For years, Chennai’s walls captured the quirks of its favourite faces in garish hues, bestowing the city with exclusive rights to exhibitionism. Green-yellow film stars and black-red politicians beamed down from hand painted billboards. Where the cut outs ended, the sky began. Wars of the ballot and box-office alike were fought in technicolour. At the turn of the decade though, the Eastman style paints that ran in the city’s veins began drying out.
C. Sivakumar of Chella Arts, T.Nagar believes everything is digital now, even affection. The 59-year-old is only one of thousands of former cut-out painters. Reluctantly, he reminisces of a time when he got steady orders for portraits but “lately they stick digital images of deceased relatives behind a fancy frame. It is cheaper.”
Seated in the dingy confines of the vinyl printing store cum PCO, he seems disconcertingly comfortable with the state of affairs. “I have not held a brush in five years but I am lucky. Those who couldn’t afford vinyl machinery are still suffering.” Like him, many have embraced the printing industry that stole their jobs.
G. Venkatesan of Jayaram Arts is also representative of the resignation which defines the life of former painters. “The last big projects were when Rajini and Kamal were at the helm of their career. After that, painting assignments grew very rare,” he says. Six years ago, he switched to digital printing and dismissed nearly 30 painters from his 58-year-old establishment at Mount Road. Some of them are now vegetable vendors, security guards and masons.
Few artists like G. Kumar of Saidapet have found ways not to let go of the art. After the lay-off, he broke into the “cine field” and began assisting set designer Rajeevan. Though work includes designing and furnishing, he best loves painting portraits and name boards to use as props. S. Ramesh started an art class in West Mambalam that now has seven students. Returns are nominal, but he is happy to teach the skill even if most students only pursue it as a hobby.
Local arts come with a looming expiry date. The terminal illness that struck cut-out painting was triggered by technology and policy. A 2008 order banned unauthorised hoardings and displays on private walls. The recent municipal wall paintings project seemed an opportunity for painters to shine but Sivakumar discloses, “Pay has moved from the original 30 to as low as four rupees per sq. ft.”
The forthcoming elections too will employ only printed ad campaigns. A hefty boost to vinyl printing is expected. “They prefer vinyl cut-outs which are made fast but tear within days. A painting could take between 10 days and three months to make but they last for years,” rues Venkatesan.
“A photo is a dull recreation of reality. In paintings, we would add shades of pink to the cheeks and green around the sideburns to give a unique finishing,” he observes with a hint of pride. Among his clients are AVM and Ananda Pictures but “they opt for the quick-fix digital cut-outs.” Shops and offices also prefer neon or glow signs.
Long after its death, Bollywood-style painting has found takers in rich youngsters and expats for whom the art holds kitsch appeal. For 1000 rupees a sq. ft., artists from Mumbai and Delhi create customised posters with the niche buyers painted alongside Bollywood superstars. The trend is yet to unfold in Chennai but Venkatesan doubts that it will, “We have never received such requests.”
Revival sounds a tad romantic even to these men who designed destinies and etched Tamil figures into the viewer’s consciousness. “Renewing this industry will be an uphill task. Artists have lost interest,” says Sivakumar. Then, with strange conviction, he adds – “Still, it will make a comeback.”
You want to believe him till a row of digitised boards confronts you outside the shop, confirming your worst fears.
I still do not have a voter’s card. I might get one made since I am told it is useful as identity proof. Plus I like cards with my picture on them.
The recent elections passed without me exercising my shiny new right to adult franchise. I am not proud. Even if I had voted though, what was to be proud of? Show me which party or candidate in my constituency was worthy of approval. To select the lesser of the evils seemed like an evil thing itself. Asking me to judge which shit looks prettier is unreasonable.
The 49-0 campaign ended in disaster. Big chunk of voters did not know of the procedure and others who knew were met with clueless election officers.
To make your disapproval felt, you had to ask for and fill a separate form so that you may lawfully show all the candidates your middle finger. It makes no difference to the outcome though. What is the blasted use of this? It’s like hating cricket, still going to the game and closing your eyes or sticking out your tongue as a sign of protest. The cricketers will still have the last laugh. And they will laugh loudest at you.
In hindsight, maybe the election officers are not uninformed at all. They know all the rules in the book. Imagine what a tough job it must be, supervising those many folks through the day. Adding to that, you tell them to fish out special papers for a mere 20-30 people and clear their doubts, wait while they write out details, fold the forms when they are done and safeguard them. When, in fact, their no-vote will have as much utility as my pet amoeba. It is little wonder then why the smartypants officers fake ignorance. Bless them.
This rant is only a figment of my stunted thought process. You must not subscribe to it. To those who are still reading, my decision is that I will wait on the world to change. Let 49-0 become a part of the secret ballot. Let it become a button on the damned machine and be counted so that thug-like candidates are not allowed to contest in further elections. Allow me a right that will help stem the damage.
Then I will gladly make a trip to the polling booths, and not as a spectator.
Mumbai, May 16
Ruparel College could easily have been mistaken for the venue of an IPL match on Saturday morning as an excited crowd waited with bated breath for any news on the election results.
When cable TV blacked out for an hour 10.30 am onwards, political enthusiasts in the Mumbai South Central Constituency had teemed onto the streets in front of the College, Counting Centre No. 2. “I grew restless and decided to come down here to get first hand information,” stated a Dharavi resident. Motorists too stopped by to enquire about the progress of their candidates. More than thirty policemen stood guard near the centre, occasionally indulging in election gossip.
As the results after each round of count was declared, Congress candidate Eknath Gaikwad steadily left his competitors behind with a consistently growing margin. His initial lead of 3000 votes progressed to a 30,000 lead by the sixth round. Consequently a group of MNS party workers and counting agents gathered, visibly miffed about the outcome. “We have all voted for our party. How can our numbers be so few?” they questioned in Marathi.
Even before the final outcome had been declared, word about Gaikwad’s victory spread. Congress counting agents, during the afternoon tea break, said with their thumbs up, “Sampla. Aale Gaikwad saheb. (It’s over. Gaikwad has won.)” At 1.30, the victor arrived to a colourful welcome by supporters sporting red tilaks and gulaal. Hugs and greetings followed, as did chants of ‘Eknath Gaikwad aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain’.
While Gaikwad left shortly in his Qualis, the cops barred supporters from following him further as the official result was yet to be announced. This did not wipe the smiles off their faces though, as they cheerfully shot up victory signs and posed for the shutterbugs.