A chanced glance at a hoarding while restlessly waiting for the signal to turn green, and you would have seen a pandemonium of colours in that split moment. Perched atop would have been tiny men with their larger than life brush strokes. For many, their art perhaps just added to the visual cacophony that were hoardings, but for the artists, it was art for art's sake. Chennai's now vacant skyline wore many a colour in the heydays, when these artists mounted mammoth grids to paint a Rajnikanth with green hair, or Vijayakant's eyes red with rage. Years later, when they had to let go of their canvasses, most watched in abandon.
Passions still run high for one such artist who has spent over 20 years in the industry and has seen mass-produced vinyl hoardings gradually take over hand-painted ones. Having painted for most Vijaykanth movies, including Vallarasu and Vaanathai Pola, M.P. Dakshina is among the handful who managed to retain a foothold in this waning industry despite diminishing returns. Now running his own studio, he has diversified into doing political cut-outs, acrylic paintings for foreign clients and an odd hand-painted poster.
“Even today when I see a painting on a wall, I pause to appreciate it. Vinyl posters can never create that effect,” he says. Dejected over how the industry crumbled, he says not just about anyone could paint movie hoardings. “I underwent five years of training in fine arts before starting out. One had to start off as an assistant before getting to handle entire hoardings. Like in any other profession, there are families that have been doing it for generations,” he says. Orders for political cut-outs, too, he says, have come down. “They come only when there are big political meetings.”
V. Jeevananthan of Cine Arts paints a very glum picture of the renewal of this art form which caught the imagination of film-goers of a bygone era. “I don't think it can be revived anymore. Moreover, one needs a lot of physical stamina to paint on such a large scale. For instance, you must be able to rotate your hand in the radius of five feet. Once you lose touch, it becomes very difficult,” he says.
His father N. Velayudham painted hoardings for movies of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan and he carried forward the tradition. Though based in Coimbatore, the studio's hoardings came up all over the state and were put up at theatres such as Sapphire in Chennai.
“When the banners came up at the theatre for the first time, at least 100 people would crowd around for a glimpse. There was so much enthusiasm. Do you see people crowding around flex banners today?” he says.
There is no trace of individuality in digitally printed posters, he says. “These days, there are ten machines on a single street that can print the exact same thing. I could paint 10 cinema hoardings of 20x10 (feet) in one day, and every banner would be an oil-painting. That was pure art.”
In a state where cinema is intertwined with politics, V. Geetha, one of the authors of the book, The ‘9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings', says it is this association that set apart Tamil cinema hoardings from the rest. “Hoarding space does not merely offer a spectacle that is alluring but also one that helps project the hero as a political leader. The artists were unsung heroes who helped make that happen, whose deft and bold strokes helped create faces and expressions that have since come to be associated with certain film genres, actors and comedians,” she says.
She adds that her collaboration with M.P. Dakshina for the book intended to pay a tribute to the art form and acknowledge the humble artists who mastered the art.
Talking of the transformation over the years, the author says, “Now, a decade later, several artists have lost work or been forced to turn to other occupations. They have lost touch with the world of glitz and glamour which helped sustain their interest in profession where the pay was hardly an incentive.”
Most of them now paint houses instead, while some others work as security guards or do odd jobs. M.P. Dakshina says of the glorious years, “The road was my gallery, and the pedestrians my audience. But now, it is all gone.”
Keywords: Colours of Chennai