It was business as usual for Murugan. His day started at 5.00 a.m. The world was still dark as he stepped out to the water-pump at the end of the narrow street with his bucket, soap, toothbrush and paste. He lived in a slum, off one of Chennai’s bustling highways. Morning ablutions done, he walked back to his small thatched hut, ran a comb through his unruly locks and beard, and peered at himself in the mirror through the dull 40 watts lamp that provided some semblance of light.
Armed with his gunny bag that was his life, he walked the two kilometres to his place of work. Barely 50 metres from his workplace, he could already hear the strains of devotional songs playing on the speaker from Krishnan Unni’s tea shop. He hastened his pace in anticipation of his day’s first cup of tea before he got down to work.
He met Kannamma, the flower-seller, who looked fresh and crisp in her checked cotton sari, big red kumkum adorning her forehead and her hair done up in a big bun surrounded by jasmine flowers; more bundles of which she would sell till 12 noon.
He put down his gunny bag and reached Krishnan’s shop. Krishnan, the chatterbox, updated him on the country’s politics, the latest film gossip and his personal financial problems. Murugan merely grunted in acknowledgement. That was the easiest part with Krishnan; one never had to talk or contribute to his monologue.
He enjoyed his tea – laced with ginger and cardamom – and headed back to the small clearing under the Banyan tree, where he would get busy for the next four hours. At nine he would finish his work and walk back to Krishnan’s shop for his breakfast of idlis, vadas or pongal, depending on the dictates of those partners-in-crime – his mind & his tongue.
He took out a broom from his gunny back and swept the area clean. He then sprinkled water on the area. The mud hungrily guzzled the water and in a little more than fifteen minutes, the area was dry. He now proceeded to take out his various packets of coloured rangoli powder, carefully prepared by him on the weekends. There were lovely reds, yellows, greens, blues and pinks, browns, blacks and whites, orange, peach, mauve, lilac – he had them all.
He first drew a rectangular border outlining the empty area on the ground. His theme for the day was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. His brow furrowed in concentration and with the grace of a wonderful artist, Murugan began his day’s composition. Outlining the face, filling it with rangoli powder, capturing the exact lines on Gandhiji’s face – he did all this from memory. After all, this had been his life for the last 13 years, and before that he had been his Dad’s assistant for over 10 years. This was his art, his life and his livelihood; he knew little else.
The composition occupied a space of 7 feet x 6 feet. And as he painstakingly brought his rangoli to life, early morning passers-by paused in their morning activities to admire his creativity and patience. But Murugan was totally oblivious to such goings-on in the background, his mind sharply focussed on the task at hand.
By nine in the morning, Gandhiji had been brought to life and looked calm & serene. Murugan grunted to himself his approval and satisfaction on the composition. He was not easily pleased, and on those days, when his compositions did not meet his satisfaction, his eyes constantly flitted back to the mistakes that seemed to him glaringly obvious, but not so to the onlookers. Of course, he was his own harshest critic. His father had told him that once a composition was done, there was no point in trying to correct it, as it would wreck the rest of the rangoli.
But today, Murugan was a happy man. His Gandhiji looked well, and he, Murugan, was ready to receive the money that people would offer in a collection box next to the composition. The area was a busy one and there were people milling about through the day. His collections, though modest, were enough to keep a simple man happy and content. Most of his money went towards purchasing new materials for his rangolis, and for this, on the second Sunday of every month, he would visit Parry’s Corner to stock up. When his parents were alive, there had been some talk of marriage, but misfortune had come in waves and he had lost his parents. His sister was married and living in Coimbatore and visited him once in 5 years. He was a loner and happy the way he was.
After 9 am, his routine was fixed. He had his breakfast at Krishnan’s Tea Shop and spent time reading the local Tamil newspaper. After that he went back to the banyan tree and sat under its shade on the stone platform, built by a thoughtful soul. He kept watch over his rangoli and nodded his head, whenever a customer dropped a coin into his collection box. His customers were of different types – some merely stopped by, taking a moment out from their busy routines, to admire his creativity, hastily dropping a coin and rushing away. Others stopped and stared and bent and peered at his artwork. Such customers gave him the most happiness, as they studied the finer nuances of his art – the superlative blending of rangoli powder – a wrinkle on Gandhiji’s face that started off as a dark chocolate brown, then faded into a muddy brown and then to the finest sand brown. Such was his skill.
There was a lull in the area everyday at around 10.30 a.m., and this brought Kannamma and Krishnan Unni to study his composition for the day. These were the two humans, whose presence in his life he cherished. They did not meet after work, did not know each others’ families except by conversation but were staunchly there for each other. Murugan loved this part of his day as his two friends voiced their opinions, sometimes critical and sometimes effusive in their praise. Kannamma frequently felt moved by some of the compositions of the various Gods and Goddesses. She always told Murugan that he was made for better things and fame, and Murugan always quipped to her that he had been at this for the last 23 years and would do so for the next 100.
Business picked up at around 11.30 a.m., when marketing and sales executives had finished their first round of calls and would stop by at Krishnan’s shop to have their mid-morning cuppas. These young boys spent time looking at Murugan’s composition and were generous with both their praise and their money. After noon there was a lull again, and around 12.30, Murugan had his lunch at Krishnan’s – tamarind rice or lemon rice or curd rice, laid out on a dried pumpkin leaf.
Business was generally slow around lunch time and Murugan used this time to catch a few winks under the cool shade of the Banyan tree. On this day, his stomach was full with his heavy lunch and he sighed contentedly as he settled down with his towel under his head, the sounds of the traffic and birds gently fading away as sleep overcame him. He was far away in a land of dreams, as the Sun shone mercilessly around him.
He felt someone shaking him and heard Kannamma’s voice urging him to get up.
“Murugan endiri, endiri”.
His brain was heavy with sleep and this sudden shaking forced his heart into a gallop. He had never been woken up from his mid-afternoon slumber in the last decade, so something had to be terribly, terribly wrong. He rubbed his eyes and tried to stand-up; shaking on his feet as he assimilated his wits and the scene around him.
A middle-aged man stood before him, wearing sun-glasses and a cap. He had the trappings of a prosperous man. He was looking at Murugan with a small smile on his face. Murugan stared at the man. He couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Was he a cop? Was his area going to be taken up by a Government building? His heart was now sprinting. Kannamma’s voice cut like a knife through his thoughts.
“Murugan, Sir wants to talk to you.”
Murugan turned towards the man.
The man said, “Vanakkam, Murugan. I am Venkatachalam and I produce and direct Tamil movies.”
Murugan pinched himself, what was wrong with him, was he still dreaming. The hard pinch hurt him and he winced. What did one say to such a man?
“I have been watching you for a few months now,” continued Mr.Venkatachalam, “I would like you to make a rangoli portrait for one of my upcoming movies.”
Murugan opened and closed his mouth, words did not come out. He had never seen this man before, how had he seen his work? Maybe when he dozed in the afternoons? Questions flitted through his mind in rapid succession.
“Hmmmm,” said Murugan.
“The rangoli is a huge one about 25 feet x 30 feet. The rangoli will be a portrait of the hero, made lovingly by the heroine of the movie. We will be shooting the making of the rangoli even as you compose it; only that at different parts in the rangoli, the heroine will be shown with the colour powder in her hands and filling up the rangoli. Do you understand?” asked the director.
At last Murugan found his voice. “Yes saar, I do.”
“My assistant Kumar will meet you tomorrow with all the details and show you the picture that needs to be composed. We will pay you Rs.15,000 for this project,” said the director.
Murugan gaped with an open mouth. Rs.15,000! What would he do with that kind of money? The possibilities and questions swirled around his head.
The director left in his shining white car and a dazed Murugan turned back to meet a grinning Krishnan and a happy & tearful Kannamma.
“I told you, I told you, didn’t I?” said Kannamma.
His life seemed to have become glamorous all of a sudden, as glitter from tinsel town seemed to have been sprinkled on him. Krishnan played songs on his speaker to convey his happiness; Kannamma gave discounts to her customers. Murugan still scratched his head wondering what had hit him. He needed to think through this. Self-doubt slowly crept and crawled through his mind. Could he actually pull off such a huge rangoli? His determination asserted itself, of course he could! Wasn’t he the master of the subtlest of nuances to bring a portrait to life? He straightened his shoulders and mentally readied himself, though time and again he felt a strange ball that moved through his stomach – nervousness or excitement? He couldn’t tell.
As he cleared up his rangoli for the day and proceeded homeward, his thoughts of the morrow dragged his steps as he ambled along. He barely slept that night; he woke up at 4 am and paced his hut from end-to-end. He mentally tried to plan what he would have to do, how he would go about the composition. He walked to his workplace very early and for the first time in 10 years beat Krishnan to it. He was confused about the day’s composition. Keep it something simple? What if the Director’s man came first thing in the morning? He hated leaving his work undone. Finally after much thought he decided to do a small canvas that would be easy to finish. He was done by 8 a.m., and then the wait began.
Outwardly he looked calm and his usual self, inside a volcano was simmering with tension. Finally, at 11.30 a.m., the Director’s man Kumar arrived. He asked Murugan to accompany him to the studio so that he could show him the place where he would be setting up his composition. Murugan bid bye to his friends. It was Murugan’s first trip in such a luxurious car. Kumar made him feel at ease and treated him with respect. After about 45 minutes, they drove into the studio grounds, a huge imposing building. Murugan could only stare and gape as he was led through the various corridors and lifts. Finally they entered a huge hall, in the centre of which a huge rectangle was marked out.
“There, that’s the area,” said Kumar.
“So, this is it,” thought Murugan.
He felt a calm that had eluded him over the last two days. This was his turf, he knew it; he had been doing it forever. His body acquired his usual professional gait, as his eyes keenly assessed the rectangle, the play of light and the dimensions. He asked for the picture that he had to compose and was shown the picture of one of the leading heroes of the time. He asked for time to study the portrait. Kumar left him alone and asked him to come out and call in the next room once he was done and ready to discuss the materials and time frame.
Murugan, the artist, was now at work. He absorbed every line of the hero and internalized and stamped it on his memory for later access. He studied the play of light, shadow and contrasts in the big hall. He did his calculations in his head about the various colour powders and their quantities. He went over his workings over and over again. Finally after about an hour he was ready to meet Kumar.
Kumar took him out to lunch at the Studio’s canteen and there Murugan outlined his requirements and what he would need, quantities and when. The shooting date was set for a week later. Murugan was dropped off at his usual place, where a very eager Krishnan and Kannamma pounced on him for all the details.
On the day before shooting was to start, Murugan was taken in the Director’s car to Parry’s Corner, where along with Kumar, he shopped for all the raw materials he would need. The Director had made a request asking Murugan to stay in the Studio itself till the job was done, as sometimes the shooting went on till very late at night. Murugan was initially hesitant but came around with some persuasion.
The evening before the shoot, they drove him to his house to pick up his clothes and toiletries. He joined the entire shooting crew for dinner at the Studio canteen. He was too shy to speak but felt himself relaxing and enjoying the camaraderie, the jokes and barbs that people exchanged with each other. He was given a small room with a comfortable bed and basic amenities. It also had a TV set that he could watch when he was free. Kumar showed him how to use it, but he was too nervous to change any settings, and was content to watch the local Tamil channel that was playing.
The most important day in his life dawned and he was ready when Kumar called for him. He proceeded to the studio. He had been told by the Director to complete the upper portion of the face till the eyes, after which the heroine would join them & the shooting would start in earnest.
The camera men were setting up their equipment and there was a lot of noise and talk. But Murugan could see only the rectangle and his raw materials. He glanced at the photo every now and then and saying a small prayer, started his work.
His concentration was absolute, the silence in his mind only accommodating thoughts about the work at hand and filtering out everything else. He worked calmly and furiously; 3 cups of tea went cold on the floor near him. He had started at 7 am and by 11.45 a.m. he had reached the eyes. He stood up and stretched himself; his grunt the only sign that he was happy with his work.
As Murugan stood guard near his precious rangoli, there was a sudden buzz on the floor. The heroine had arrived! Murugan couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful vision in a chiffon saree. The Director introduced Murugan to the lady and then she was seated, with one of her assistants gently fanning her, as the Director explained the shot.
It was soon time for the first shot. Murugan felt a stirring of pride, happiness and joy, as he realized that one of his creations would be preserved forever on celluloid. He missed his father and wished he could have shared the moment with him. Murugan taught the heroine how to hold her hand and disperse the rangoli powder, ever-so-gently on the space given. Soon, the cameras rolled, one focussed on the heroine’s face, one on her graceful hands and the other on her bent head from the top, showing the full rangoli. After the first shot was done, Murugan was back again, working furiously for the next three hours, food, water & tea completely forgotten. The next round of shooting happened after this, rangoli and gently flowing tears on the heroine’s face as she felt her love for the hero overwhelm her. The full rangoli was done by 7.30 p.m. and the final shots were taken a little before 10 p.m. After that it was pack-up.
Murugan walked around his handiwork, enjoying the thrill that comes with a job well done. The heroine stopped by and chatted with him, appreciating his work. One moment of pure bliss, carefully filed away to recall during his afternoon ruminations under the banyan tree, a world that seemed so far away just then. The Director’s assistant brought him an envelope with his earnings. His heart nearly popped out of his body. Outwardly calm, inwardly doing a jig, Murugan stood waiting to leave the place. Kumar called for him, telling him that the car would take him back in 15 minutes.
He asked the cameraman if he could get a copy of the rangoli, a photo perhaps. Kumar promised to drop it off at his place of work. Well that was that. Nothing more was to be done and just as he turned away from his rangoli towards the door, he heard water sloshing behind him. He did not have the courage to turn back and look. He couldn’t say to himself that it was “All in a day’s work”. He quickly ran out of the room, the rangoli still etched in his mind.
The mundane routine of his life resumed, but now it was laced with anticipation – the endless wait for the movie’s release. After what seemed like aeons, Murugan spotted the posters/hoardings of the movie on the streets.
So, on one Sunday, Kannamma, Unni & Murugan decided to go to the theatre to watch the movie. All of them turned up in their Sunday best and took the bus to the theatre complex. They shuffled into their seats, gaping at all that was happening around them. The movie started and Murugan’s heart pounded away furiously.
The love story twisted and turned, meandered through jungles in the form of love songs, stormed through angry outbursts by the heroine’s father and whispered through the dreams and longings of the lead pair. The movie finally got over. There was no scene with the rangoli, it had probably been edited out. Murugan was slumped in his seat, the pain too sharp to take-in, the disappointment too heavy to contemplate. The trio slowly walked back to the bus stand, all plans of their celebratory dinner forgotten.