- 2010 - now
When working in a museum, we do not often get the chance to meet the people who created the pieces in the collection or see these objects being made. Almost three years ago, however, I was lucky that I was asked to act as the ROM’s host for Suresh and Sushant Sandal, two Bollywood billboard painters from Mumbai, India. In July 2011, the father and son pair flew to Toronto to take up a two-week residency at the museum to touch up their work: a beautiful, massive, 50ft by 15ft billboard painting that depicted the history of Bollywood cinema. Dr. Deepali Dewan, the ROM’s South Asia Visual Culture curator, had commissioned the work as part of the 2011 exhibition Bollywood Cinema Showcards: Indian Film Art from the 1950s to the 1980s.
As the curatorial assistant for the exhibition under Dr. Dewan, I had examined Indian film art for nearly two summers. I took a deep dive into Bollywood culture—learning everything that I could about film in India and more specifically the commercial art produced around the films. The Bollywood exhibition focused on showcards, a unique type of publicity for Indian films that uses a combination of photo collage and paint. Although I spent most of my time investigating showcards, it was not until I met the Sandals that my appreciation and understanding of the objects in the exhibition deepened and came truly alive.
As the artists’ host at the museum for those two weeks, I mostly made sure that they were comfortable and happy in the their time at the ROM, getting them drinks and food, as they worked on the painting in the Bronfman Gallery. This meant that I was also able to get to see their painting technique and style up close. It was fascinating to see the billboard transformed. The Sandals generously allowed me to take photos of the painting process. It struck me how challenging their work was: they paint in a very detailed way, while still having to visualize what the work will look like to viewers standing very far away.
Technology is quickly bringing the era of the film billboard painter to a close. Since the laser colour printer arrived in India in the mid-1980s, painted film art has declined rapidly. Through the ROM, this art form has not only been preserved, but by bringing in the Sandals it has been added to—and, most importantly, given a human face.