Loss Of An Art- The Hand-painted Billboards Decking A City’s Skyline

Posted on April 1, 2012 in Art, Specials

By Sapan Parekh:

When last did you sea hand painted bill-board advertisement for a film? Did you ever see one? I am sure even if you did it would have been years if not decades ago.

During their prime time (which was in 70’s and 80’s), huge hand painted billboards outside theatre halls gave an unforgettable visual treat to the onlookers, taking the definition of film poster art beyond advertising, and transforming it into a cultural icon instead. These hand painted pictures usually possessed vibrant and loud colours along with the artists’ personal touch; in fact the famous painter M.F. Hussain earned a living in the initial part of his career by painting billboards for movies. Bright colours and gaudy highlights made the posters extremely appealing.

This method of hand painting of billboards for advertising flourished mainly in the film industries of Chennai and Mumbai. In Chennai especially, for over half a century, they dominated the city’s skyline, dwarfing the buildings and the traffic below.

Although the exact inception of the use of hand painted bill-boards/posters for film advertising in India is uncertain, they can be traced way back to the 1920s. Rapid growth of Indian cinema after independence fuelled demand for outdoor film advertising. Putting their heart and soul into the paintings, master artists created lifelike impressions of some of the biggest icons and films which left an indelible impression on minds of the onlookers. Who can forget the hand-painted posters of Sholay and Mother India? Their colours captured the shades of characters and reflected the intensity of the drama behind the scenes they represented.

Sadly by the end of the last century, as television gained foothold over the outdoor advertising, the emphasis on hand painted movie billboards decreased rapidly. If that was not enough the digital printing revolution was the final nail in the coffin, closing the curtains on this traditional art.

Hand-painted billboards were quickly replaced by glossy, digitally-produced ones. These could be printed in a jiffy as opposed to the painstaking art of painting them by hand. They look slick and are cheaper and easier to make. With the coming generation of artists not seeing value in picking up the trade (due to the absence of demand), this art form is now at risk of being thrown into oblivion forever.

Though the closure of the hand painted film billboard business has impacted the livelihood of artists and made the art inaccessible to the public, but it is now slowly and steadily getting recognition. The lack of hand-painted posters of films in the market has created a collector’s value on the last remaining hand painted film posters. Sought after by collectors and admirers alike, their limited supply has led to a seller’s market with vintage posters of popular movies commanding huge prices. Also some of websites have started cashing on the small but growing craze of hand painted film posters. Indian Hippy(see here)is one such website where a collective of the last few remaining Bollywood film poster & billboard artists in India offer their services for a small charge.

All in all, the charm of the retro feel of hand-painted posters/advertisements completely overshadows the photo-shopped digital ones existing today. Quite simply, the feel and colours of hand painted ones are impossible to replicate even with the modern machines. Hopefully the art of hand- painting bill-boards will stay forever.