Artist Vilas Tonape’s journey, from starting out as a student at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai to imparting lessons in portrait painting to former U.S. President George W. Bush, has been dotted with excitement.
“I was humbled by the experience,” the 49-year-old artist, who now chairs the department of art at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, tells Little India.
Tonape moved to the United Sates in 1994 to pursue higher education and studied art at the Texas Christian University. “I was born and brought up in Mumbai and lived in a chawl. The area where I grew up was quite infamous for its goons,” he says. He came to the United States with a scholarship and there was no looking back. Tonape has been in the country for the last 24 years and America is as much his home as India is.
Artists in India are aplenty and it is a respected profession, Tonape says. In the United States, however, he often encounters expressions of astonishment when he introduces himself as an artist. “It is not the Americans, even Indians in America are thrown off a bit when I say that I am an artist,” he says, adding that India’s cultures and traditions are steeped in art and Indian art is recognized across the globe. “I cannot comprehend why I get such surprising looks from the U.S. Indian community, let alone the Americans,” he says.
Looking back at one of the most memorable days of his life, Tonape says that it was his professor in college, Jim Woodson, who recommended him to Bush, who has taken to painting after retirement.
“I received a phone call from Prof. Woodson in October last year, asking me if I would be interested in teaching the former president and soon after he handed the phone to him. All I could say was that I would be humbled by the opportunity,” reminisces Tonape.
His lesson was scheduled on March 14 this year. It was an experience that has transformed his life, says Tonape. “He was a great student, observing each detail minutely and has the skills that are equivalent to a post-graduate student. The highlight of the day was former first lady Laura Bush volunteering to model for a portrait,” he recalls, adding that the warmth and affability of his student made the day special.
For a moment he felt that the way the events had unfolded, it was a page from a bestseller. “The former president has an incredibly warm personality and we ended up cracking jokes while the session was underway,” he recounts.
Tonape, who comes down to India every summer, wants to share his experience with his students in India.
His experience of teaching students in India and those in United States varies. Indian students have this inherent quality of obeying their teachers. “American students are very interactive and ask questions, while most Indian students are reticent and hesitate to clarify doubts,” he says.
Tonape’s art is a reflection of how he views life. It is full of colors, and rooted in visual rhythms of gesture. “Painting to me is music for the eyes, conceived without conscious articulations, sentiments or statement,” he says. “They reflect my response to nature. They are conceived by an abstract, intangible sensing of nature that erupts into spontaneous imagery.”
For now, he wants to meet and teach more students in both countries, and is ardently waiting to spend the summer in India.