Did you know that the glittering cut-outs of gods and politicians lit by bulbs originated in Chennai? Here is a look at how they are made from scratch. Akila Kannadasan reports

The cut-out stands on a narrow lane opposite a biriyani shop. It must be over 25 feet tall. Shaped like Ganesha with tiny six-volt bulbs, it signals an ongoing festival in a temple in the vicinity. Somewhere in the locality is a man who’s watching over it like a hawk. He will rush to its aid if a bulb conks out. Yes, he will climb all the way.

Behind each of these cut-outs that add dazzle to temple festivals and party meetings, are men who have worked day and night to give it life. They sleep peacefully only when the cut-outs are brought down at the end of the festival without any kinks.

These cut-outs, lit by bulbs in the shape of gods and politicians, have created craftsmen out of school-drop-outs; helped families out of poverty; people worship and fall in love with them. Men have even had a brush with death while mounting them.

D. Mathan of Mathan Sound and Light says that cut-outs originated in the Madras of the late Seventies. “They started in a small way in 1975,” he says. They were a rage some 25 years ago.

The frame is crafted with bamboo by artisans such as S. Jaishankar. “We use the kanni odai moongil from Kumbakonam that costs Rs. 120 for a kombu (16 shoots),” he explains. His workplace is usually the shade of a tree at a street corner. Dhanraj and Ethiraj from his team slice them thin. Dhanraj then draws the figure on the road with chalk.

And the work begins.

The men nail the bamboo shoots to form a measurement grid over the sketch. They go on to develop the frame using thinner, flexible shoots held by iron coils. “The bigger the frame, the easier it is to work,” says 54-year-old Dhanraj as he bends a shoot into a circle. “Small structures are intricate; they tend to hurt my wrists.”

Dhanraj learned the craft from the late Irudhayaraj, who was popular for his cut-outs in Chennai. He joined Irudhayaraj as an assistant when he was a little boy; today, his brother Jaishankar has taken after him. The tallest cut-out he has made measured 80 feet.

The craftsmen hand over the finished frames to the sound and lighting contractor who hired them for the job. Once here, another team sets out to work on them. “Our men tie bulbs to the beddhai (frame) using flexible aluminium wire,” says Mathan who has been in the field for over 30 years.

Ashok Kumar, his best hand, decides on the colour-combination of the bulbs. The 44-year-old is a school-drop-out. He was roaming the streets when one day he volunteered to assist a senior on the job. Ashok enjoyed the work — he joined Mathan and his career took off like a dream. “I have built a house with the money I made by tying bulbs,” he beams.

There’s yet another group of people without whom the structure wouldn’t see the light of day — it’s the men who erect the saaram, the wooden skeleton on which it is mounted. “The saaram is crucial to our work. If it is not sturdy enough, all our work will be wasted,” explains Mathan. “We mount the cut-out, connect the power lines and turn on the lights.”

This is the deciding moment — for, weeks of hard work of over 15 men culminates at this instant.

Mathan’s men have travelled across the country to erect cut-outs when business flourished. “It’s from Chennai that this trend spread to places such as Madurai and Tirunelveli,” he explains. However, the craft varies from place to place. Chennai’s cut-outs stand out for their detailing of faces. “In the South, the men employ rubber from cycle tubes to tie the bulbs,” he says. “But they tend to break if exposed to the sun.”

Flex banners are replacing these street-corner masterpieces in bigger cities. But they have their own fan-following. Mathan regularly gets orders from people from the city’s kuppams. “There is competition between kuppams as to who will put up the most number of cut-outs for that year’s kovil thiruvizha (temple festival),” he says. “This is a matter of pride for them; a display of their wealth for, most thiruvizhas are done with contributions from people in the locality.”

Perhaps not all city-folk are awed by these structures. Mathan feels that those from the suburbs and rural regions tend to appreciate them more. “They stop to admire it and comment ‘enna superaa jolikkidhu paaru’ (look how it’s glittering!).”

- A sound and lighting contractor invests about Rs.1 lakh on a 30-ft tall cut-out and rents it out for Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,500 a day

- A cut-out’s lifespan is three to five years

- Some come with effects to the accompaniment of audio

- Irudhayaraj was famous for his beautiful Amman cut-outs; Dhanraj’s cut-outs of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi are known for their intricacies