Mario Miranda

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The Times of India, February 12, 2012

He was one of India’s most distinctive cartoonists. He was arguably an even better serious artist in the detail and spirit with which he captured the places he lived in and visited. He along with Frank Simoes, gave Goa to the world. He was to the magazines of The Times of India what Laxman was to the daily paper.

But most of all I’d like to say that Mario was my friend. Several others will say it, and it would be an insult to the open-spirited man that he was to try and claim a superior relationship. It began on the fourth floor of the Times of India building. His was a small cubicle at the far end. Not quite the corner office, because it was adjacent to the loo, but because it was enclosed, he was spared the desperate queries of a stream of visitors.

The twice-born R Gopalkrishna (RGK) was subjected to that ignominy all the time, because, as assistant editor, his desk faced the line-up of us sub-editors, and also faced the passage. But whereas RGK tried all manner of ploys to ward off this offensive question, including putting a sign on his table saying ‘This Man is A Deaf Mute’, I have no doubt at all, that dear, open-hearted Mario would have had no issue at all even if his room had been barged into a dozen times a day.

Gentle soul with a touch of irreverence

We were doing it all the time. No one would dare enter the domain of the haughty genius Laxman, but we were spoilt incorrigibly by Khushwant Singh. To the shocked disbelief of hoarier visitors to the Times building, we trainees could walk in any time. Not just walk in, but ask him to make changes to his copy. He didn’t treat it as if it had been written by God himself and handed to Moses, aka his secretary Swamy.

One floor down, sub-editors couldn’t raise their eyes in the presence of those traditional deities such as Girilal Jain. So Mario was of a piece with that spirit.

There he would be drawing in the zillion details of another cartoon with apparent effortlessness, and I would push open that corrugated glass door, and say ‘Mario, please, an ad has fallen through/copy has fallen short, Mario, please, please, make this single/column cartoon of yours into three columns.’ And he would do it with a good-natured grumble. And it would be three times as riveting. Not just that. Sometimes he’d be on the phone, but with the impetuousness and impatience of youth, or just the bad manners of exploiting this wonderfully obliging man, I’d push ‘my’ drawing under his nose and gesticulate to him to double the size–NOW! Rolling his eyes in mock despair, he’d cradle the phone between his ear and shoulder, and proceed to draw in a few more details, including his standby dog with its bandaged tail. Even before he finished his conversation, I had triumphantly borne the extended work of art and humour back to my desk.

Mario and Khushwant Singh were the two people who made the fourth floor into a different planet from the third. Indeed, a different one from the rest of journalism at that time in the 1970s. I had joined as trainee at just about the time that Khushwant Singh had shuffled in as Editor in his towelling t-shirt, his sloppy trousers, his untidy beard and the massive reputation which sat so slightly on those shoulders.

Mario had been there much earlier, but he must have suffocated in the former stuffiness. Not that you could tell from his drawings. Miss Nimbu Pani, the voluptuous film star had already been created for Filmfare. He also illustrated the satirical pieces by C R Mandy which managed to creep into the Weekly, in between the stilted studio portraits of ‘Wedding bells’ and yet another sycophantic piece with yet another photograph of the editor AS Raman bowing to yet another godman.

But irreverence became the ruling deity in the reign of Khushwant Singh, and so Mario blossomed. In another act of heresy, even worse than allowing sub-editors to sit in his room, Khushwantji had encouraged us trainees to write cover stories. This was in a time when in the rest of the building (and beyond) you had to be covered in ivy before you were even accorded a byline. Since I began writing socioethnic profiles on the likes of the Brown Sahebs and the New Rich (all fully researched since Khushwant Singh’s laissez faire didn’t extend to the quality of what you turned in), my intrusions into Mario’s cubicle increased. And, I say this with deep gratitude and genuine humility, we did become something of a team. He didn’t illustrate what I wrote, he enriched it with his cartoons. He hit upon the idea of incorporating the heading of the piece into the detailed sketch stretching across the page. I slyly persuade him to include my byline into that fabulous artwork. And from this sprang his running gag that ‘Bachi wants her byline bigger than the heading’. Many many years later, when he had retired to his awesome mansion in Goa, and illness had savaged much of his memory, he still remembered this and ribbed me about it, with the same twinkle in his eye. Mario was happiest with his rum and his two closest friends, Behram ‘Busybee’ Contractor, whose column was the perfect canvas for Mario’s quietly wicked humour, and Vinod Mehta. Mario de Miranda (with several second, third and fourth names in between) was the born grandee with the genuine down-to-earth touch. So different from so many of those of his time and now who are the exact reverse.

Mario Miranda: The man who brought Bombay to India

[ From the archives of the Times of India]

By Ajit Ninan

We grew up in a time when all things worthy of awe or admiration came in pairs – Tata-Birla, Ambassador-Fiat, Coke-Pepsi, and so on. In the world of cartooning, Laxman-Mario was such a pair. All my lines I have learnt from studying the two titans of those times. It is the ideal example of two great cartoonists working together in the same publishing house. Much of the credit for the fact that they could do so must go to Mario, for the wonderful human being he was. He made sure his work never clashed with Laxman’s. Laxman handled the newspaper, Mario the magazines. Laxman was primarily a political cartoonist, Mario excelled in the social cartoon. Though perhaps not as intellectually sharp as Laxman, Mario had, in some sense, greater popularity among the reading public than Laxman. That’s because Mario’s work touched the heart. His characterization of people, particularly the weaknesses of the male of the species, was superb. He brought home to you the foibles of man through gloriously detailed illustrations of life in the office, on the streets and above all, at parties. In a nutshell, just as Bollywood brought India to the world, Mario brought Bombay to India. His mastery of architecture and of fashion trends was one of the keys to this. Mario’s ornate illustrations of the colonial structures of Mumbai wouldn’t have been possible for anyone with a weaker grasp of architecture. Similarly, his party scenes wouldn’t have rung so true were it not for the long hours he spent at parties observing people’s expressions and what they were wearing.

Mario was also one of the few cartoonists who sketched voluptuous women (remember Miss Fonseca) — Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace’s mother) and Chic Young (Blondie) being two others who come to mind. Every newspaper cartoonist has to fight for space and for the reader’s attention with editorial content. In the black and white era, this typically split cartoonists into two schools – those who would try and grab attention by the use of white in contrast to the grey of the textual matter, and those who tried to establish the contrast through the use of black. Abu, for instance, had minimal lines to accentuate the white. American cartoonists typically tended to favour the heavy use of black. Mario was of a rare breed. He was among the few who could use both black and white in roughly equal proportions in an illustration to create what is best described as a harmony of clutter. He could draw a party scene of a hundred people without making the scene look overcrowded. He would do this, for instance, by putting a white-suited man in front of a black-gowned woman who herself would be standing before a white door. Each person and element would thus stand out in sharp detail. His command of the social cartoon made some dub him the BBC – back-of-the-book cartoonist – but while he was an expert of that genre, he was much more. It isn’t generally recognized, for example, that he has done perhaps four times as many caricatures of personalities as Laxman. That’s because he dealt with a much wider array of celebrities from politicians to businessmen to film stars by virtue of working for a magazine like the Illustrated Weekly and a newspaper like The Economic Times.

Mario’s drawings were remarkably tastefully done even when the scene being depicted was inherently crude. For example, you might see just the head of a man squatting behind a bush with a “lota” visible a little to the side. You didn’t need a flash of bare buttocks to convey what the man was doing.

His gurus were cartoonists like the British Ronald Searle or the Americans, Saul Steinberg, who worked mainly for The New Yorker, and Arnold Roth of Time magazine. As a result, his style appealed enormously to Western audiences. That made him a hit among embassies and airlines where his work would be much in demand. Today, one can’t help feeling that had Mario been from a later generation he would have been the perfect graphic novelist.

(Ajit Ninan is one of India’s best-known cartoonists, and is an illustrator of monumental talent. He is consulting editor with The Times of India)

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