Have you ever wondered about the colourful images and slogans on walls across our State? Akila Kannadasan accompanies a team of wall-painters as they travel along the Avanashi-Tirupur road painting advertisements.

Karuppuraj rubs his chin with paint-speckled fingers. He looks hard at his painting, nods to himself and dips the brush into a tub of black paint. He is painting the beard of a maharaja. He will paint the eyes in the end. The work has to be finished before sun down. There will be no light after dusk. The sun beats down on him; there is no roof over his head. To his left is a tiny hill temple; to his right, the Avanashi-Tirupur road. He paints sitting on a wooden scaffold, his paint and brushes placed on a metal tray suspended by a hook.

The 59-year-old, along with Selvaraj, Ayyasami and Bangaaru, left Coimbatore at dawn to paint the advertisement for an amusement park on the wall of a mill that overlooks the highway. The men are part of L. Kandhaswamy’s Varnalaya Advertising, a company that does hoardings, flex banners and wall paintings.

Painting the town

Kandhaswamy has 18 painters working for him. Despite the arrival of instant flex boards, wall-painted advertisements have a lot of demand, he says. “When done at key places, the painting attracts many people.” Dressed in a Safari suit, the 65-year-old is supervising his painters working along the road leading to Tirupur from Coimbatore. He has another team painting in Tirupur. “I have to buy them oil. They just called,” he says, glancing at his gold watch. “Let’s go.”

As we travel to the next destination, Kandhaswamy points out the wall paintings his company has done. “That’s ours.” “The blue one, we did it recently” “We are repainting that one”. “It’s hard work. The painters travel along the stretch of road where the client wants his advertisement,” he explains.

They stop at the designated spots, spread their tools and work non-stop till dusk. The men rest at a wayside lodge for the night and resume work the next day.

Once an advertisement is done, they proceed to the next spot and go on till the stretch is covered. “I take care of the positioning of the advertisement and the rent for the building on which we paint. Only once we finish work, do we get our payment,” he says.

Kandhaswamy believes that only an artist with a good eye can do wall paintings. “We work as per the grammar of art. We can’t afford to falter.” Each artist is adept at line drawings and other techniques; nothing happens without a drawing grid.

In Tamil Nadu, it was the government that popularised the trend of wall-painted advertisements, he says. “In late sixties, the tagline for the government’s family planning programme ‘Naam iruvar namakku iruvar’ was painted on government buildings. This method gradually spread to jewellery, clothes and so on,” he says.

Kandhaswamy started out as an assistant to artists when he was in his twenties. After various stints , he decided to do what he always wanted to. He jokes saying he has been painting wall advertisements since the time “a glass of tea cost ten paisa.” “I’ve done work across South India. We’ve travelled by horse-drawn carts, cars, vans, trains…we’ve even cycled 70 km a day to paint.” Kandhaswamy says that he once spent 33 days on an assignment, halting at roadsides and painting unmindful of harsh weather.

Poets with a brush

Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada…he has written advertisements in languages he barely knew. “But we find out the meaning of what we write.” Some of these are fresh in his memory — “‘BKR sandhana thirigal. Pushpa, madhura sugantham’ went an agarbathi advertisement we did in Kerala,” he smiles. There are times the artists become poets. “We sometimes add our own words to liven up an advertisement. Of course, only if our client permits!”

Murugan, his artist, has been painting for over 15 years. “I never went to school, but now I’m writing words that everyone reads!” he grins.

But then, there are days a wall painter is tested by Nature. The sun, without which their paintings cannot survive, is also their enemy.

“But that’s allright,” says Bangaaru, running his fingers through a sweat-drenched cloth tied over his head. “Idhellam patha soru thinga mudiyuma?”