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Friday, Aug 30, 2002

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Splashing colours at a dizzy height

Rasheeda Bhagat

HE did not get through high school because his father didn't have the money to keep him in school beyond Std IX. But today he earns around Rs 25,000 a month and provides employment to four people, paying each a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 plus a daily stipend of Rs 50.

Meet Chennai-based K. Venugopal, who is considered to be one of the best artists who splash all those colours on the numerous hoardings in this southern metropolis. Son of a maistry, he did not adopt his father's profession after he left school at the age of 15, but opted to be an apprentice to Kaniappan, who was then considered to be a master as far as the city's hoardings went.

"Even as a child, I was very interested in drawing and was fascinated by people who painted hoardings. So I learnt how to draw and paint from him for two years, getting no salary but only food for my labour," says the shy and soft-spoken man.

Extremely hardworking and sincere in his work, as vouched for by Mr A.S. Venkhat Ramani, Managing Director of Century Advertising which has been assigning him many of its hoardings for the last 10 years, it was through sheer devotion to his job that Venugopal has managed to be where he is. At 33, he has the satisfaction of getting two of his siblings married, a responsibility he discharged after his father passed away. This also included taking care of his sister's dowry.

Once that was taken care of, he set about the task of putting up a proper brick and mortar structure to replace the ramshackle house his father had left behind. This cost Rs 4.5 lakh, which came entirely from his earnings. Today, apart from owning his own house, he has also put away some money on a plot of land at Thiruverkadu, on the outskirts of Chennai.

His priorities are centred around his little family, comprising his wife and eight-year-old son, who goes to a well-known English medium school. The long hours he puts in his work - sometimes his day can stretch from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. - are to ensure that his wife and child are comfortable, and his son gets a decent education.

His dream for his son is to get "into a good office job." On why he would not want his son to take on his vocation, Venugopal says thoughtfully, "Even though I have had a good stint, today the Vinyl hoardings (bearing photographs) are getting popular, and sometimes I get anxious about my future. If more hoardings take on this new trend, then I might find it difficult to get enough work."

But that is in the realm of the future. At the moment, he has enough work on hand - for Century Advertising he is always the first choice, being "very dependable and honest" - to keep four full-time helpers. He has done many of their hoardings for clients such as LIC, GRT Grand, Life Style, Vijay TV and Ramco Cement. It was this demand for his talent, which made him go in for a mobile phone not today, when everybody and his brother carries a cell-phone, but three years ago.

"I have a phone in my house, but since I am away painting hoardings most of the day, I found that I missed a couple of assignments as I could not be contacted immediately. So I bought a cell-phone."

An RPG subscriber, he pays a monthly bill of Rs 1,500. In his home, apart from a telephone, he has a colour TV, refrigerator and other such appliances. He has not yet decided to go for a car, being happy with the motorcycle he owns.

So how does it feel to be up there, at a dizzying height? Does he ever get scared or use any safety measures to prevent a fall?

"Oh no, I have never felt scared to be at that height; I have never felt the need to take any precautionary measures to prevent an accident," he says confidently.

Venugopal's employers swear by his work, which is done freehand - whether it is alphabets, numbers or images of mouth-watering dishes for restaurants or trendy clothes for clothing majors. "We just give him the design on a piece of paper and the entire hoarding comes to life through his fingers. His work is very neat too," says Ramani.

The average size of a hoarding is around 60 ft by 30 ft, though some hoardings can be much larger and Venugopal can complete an entire hoarding in a day. At the moment, he is very happy and has a steady income. But if Vinyl hoardings catch on and the magic of bringing a blank hoarding into life at that dizzy height by a human being becomes a vocation of the past, maybe then he has to look for another job.

Oh yes, he does think of that possibility during the moments he relaxes with his friends, over a bottle of beer on the odd evening he can go home early. "There have been times when we've said: Let us give this up and start some kind of a small shop. But then that possibility has not arisen till now."

If and when it does, he has a small saving in the bank put away for the rainy day, as also his investments in land and two LIC policies to fall back on.

At the moment, it's a wonderfully bright, blue and clear sky that he sees from the height of the hoardings he brings to life.

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