He is one of the last few artists who hand-paints name boards in Coimbatore city. But why does he stick to a job that hardly gives him a profit? Kalai Kannan has his reasons, he tells Akila Kannadasan

Even a child in Ramanathapuram could tell you who Kalai Kannan was. The friendly neighbourhood artist did name boards for almost every shop in the area. He was well-known even as far as Sulur. He even got orders from far-off towns. He led a king’s life, that man. He was extremely busy. If you were opening a shop, you had to book him in advance… This was Kalai Kannan’s life 20 years ago.

Today, the 40-year-old painter of sign boards works without an assistant in his one-roomed office in the terrace of a building in Ramanathapuram. Orders are hard to come by, but he still sticks to the job, because…

“I love to paint. It’s my life. I can’t give it up just because it’s not making me rich, can I? I’ve been painting name boards for the past 20 years. I got a taste for art from my brother, he was a Communist. As with all Communists of his time, he was very good at painting symbols and messages. I would watch him work with kaavi at home.

I was a teenager when I joined as an assistant to Anguraj of ‘Radha Arts’. Once an undisputed name board artist in Ramanathapuram, he was my guru. There were about 10 of us to assist him. But today, most of them have turned drivers and building painters. As my guru grew older and orders dwindled, Radha Arts closed down.

Close to his heart

Today, I get only two orders in the place of 10. But there are shop-keepers who still want their boards hand-painted. Most people have switched to flex boards. They can be printed much faster, unlike hand-painted boards.

I too have bought a computer to print boards for my customers. But its painting by hand that’s close to my heart. Such boards last and are not bad for the environment. Flex boards are non-biodegradable. Imagine, there are so many such boards printed and dumped every day! But I’m not against technological advancement. It will be nice if we can use biodegradable material for printing.

My children too are good in art. But I don’t want to encourage them to take to this profession. There was a time when my business thrived. I painted leaders of political parties, name boards for shops, boards for rasigar mandrams with pictures of their favourite stars…

I enjoy painting leaders and cinema actors. Rajinikanth, especially, is fun to paint. He has distinct features. Pokkiri, police inspector, driver…his hairstyle is the same no matter what character he plays. You can tell a city by its hand-painted sign boards. Coimbatore’s boards are a little dull, unlike Madurai’s or Chennai’s. In Chennai, paintings dazzle with the use of multiple colours. This is because you have artists from various parts of Tamil Nadu working on the same painting. They all add their unique touch.

A hand-painted board is special. An artist works on it for hours and gives it life. When I get off the bus in a new town, the first thing I do is look at the boards of shops in the streets. A beautiful hand-painted board speaks of the shop-keeper’s taste; his appreciation for art. I feel good when I see such boards.

A village full of neatly-done hand-painted boards gives you a good impression about the people who live there. As long as there are such people, hand painted boards will not die out. I’ll be off now; I have to paint a board for a textile showroom.