The front lawn at the Alliance Française of Madras, in the heart of the city, had recently become the venue for an array of cultural performances. The traffic outside the gate, moving at a snail’s pace, made it known to the public that it was the 70th anniversary of the organisation. The building positively buzzed with activity, and there were flyers and boards mapping the multiple events being held. Films were screened, dances performed, photographs displayed, music played, stories told and workshops held; the atmosphere was electric.
In the centre of it all, behind closed doors with a sign that said “photography prohibited”, was a room cut off from all the chaos. In it, hung 70 sketches by acclaimed artist Thota Tharani. The collection titled Down the Memory Lane was sketched between 1976 and 1977 when the artist studied in Paris, France. The exhibition was inaugurated by the Ambassador Designate of France in India Thierry Mathou & the Mayor of Chennai Priya Rajan.
“I never had a camera, so I started working on these. I would just take a paper and scribble on it. These were all spot drawings that were done in five minutes. There were 1400 drawings, out of which only 69 to 70 have remained with me. They are all fading away, and it feels like losing someone dear,” he says as a camera flashed in his direction.
These sketches were first line drawings which were then shaded in. This style of sketching which defies categorisation, wasn’t done in India before, and that became his inspiration to keep going. Since they were spot drawings, the scenes had to be grasped in a quick, efficient manner.
“The making of crêpes looked very interesting to me. It’s like making a dosa, but there were over 70 varieties of it,” he says, referring to a particular drawing of a few men in a French kitchen making crêpes.
After going through the initial jitters of language barriers and visa troubles, when Thota Tharani landed in Paris for his fellowship in Print Making offered by the Government of France in 1971, he was in awe of the city’s atmosphere and architecture. He made friends with fellow Indian students and explored the city extensively.
Before he left France, he took short weekend trips around the country and sketched this series. “I did these line drawings while my friends held umbrellas during windy days, and then at lunch hours, I would complete the shading,” he said.
“I particularly enjoyed drawing cathedrals and churches. There’s a lot of nostalgia associated with this series,” he added.
Speaking about his creative process and inspiration, he said that we live in a diverse country with many muses. “You don’t need to ponder about feelings. You touch anything, and it’s a subject,” he added smilingly.
The collection comprises digital re-prints, while the originals are wrapped and stored away for safe-keeping and preservation.
Down the Memory Lane is on display at Alliance Française Madras until October 18, 2023