THE biggest modern myths of the state are made of plywood. Cutouts of Dravidian politicians, from MGR to Karunanidhi to Jayalalitha, all literally larger than life, have led the brisk business of image-making in Tamil Nadu politics for decades. Now, at last, the little-known chief executor and the curator of most of these projects—J.P. Krishna—has found fame beyond his native state. His pop art have dominated the skyline during the Seychelles presidential elections in late March. For that event, his industrious assistants Ravi and Pandian put up about 10 huge 40-ft cutouts—a fine sight for the homesick Tamil diaspora in the island nation.
Work for the 42-year-old cutout king is, well, cut out for him. Educated in a modest corporation school in downmarket north Madras, Krishna has over 2,500 dramatis personae—mostly film and political personalities—to feed his cutout business. His mantra as always: the bigger the better. When he first carved a cutout of Jayalalitha, it was a modest 30 feet high image. But as her stature grew, so did Krishna's cutouts: from 30 to 60 feet, then to 70 and finally to 150 feet.
It was Madhusudan, handloom minister in the AIADMK ministry, who first sought out Krishna to capture Amma in all her splendour when she became chief minister. "Madhusudan called me one evening and said that the CM would be presiding over a function at Handloom Centre in Egmore and that I should do something spectacular for the first-ever function of Amma as the chief minister. I made 300 small cutouts of Amma and placed them on the entire route from Amma's Poes Garden residence to the venue of the meeting. Both Madhusudan and Amma were impressed," he recalls.
So impressed was Amma with Madhusudan's sycophancy that she appointed him chairman of the reception committee when she celebrated her victory in 1991 by organising a huge rally in Madurai. "The AIADMK's Madurai rally was the most challenging moment in my life. Within 20 days I was asked to make 40 welcome arches, 50 cutouts 40 feet high and one huge cutout 150 feet high. I employed about 300 people and worked day and night to complete the task. I am sure that was the highest cutout ever made of any individual," says Krishna with enormous pride.
Little wonder then, there is a tinge of regret in Krishna's voice as he talks of the AIADMK's decline in fortunes. From employing nearly 200 workers during the height of Jayalalitha's regime, the number has come down to just 20. "I do work for both the AIADMK and the DMK, but the quantum of work given by the AIADMK during their tenure was excellent." The only other politician who rivalled Jayalalitha in erecting cutouts was N.T. Rama Rao. During his comeback trail in 1994, NTR commissioned nearly 300 cutouts of himself, his wife Lakshmi Parvati and his election symbol, the 'cycle'. "In those days we used to work day and night. Artists would be busy drawing outlines and carpenters with cutting the plywood. Painters would be giving the final touches and the cutouts sometimes had to be airlifted to Hyderabad. But, mostly, we used to send them by trucks," he says.
THEN again, AIADMK showed the way to other parties. "During the Tirupati session of the AICC, I was asked to make welcome arches. The Congressmen were queasy about having huge cutouts. They were more interested in ornamental arches," says Krishna.
His beginnings, though, were more modest. Krishna's drawing master S.Guruswamy trained him in realistic drawing and painting. "He not only taught me how to draw but also to understand the science behind enlarging a figure three or four fold without distortions. I learnt from him how to mix colours to get the hue I wanted. Apart from aesthetics, he also taught me physics and chemistry in drawing." Krishna's favourite pastime then was to visit various artists and see how they worked. His entire genre was restricted to banners, posters and hoardings. "I would have spent nearly 10 hours a day in Mount Road watching artists finishing and erecting huge billboards and signboards and hoardings for cinema. I was also distressed by the pathetic life most of them led. Despite the massive publicity they generated for the products, their life bordered on the verge of poverty. I was determined I would enter the field, earn a name for myself and also change the ground rules of this enterprising business where art and money ought to go hand in hand." Krishna's pride also comes from the fact that he played a key role in increasing the payment for cutouts from Rs 10 per square feet to the present Rs 22 per square feet.
The initial years weren't easy. There were few willing to give assignments to someone who had no experience. Krishna's first break came in 1980, when the manufacturers of Governor Beedi commissioned him to do a hoarding for their corporate office in north Madras. "I knew right from the beginning that big is better. Small is not really beautiful if you are addressing a vast audience. Hence, I designed a 40 by 8 feet hoarding and showed the cowboy still used by the famous Marlboro cigarette ad effecting only one slight change—replacing the cigarette with a beedi." The hoarding became an instant hit. Krishna and Governor beedi grew hand in hand. Between 1980 and 1990, Krishna designed at least 250 hoardings featuring almost every major artist of Tamil cinema—Rajnikant, Vijaykanth, Kamalahaasan and film maker Balu Mahendra.
In 1987, when the famous Gemini Studios returned to film production after a gap of nearly two decades, they wanted to do so with a bang. "The art directors of Sollvathaellum Unmai, GK and JK, came to my place and asked me to design the hoarding for the new film. I designed a huge hoarding running all along the Gemini Studios compound for the film. That was my foray into the world of cinema," says Krishna.
Since then Krishna has become synonymous with film hoardings. "I became very busy and had to give up my Governor beedi work. I also shifted base from the remote north Madras to T. Nagar, the nerve centre of film productions. However, my moment of reckoning in creating hoardings came when director Parthiban asked me to produce a huge one for his own film Ulle, Velliye. I erected a 80 feet by 20 feet piece which had many layers of work to create a movement in the image. In that work, different images would be visible when seen from different angles. It is easy to give such an effect with an electrically shifting display. But I had created the same effect by using mere static, plywood images where only the viewer was moving." The display for Ulle, Velliye became very popular and soon most TV show anchors began compering in front of that cutout.
With his Seychelles assignment, the master has indeed come a long way. He refuses to reveal his political affiliations but declares that contrary to popular perception politicians are more honest than businessmen. Says he: "If a political leader gives us an assignment, we are sure of payment. They may bargain hard but once a price is fixed they always pay up front. But most businessmen do not pay in time. Film companies are the worst." A pity, since Krishna is the greatest help they can get in their image nirvana.