Humble genius

Print edition : January 13, 2012

Mario Miranda. It has been said that Goa gave Mario to the world, and Mario gave Goa to the world. -

Sharp wit and the ability to sketch fellow humans with humour, compassion and verve made Mario Miranda (1926-2011) exceptional.

ANYONE who lived in 1970s India and had access to English magazines would have found it hard to miss the work of Mario Miranda. As illustrator for the iconic The Illustrated Weekly of India, his work occupied quite a few of its pages, signed simply Mario. And that became the name by which much of India knew him though he was born Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto a Miranda.

R.K. Laxman was the political cartoonist for The Times of India and occupied its front pages, but it was Mario's signature illustrations and his many social cartoons in Times Group publications that became incredibly popular and amazingly pervasive. His cartoons and sketches in The Weekly; the pompous politician Bundaldass and his sidekick Moonswamy; the lissom Ms Rajni Nimbupani and her actor partner Balraj Balram that he created for Filmfare; and the embarrassingly buxom secretary Miss Fonseca that he created for The Economic Times all publications in The Times stable became popular in their own way. And who can ever forget the Sardarji in a light bulb that Mario created for Khushwant Singh in The Illustrated Weekly? As children, we would gaze at it in fascination, the concept of a man sitting and writing inside a bulb utterly magical. In truth, Mario's work touched a whole generation of us, 1970s children, as no other artist did.

It was not until I visited an incredible Panjim exhibition, which previewed the 8,000 cartoons and illustrations his publisher had painstakingly collected, that I realised that Mario had illustrated the Balbharati books of the Pune Board, with their memorable Tim and Mini characters. That meant that children from the Bombay (now Mumbai) and Goa areas got to know his work from the early age of five.

Gerard da Cunha, the architect and publisher who also became Mario's chronicler by putting all his work together, says Mario's best period as an artist were the years of his second stint at The Weekly. A three-year sabbatical in Lisbon and London had exposed Mario to the world's best illustrators and cartoonists, and he had returned with his art, and wit, considerably sharpened. He joined The Times Group in 1953, and sketches from that period show the evolution of his style, the early simple straight lines taking on a new complexity and vitality, a new curvaceousness, fullness and exuberance post his return from London. He had found his signature style, something that had been eluding him, like it does all artists who begin by imitating those they admire.

Manohar Malgonkar's biography of Mario tells us that in Mario's case it was the cartoonist Ronald Searle he admired the most, and it was on Searle's advice that Mario began to search for his own style, something he slowly came upon in his years living and working in the arty environs of Hampstead, sharing time and space with fellow Goan artist Francis Newton Souza.

Mario's new style was in full flow by the time he came out with one of his important books in 1964, Goa with Love, shortly after the liberation of the State. In it, Mario lovingly and humorously sketched all the wonderful old customs and practices that had endured over centuries: the village church feast procession, with its lumbering double lines of altar boys and candlestick bearers, overdressed women, and suited men, wilting in the sweltering Goa heat, led by a frumpy old priest; and an elaborate Goa funeral and the church choirmaster trying to coax music from his bunch of young Sunday school pupils.

Writers were to later say that Goa gave Mario to the world, and Mario gave Goa to the world. And it was true because each trip he made back to his native land and his 300-year-old ancestral mansion in Loutolim, he chronicled and captured wonderful sketches that transported his viewers to a land of swaying palms, majestic churches and mystical temples, steamer journeys and hippies on the beach.

By 1974, Mario was at his peak. His Sketchbook on Bombay is a masterpiece that captures all of the city's travails, its myriad people, the crowded marketplaces, the BEST buses, its monsoon floods and leaking old houses. His humorous takes on the politics of that time the garibi hatao campaign, the union strikes, the pot-bellied politician in his Ambassador car were brilliant social comments, delivered with style and class. A man of few words, Mario, his contemporaries say, liked to stand back and observe, and like the wise owl, the more he saw, the less he spoke. What he saw was obviously fodder for his work, but the interesting thing is that Mario's seeing was a gentle act, a non-malicious and empathetic seeing that took nothing away from his sharp wit.

ONE OF THE exhibits at the "Impressions of Paris", an exhibition of cartoons by Mario which was organised by the Mysore chapter of the Alliance de Francaise de Bangalore in 2010.-M.A. SRIRAM

Feel for architecture

But while his cartoons are captivating, Mario's illustrations reveal the true artist he was. The illustrations he did for The Weekly were indication enough as were some of the line portraits he did of people. But it was not until he was sent by the United States Information Service (USIS) to the U.S. in 1973 and came back with a sketchbook of incredible artwork, enough to hold an exhibition, that Mario's fame as an artist shot up tremendously. It was not entirely unknown though. In the diaries and sketchbooks Mario had kept as a teenager and young man are some incredibly good ink portraits of Jesus Christ and others. It is actually regrettable though understandable that while the popularity of his cartoons made him known as a cartoonist, his gift as an illustrator remained confined to the art gallery circuit.

Consulates were soon inviting him to visit their countries to sketch; he was able to produce a body of work that revealed his great feel for architecture and atmosphere. Fortunately, copies of all of the works are on permanent exhibition at the Mario Gallery in Goa.

In 1977, Mario left The Times Group, to join his friend Behram Contractor in Mid Day and later proceeded to Afternoon Despatch & Courier, retaining his freedom to continue his travels and take on independent commissions, which came flooding in. He always, however, remained grateful and never failed to mention his early debt to D.F. Karakka, who gave him his first break in his newspaper The Current, where Mario worked as staff cartoonist in 1952, and C.R. Mandy, who gave him his break in The Illustrated Weekly of India.

As a freelancer years later, Mario was never short of work and did book covers, restaurant panels and calendars, working continuously until his ailments prevented him from doing so.

Five years ago, at 81, Mario went to Spain and returned with works that are amazingly good though they may not be his best. His best, he had said, was the book he did on his German trip, Germany in Wintertime, a book he dearly wanted to see republished. From 2008, several of his books have come into the market. Each of them gave him a new high, and da Cunha says Mario was particularly looking forward to an exhibition that was to open in the Reis Magos Fort in north Goa that he helped restore.

Returning to live in Goa in 1996, Mario kept busy with his commissions but also began a new phase of engagement with Goa's heritage monuments as part of the conservation body the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). If it wasn't for Mario's determination, the Museum of Christian Art would never have come into existence, says Victor Gomes, the museum's former curator. Mario would have liked to have taken up several other projects but inevitably ran into bureaucratic hassles, something he took with grace. In 2003, Mario was awarded the Padma Bhushan; just a few years earlier, he had been conferred the Padma Shri.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then one doubts there is a cartoonist more copied in India than Mario. There are dozens of artists churning out characters that look similar to those sketched by Mario. Did he mind this, I had asked him earlier this year in an interview only to get an answer that was quintessentially Mario. Not at all, he had informed me, though it annoyed him a bit if the humour was poor. Some of them even improve on my drawing. These young people nowadays are very good, he had added. A razor-sharp wit and an ability to sketch his fellow humans with a combination of humour, compassion and verve made Mario stand out among his peers. On the cover of a book published in his honour in 2008 is a cartoon that captures Mario's genius in the cartoon genre. Even in the crowded ballroom scene he had sketched, heaving with dozens of couples, each man and woman is imbued with individual personality quirks that make every character in the crowded scene stand out and become noteworthy.

The point is that Mario seems to have truly believed that everybody was noteworthy. He loved people and liked being among people, he had said, explaining why he and his wife, Habiba, made incredibly long journeys from their colonial-era mansion to any event or gathering despite their failing health in recent years. The musician Remo Fernandes said he last met the Mirandas dining at a speciality Goan restaurant just a couple of days before Mario passed away on December 11.

To his friends, Mario was loyal and very good company. Goans like to stick together in a strange place, and in Mumbai, Mario was always willing to help Goan newcomers to the city. The musician Emiliano da Cruz remembers the many evenings he spent at Mario's apartment in south Mumbai. Mario was constantly trying to help me with contacts he knew since he and Habiba were quite in with the embassy and party crowd in Bombay.

Gerard da Cunha, who worked with him for the past 10 years, described Mario as a humble genius, the kind who was equally kind to the peon and the driver. He would tip people generously and would generally agree to what people said, with the result that people would walk into his house and orally seek permissions to reproduce this and that drawing, and he would willingly agree with no consideration whatsoever. His family learnt to be a little more protective after that. It was this same openness that caused the loss of much of his original works but for a few treasured by those who managed to get hold of them.

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