It’s a story that epitomizes the glamorous ruin that Bollywood led to a couple of generations ago. The artist Gopal Kamble, who came to Mumbai in the 1930s from Kolhapur to work as a banner artist, had impressed K. Asif. The film-maker handed over to Kamble the bulk of the publicity work for Mughal-e-Azam, an epic that took nine years to make.

Kitsch effect: (clockwise from top) The booklet for Ram Balram (1980) by Diwakar; a poster for Free Love (1974) by Ramkumar Sharma; and a Kavi Kalidas (1959) poster by Vaman Mistry. Image Credit: ‘The Art of Bollywood’

The Art of Bollywood, which mentions this episode from an artist’s life, is not a book focused on films. It’s about artists who worked on film posters, banners and other publicity material from the time cinema began in India till the 1990s, when digital artwork brought an end to hand-painted imagery.

As Rajesh Devraj, who authored the book with Edo Bouman, says, “My book is about the art—not just poster art but also booklet art, billboard and street hoardings." Devraj, who has worked in advertising and television and was one of the creators of the fast-talking Quick Gun Murugan character for Channel V, has for long been interested in the art of Bollywood posters. The project began in 2005; it involved sourcing material mainly from the National Film Archive of India (which has a collection of over 7,000 posters), and interviewing the few surviving artists as well as the relatives of others. The result is a 192-page coffee-table book filled with images that reveal the changing publicity presentation of Indian, predominantly Hindi, cinema. The book will be available in Indian book stores later this month.

“I have tried to do an overview. Few people have written about the art; otherwise it becomes about the film, then it ends up being about the classics and the great stars," says Devraj about the book, which covers over 70 years of artwork. “What you normally get is a mishmash of original images and re-release posters done many years later, with no distinction made between the two. When you put such varied images together, it’s difficult to get an overview of the evolution of poster art."

The book traverses the early years of cinema—its “Golden Age", which saw genteel artwork that highlighted the glamour of the stars of the era. It has a section devoted to B-grade film publicity with larger-than-life imagery, fire-spitting monsters, heroes such as Dara Singh often clad only in underpants, complete with the one-line invitation in English such as “Mighty Gorilla! Whose sight makes even Cannibals, shiver and shudder!"

It’s also Devraj’s favourite section—films such as Professor X, Rocket Girl, Tin-Tin-Tin and Spy in Rome, among others, shown in pictures that were “outrageous, hugely entertaining and impossible in the way they gleefully mash up cultures". Hand-painted posters disappeared in the 1980s with the introduction of photographic displays, and banner painters lost out in the 1990s owing to printed vinyl displays. The art barely survives today, with sparse practitioners in Mumbai and in some smaller towns where these posters are still pasted on lamp posts. Initiatives to archive and preserve film posters have been few, one of them being undertaken by Osian’s in the early 2000s.

Devraj feels there is a great deal of history—cinema and popular culture—still to be written. He says the death of this decentralized “democratic image making" also means film posters are no longer subject to the interpretation of the artist, who would use his eccentricity and sensibility—so posters of the same film would look different depending on where they were made.