The big picture

Handcrafted

The big picture

Like the extinct dinosaurs, the once-towering but now-extinct cutout culture of Tamil Nadu continues to evoke interest. Of course, as with the extinct dinosaurs, nobody really wants to revive it en masse, as it was in the 80s. For one, these massive cutouts used to cut off the view of the sky and even skyscrapers, there was many a time (most commonly after some gusty rains) when cutouts created chaos by falling upon underlying cables, and occasionally even on passing pedestrians and the whizzing traffic. But then, cutout portraits had a special zing to them.

Though a little overdone, painted as they were in bold, fast strokes, these paintings had a distinct character. Big things do create palpable interest when they die out. While the ethos surrounding the cutout era is still going strong, the artists themselves have gone abegging. You wonder — where are these painters today? What became of these artists who gave shape and size to such huge cutouts?

There was a parallel cutout movement happening in Bollywood too, but Chennai was truly the mecca for these cutout artists and the primary centre of production. “Cutouts were the physical manifestation of the larger than life culture of Tamil film and political icons,” rationalises Madan, Chennai based cartoonist. Today however, it is difficult to catch up with a cutout artist in the same city. That by itself speaks volumes about their current oblivion. Many of these cutout artists have moved back to the towns and villages they came from, while a few of them have switched to sign board painting and other mundane stuff — far below their fast and furious skills. It is only a rare cut artist who continues to paint portraits. 

Painting on plywood is tricky. And cutout art had its own format. For one, the back ground gets painted first, rather than the person. A novice did the background, the middle grade artists did the basic frame of the person, while the seniors painted the faces and got the characters to emote. “Different sets of people handled different parts of the same hoarding,” informs Ashvin Rajagopalan, Ashvita gallery, who along with a small group of people has been trying to get cutout artists together and find them ways of sustenance.

The tinsel wave

Ironically, it was the celluloid wave of tinsel town that took them to the top, while another such wave left them high and dry. Tamil films decided to make their heroes larger than life and this thought pumped up the size of the cutouts, and film houses seemed to be stepping the pedal on a race to commission huger than ever handmade portraits. Tamil film cutouts sometimes towered to 150 feet! One film hoarding (for film Ulle, Velliye) even had a 80x20 feet hoarding constructed in multiple layers, which allowed different images to be viewed from different angles and managed to generate a sense of movement as you passed by it! “Those were the days. But we didn’t stop to take pride in their hugeness. We were too busy and these hoardings became history soon,” says Saravanan, a former cutout artist who now has reverted to signboard painting. “Many of my cutout colleagues have even gone back to agriculture in their villages,” he adds. 

The cutout era emerged in the 30s, slowly picked up tempo, and reached a crescendo in the 70s and 80s. The clients of cutout artists were mostly film and political personalities. For instance, famous are JP Krishna’s cutouts of J Jayalalitha in her reigning days. As for AIADMK’s Madurai rally when JJ was the chief minister, some 40 welcome arches, 40 to 50 foot  high cutouts and one huge 150 feet cutout were erected by JP Krishna in 20 days. “I employed around 300 people and worked day and night,” he says. During these two decades, the cost of cutout labour rose from Rs 10 per square feet to Rs 25 per square feet. 

With time came technological changes. Hoarding artists or ‘cutout painters’ as they are better known, vanished into oblivion when film houses dumped hand painted hoardings in favour of digitally enlarged vinyl prints, which came a lot cheaper and faster. When huge hoardings themselves got banned by the local governments, it was the final nail in the coffin.  

Economies of the oblivion

There are not many cutouts that survive today since these artists used inexpensive, low-grade paints and canvasses to cut down on costs, which meant that the pigments and canvasses could not survive the bleaching effect of the beating sun and the erosive effects of the blowing winds. “Then again, cutouts were often circulated around until they fell apart. And because cutouts held viewer value for just a few months or weeks (when the political rally was on or when the film was running on the theatres), they were even repainted over with a new portrait on top of the preexisting cutout painting,” observes art historian Anjali Sarcar. The rationale was that the canvas was more costly than the labour! “So, there is not much preserved cutout art left anywhere today,” says Ashvin. “Today, it is difficult to reach any of them,” he adds. 

Though of course, cutouts have left vestige effects in cultural fetes celebrating world art, like when London’s Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition to present the history of advertising in Indian movies and displayed hoardings among other film publicity material, Century City exhibition held in 2001 at the Tate Modern in London commissioned works by hoarding artists just to sustain this art and got artists from Balkrishna Arts Studio in Mumbai to even demonstrate the hand painting of huge hoardings.

Then, there was the Seychelles presidential elections last year when JP Krishna and his assistants erected 40 feet cutouts in that small country (which has a large Tamil diaspora). Or when books like The Nine Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings (Tara Books) spared thought to this art and the artists’ struggle to eke out their livelihoods. Incidentally, Tara Books had also completed a six-month exhibition of nine such hoardings (on the same theme as the title of the book) at the Kunsthal Museum, in conjunction with the Rotterdam Film Festival last year. 

The giant sway of cinema on the Indian public and the larger-than-life cutouts went hand in hand, going on to define the culture of a city. Well, these hand-painted cutouts are no more today. You do not grieve when desperately sick ancients pass away. But you do wish there was some memorabilia to remember them by. Unfortunately, today, even Saravanan doesn’t have any cutout memorabilia left. He shrugs, “Where would I keep it anyway?”

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