A woman in a sari stands beside a lamp
Arpitha Reddy (image credit: Suman Bajpai)

Hyderabad-based painter Arpitha Reddy’s unique paintings are inspired by the temples of South and the namam (tilak). Her recent solo show Vishwatma blends her experience of traditional art forms with a modern take on Puranic symbols and elements. Reddy revisualizes the aesthetics of ancient frescoes in her refreshing portrayal of key rituals and goddesses from Hindu mythology. A processional elephant, for example, becomes the inspiration for her Namam series. 

Reddy is an alumnus of JNFAU College of Fine Arts in Hyderabad. She spoke to Suman Bajpai of India Currents to share her vision for Vishwatma. Responses have been edited for clarity.

IC: Tell us about the auspicious symbols depicted in your paintings to define Diwali.

Auspicious symbols from the Puranic tradition
Auspicious symbols from the Puranic tradition (image courtesy: Arpitha Reddy)

AR: Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the symbols. I was born and brought up in Hyderabad, rooted in tradition, so symbols have been an integral part of my
everyday life. I’ve observed symbols on temple walls, motifs on handloom
textiles, and wall paintings. Beautiful rangolis (muggulu) have always fascinated me.
Almost all rituals are performed using auspicious symbols. We believe that religious
symbols embody the divine and are sacred. Worshippers use different symbols to appease the gods and those symbols inspired my paintings. The paintings in my ‘Sumangala’ series are adorned with intricate details of symbols such as the lotus, conch shell, chakram, sun, and moon.

 IC: Your unique ‘Namam’ series is unique reminds me of temple rituals. Can you explain the Vaishnava Namams in your paintings?

AR: These paintings are a study of the quaint and curious ‘Namam’ symbols. I’ve tried to show the vibrancy of tilaks that grace the forehead during religious ceremonies by using different colors. On a visit to Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, I was drawn to the
charm of the Namam on the forehead of the temple deity – Venkateswara, an incarnation of
Lord Vishnu.

I stumbled upon the Friday parade at the temple. First time! The sight of the elephants and their namams became the gift of a new venture with art. The jumbos and their tilaks effectively symbolize the beauty and antiquity of Hinduism. They look so elegant.
That procession of elephants inspired the Namam series.

Arpitha Reddy's Nanam Series (image courtesy/ Arpita Reddy)
Arpitha Reddy’s Nanam Series (image courtesy/ Arpitha Reddy)

The image of the tilak haunted me and served as the catalyst for creating making me want something new. The Vishnu Namam is generally a sharp U or a V, but here it had a graceful curvaceous shape hugging the contours of the elephant’s forehead. That became an embodiment of Bhakti on the part of the tuskers, who tirelessly led the procession during the temple’s festivities.

IC: ‘Dashavatar’ paintings describe the ten incarnations of Vishnu. What inspired this work?

AR: I have used the classical style of narration in this artwork but with a contemporary
choreography of characters and embellishment of elements. The intricate details of borders and figures create a conversation about mural traditions, which take them forward to suit contemporary sensibilities too.

The sacred Namams symbolize purity and enlightenment. When depicted in the images of
Vishnu’s ten avatars, they capture the essence of everlasting existence. The cyclical nature of the Lord’s divine manifestations is shared tacitly. That is the core of the Dashavatara

A Dashavtaram image by Arpitha Reddy
A Dashavataram (image credit: by Arpitha Reddy)

IC: Your paintings are versatile in terms of style. Do you like experimenting?

AR: The techniques differ, as do the styles. Yes, I do like experimenting with themes and forms. Besides Kerala murals, you can see a blend of numerous traditional art forms, including Pata Chitra, Phad, Thangal, Cherial, Tanjore, and Kalamkari, in my work. I have experimented with the mix of Telugu and Mughal cultures, which I earned while mastering fine arts at a Bhopal college.

A display of paintings from the Vishwamata series by Arpita Reddy
A display of paintings from the Vishwatma series (image courtesy: Arpitha Reddy)

A pan-India take on the ancient visual arts prompts me to go for certain compare-and-contrast exercises. For instance, the Phad scroll paintings of Rajasthan maintain a color balance that is close to the five-hued (Panchavarna) Kerala murals. Some of my figures are like Chola bronzes dressed in Kerala murals. Even with Odisha’s Patachitra, adding a white-dotted finish akin to the ornamental manimala of Kerala murals can help focus on the main event and enhance its beauty.

Traditional arts have added to my skills. They enable me to go for linear images, lit up by thin applications of glazing colors.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 17 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...