RAJAJINAGAR: In a tiny shed with no electricity, 78-year-old K Chinnappa’s practised hand paints stroke after stroke, bringing to life a cut-out of film star Darshan, to be delivered for a shoot this weekend.
“This is for the introductory shoot of Airavata,” said Chinnappa, whose journey began in the late 1940s, after he dropped out of school.
One day, his Jayanagar neighbour S K Seenu, a banner and poster artist, told him he might have work for the teenager. “And that was that,” Chinnappa remarks. A 6x4 feet banner for Gubbi Veeranna’s play Sadarame was the first he ever worked on. “I was in the sidelines back then,” he said.
His guru often asked him to fetch well-known actors G V Iyer, Narasimharaju and Balakrishna to his studio. “That’s when I learnt the last two started their careers painting signboards and play backdrops,” he said.
The first cut-out he independently created was a small one for Bedara Kannappa in the 1960s. “I enjoyed painting Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh,” he said.
Yesteryear stars had a lot of respect for artists like him, and were generous in their appreciation. They even publicly gave these unseen hands credit for making their films hits. What Chinnappa remembers as his best work so far is one that Rajkumar gave him a shield for after the film Na Ninna Mareyalare (Can’t Forget You) completed 100 days. This cut-out’s intricate knife work gave it textures that cannot be achieved today.
Natural dyes and cloth, commonly used materials back then, have been replaced by flex, supported by a 4 mm plywood frame. Flex comes with a ready white background and a rough print that the artists work on, speeding up the process in the present ‘instant’ era. Yet, a project can take 20 days of toil, depending on what is required.
“The paint we use now is made of artificial chemical compounds, among the less harmful varieties available now,” the septuagenarian said.
He is well aware of the eco-unfriendliness of the raw material used, and hopes flex will be shunned in Karnataka too, as it is in the other three South Indian states. Cloth and more eco-friendly paints will make a comeback with this, his son Gopala Krishna predicts.
“Then we will have to go back to the old methods: coating cloth with vajram — a white, lime-based mix — and painting on it after it hardens,” he said.
When Chitrashaala Rajanna popularised cut-outs in Karnataka, a few years before Chinnappa’s foray into the field, they were mostly about heroism, but now commerce rules, Chinnappa feels.
But commercialisation has left him almost untouched. “He often tells me, ‘Don’t work for money because if you are not poor, life loses its richness, and it’s no longer pleasurable,” said Gopala Krishna. At Rajkamal Arts Gallery, their company, they charge about Rs 12,000 for a cut-out. “For a big project, we make Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 on a cut-out,” he explained.
Most recently, they made 21 for Vajrakaya and 15 for Bahubali. “Usually, it’s for all centres of Karnataka that the film releases in,” he said.
Chinnappa most enjoys working on period films. “I like the detailing,” he said. The company also makes banners for smaller-budget movies and takes up wall and vastu paintings — paintings of animals, supposed to be lucky for a family, on the walls of the house.
“We even visualised a goddess, Vana Banashankari, entirely based on a priest’s description,” said Gopala Krishna.
Their more common projects of creating cut-outs aren’t too different from idol-making either. “Many fans meet their stars thanks to these,” Gopala Krishna said. And on birthdays and other special occasions, fans garland these larger-than-life images, sometimes even pour milk on them. Is this disrespecting their work?
“It’s what the fans want. Without fans, there are no stars,” he said.
Many things have changed today, but reference stills still come in black-and-white, like they used to in the old days. “A colour still can never have the depth and the light and shade that a black-and-white one does,” said Chinnappa.
It’s the job of artists like him, and four others from Huballi who come for his projects, to let their imagination run free and fill in the colour. Chinnappa might soon be the holder of a Guinness record for the highest number of cut-outs and banners created for 4,300 films in five languages made over a span of 60 years.
The tallest so far being a cut-out of Shivarajkumar for Jogi created in 2008. “We have applied already,” Gopalakrishna said.
A programme on TV channel Colors, a few years ago, challenged the stalwart with the task of finishing a painting in three minutes. “And he did it. It was a painting of Swami Vivekananda,” said the proud son. “I recorded it on video and sent it across to Mumbai.”
While much of Chinnappa’s art is out for the public to see, a collection of 50 realistic paintings, works with a far longer life, are hidden away in his gallery. His clientele for these are a niche set, mostly from abroad.
“We’ve tried holding public exhibitions, but the big collectors send mediators who try to bring down the price by more than half,” said Gopala Krishna.
“It’s not about the money, but we don’t want to sell his paintings for a pittance.”
Even now, Chinnappa spends his days immersed in art, something he likens to meditation. Not everyone is blessed with the skills, he asserts, but this is what keeps him ticking.
“He says he will die with a brush in his hand,” said Gopalakrishna.
Chinnappa works between eight and nine hours in a shed near Harishchandra Ghat on busy days.
“Now I’m 78, my wife takes me to task if I’m not back home by seven,” Chinnappa said.
He remembers every banner and cut-out he has ever made. “My son tells me we should write a book,” he said.