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Creative commerce

From ad films to TV serials and audio cassettes, Lekha Ratnakumar is a man of many skills


WHEN HE opened shop at Parson's Complex in a 120 sq.ft. space in 1985, all Lekha Ratnakumar had were a lone typewriter, a trunk of black clothes and an eventful past. Born in Virudhunagar, a rare town where a trader often doubles as an artist. A natural actor, mimic, painter and speaker, Lekha took to buying and selling stock for his father's cashew business.

At 16, he was into the family business and in-between deals managed to get a degree and also awards in acting, scripting, public speaking, painting and mimicry. Yet, the one year he studied at Sivakasi made for a turning point. With interest he watched Sivakasi artists transform basic colours into multi-hued pictures on product labels. He decided to be a print technologist and underwent training in Cholavaram and Bangalore. A chance meeting with Mr. Muthu of Idhayam Oil fetched him an invite to visit his press. Lekha's new label for the oil started a lasting association between the trader and the designer. At a time when ad stickers had a lot to read and little to attract, Lekha shot a photograph of a family and put it on the label to popularise the oil. His artistry and imagination got him a number of contracts. But later over a difference of opinion, Lekha left home.

He shifted base to Coimbatore, met BKR of Joss stick and won a contract for 10,000 incense stick labels. Without an address to his name, he took an advance, did the artwork, went to Sivakasi for paper, persuaded a press to print and delivered the labels. Combining his confidence with creativity, he rented a small house and took to wearing (easy to maintain) black. Another chance meeting — with Syed Mir — brought him into film advertising and the spot he made for Sujatha wet grinders pushed him up the value chain.

Meanwhile, Muthu expanded his business, and Lekha's sojourn in Chennai began. Each of his ads for Idhayam, whether it was in Ananda Vikatan or on bus-stop shelters, whether it had Nallennai Chitra, Jyothika or recently Sneha, has been a success.

Ad shooting lured him into the realm of TV serial making. Remember "Oovium", "Nee Enge En Anbe," "Anjade Anju" and "Iruttil Oru Vanambadi"? On a whim he visited the Photokina exhibition in Germany in 1990 and 1992. He discovered Sonotone, a company that sells background scores and found that it sold Indian music made in Singapore and offered to make original Indian music cassettes. His first cassette was approved and brought music to his business. Sonotone and Lekha began to exchange music CDs. With Sonotone's blessings Lekha put together the only Indian collection of recorded music from all over the world. Today, for authentic strains of Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish or perhaps Samoan rhythms, you need not go further than to the Lekha Sonotone Recorded Music Library.

And his own canned music now fetches synchronisation, performance and royalty dollars. Who buys his music? Documentary makers (BBC, say, for a film on snake charmers) and film makers. MRF used his music for its promos and the next time you hear a "soulful" back-up for a TV heroine's tears, think Lekha. Japan TV is a regular customer and so are channels in the U.K. He'll be doing total media planning for commercials aired on London's Deepam TV. "We are off to a 20-acre space in Pondy soon," he informs. His unquestionable talent for combining art with trade seems to be his success wand.

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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