BOLLYWOOD'S FRAGILE HEROES

Barry Norman started it. A short segment in Film '95 on Bollywood, India's prolific and extravagantly non-naturalistic film industry, and artist Christopher Stevens was packing his sketchbooks for Bombay. Once there, he was less interested in the films than the prodigious hand-painted billboards used to advertise them. Land of the Giants is the result of his eight-week sojourn, an exhibition which contrasts the poor working conditions of the painters with the monstrous slabs of movie glamour they produce.

In a country where many are illiterate, the billboards' lurid action scenes act as a strongly visual preview for the movies, with the livid pinks, blues and greens of the character's flesh often coded signals distinguishing hero or villain. Competition between rival publicity companies has led to 60ft- billboards cluttering the city skylines and a plethora of workshops devoted to their production.

Moving between Madras and Bombay, Stevens noticed how artists lived and worked in dingy, cramped, "Renaissance-style" workshops. "They're like a cross between a studio and a garden shed," he recalls, "very ramshackle, with people from 12 to 70 all taking part. I always wondered why there were more people there at the end of the day than at the beginning, and rather naively thought that it was people coming to collect friends and family from work. Then I arrived early one morning and found them all asleep in rows on the floor."

"It was refreshing because it was so co-operative," says Stevens. "Compared to normal painting it was very non ego-orientated." While the younger workers mixed paint or primed the surfaces, movie-poster "Michelangelos" would add the final flourishes.

The trip gave Stevens the opportunity to create his own works which use trompe l'oeil to reflect on the act of painting itself. The double portraits on show at Hove Museum and Art Gallery offer both a larger-than-life slice of Bollywood portraiture and more naturalistic images of workers hoisting segments of their giant visages onto precarious wooden scaffolding and piecing them together like a giant jigsaw (`Giant Pupil', above).

"I've always been interested in disparities of scale," he explains. "As a child I was fascinated by pictures of the Sphinx in Egypt, and what struck me about these billboards was that they are monuments to modern gods and goddesses."

In Madras, Stevens observed a fitting parable of regal hubris. "The chief minister of the state was an ex-film star called Jayalalitha. She had a reputation like Imelda Marcos, and used images of herself in past roles to publicise her policies." This self-aggrandising iconography advanced her career successfully until, Stevens laughs, "she produced an 80ft- billboard of herself as the Virgin Mary," a self-portait regarded as somewhat overwhelming, even by the bombastic standards of Bollywood.

Hove Museum and Art Gallery, Sussex (01273 290200) today to 31 July

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