ number in “Kaadhalan”

The ostentatious sets in the song sequences in “Sivaji”

The replica of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple in “Arjun”

His classy work for “Kanthaswamy” is already talked about in Kollywood

Thota’s trajectory

He’s currently working on an autobiography that traces his life through sketches. From his first art teacher to his first window display, he’s captured them all with his mind’s eye.