Artist Keeps Bollywood-Poster Making Alive

In the glitzy world of cinema, it is the poster that tries to capture the movie's essence and the eyes of the public, whether in Hollywood or Bollywood, the world's largest film industry.

India's Bollywood produces about 800 movies per year and tends to feature classic romantic plots and abundant belly dancing.

Artist Balkrishna, now 73, has seen big changes in the industry over the decades. He's dedicated his life to making movie posters in Mumbai and is one of the last Bollywood poster painters left in the country.

He was only 12 when he left a life of poverty and came to the big city in search of his fortune.

"I used to have a lot of workers with me," said Balkrishna. "I painted day and night because every Thursday the movie would come out and I had to work for that. But now there is not much work left."

Today, modern digital billboards have swept away the old handmade posters. Displayed at every downtown theater of Mumbai, the new posters are slick, but some argue they have lost much of their Indian charm.

The old posters often featured warm-red colors and princesslike actresses gazing into the air. The new posters mimic today's American movie posters.

Despite the changing times, Balkrishna has refused to give up his art. When most of his work dried up, he left his lofty studio for a tiny one in the suburbs of Mumbai to try to keep his tradition alive.

Of his two sons, one is working for the booming IT industry, which is driving the country's economy. His other son helps him by commissioning paintings abroad, a business that allows the old painter and his art to survive.

"There is not much hope for this art in India," said Balkrishna, "but there are people who are more appreciative of this tradition in foreign lands."

The artist now sells paintings to avid Bollywood fans from around the world. Some of them ask him to reproduce the billboards of bygone Bollywood blockbusters like "Mother India" or "Devdas." Other fans come with special requests.

"One of my customers from Switzerland sent me his picture and this poster," said Balkrishna. His customer "said he wanted to be painted as Lord Krishna," a Hindu god.

On the Web site Hindi Poster customers can see samples of Bollywood posters that feature Western customers. They can also order their own unique painting a la carte, or choose a film poster.

Among the paintings is the one Balkrishna's customer Christoph offered to his wife, Petra, for their second wedding anniversary. It displays the couple before a dreamlike mountain landscape with the headline, "To the moon and back."

It is on this type of commissions, which allow Bollywood fans to dream that they too can be Indian movie stars, that Balkrishna has thrived these days. The artist sold the "Lord Krishna" poster for $300.

Now, he only paints one picture per month. He used to produce 20, but he doesn't miss the heyday of his art. He said that today he had more time to brush up on his paintings — and that as a result "the quality is much higher."

While Bollywood posters are still considered disposable in India, they are now cherished abroad.

In the 1970s, once a movie was out of theaters, his posters were trashed. Today, his paintings are collected in some of the world's most prestigious museums, like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

"I feel sad because [my] art is dying in India," said Balkrishna, "but I am also happy that a lot of people abroad have recognized us and given us space to express ourselves."

Balkrishna has been invited to teach art students in England and in Austria, fueling hope that maybe one of them will pick up his tradition and keep it alive.

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