Rainbows on my mind

Rainbows on my mind

Pramod Guruji told me this story while I was interviewing him for my book, The Art of Bollywood. The painter G. Kamble, it seems, was once working on a banner for V. Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath at Rajkamal Studios. Perched high up on rickety scaffolding, he sat with a cloth across his crossed legs, painting a rainbow. Shantaram came by to check on his progress and was startled to see the rainbow; there was no such image in his film.

“Kamble, kambal jhaad!" he shouted irately to the painter, telling him to shake down the blanket so that he could check the painter’s reference images. Kamble complied, but, of course, there was no rainbow concealed in the blanket’s folds.

“Where did you get that rainbow?" was Shantaram’s next question, to which the painter replied, “I have seen them in my home-town, Kolhapur. They come up in the sky after it rains."

I didn’t know what to make of this story when I first heard it. Guruji was a second-generation painter and art director who had grown up looking at the work of the great banner painters of the 1950s. He had lost his memory some years ago, I was told, but mysteriously, he had recovered from his amnesia. So now the stories of his youth tumbled out in a mad rush, one barely started before the other swerved giddily to another time, another place. If I protested that I wanted dates and facts, the stuff researchers thrive on, he would grin under his white beard and say, “Story mein hi toh story hai (the story lies in stories)."

All he could offer was this tantalizingly incomplete and unreliable oral history that hinted at the complex genealogies of Bollywood painters, and recorded vivid details of brush strokes placed on canvas decades ago. The rest was really up to me.

That story about Kamble? Perhaps Guruji meant to tell me in his characteristically sly manner that sometimes it’s futile to look for patterns, trace influences and trends, construct tidy histories. Some people have rainbows on their minds and it’s best to leave it at that.

I remembered Guruji’s unspoken advice often while writing my book, even though I may have done what he disparaged, in attempting a design history that maps Hindi cinema’s tradition of hand-painted images. In over 80 years of prolific creation, Bollywood has produced a staggering number of these images, on a scale that has transformed the urban environment in India, turning entire cities into art galleries. It has evolved a visual language which accommodates a variety of styles and regional variations while influencing the popular culture of the subcontinent. As I discovered in my research, much of this diversity has been lost in the digital age, and much can never be recovered.

In my book I have tried to paint the big picture, going beyond posters to cover other aspects of Bollywood art as well, from magazine advertisements to billboards and cinema displays. Most of all, I have heeded Guruji’s words about the story that lies within stories, and traced the careers of the rainbow men who created this tradition, acknowledging the individual contributions of those who have long been dismissed as anonymous manufacturers of kitsch.

Rajesh Devraj is a Mumbai-based writer.

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