Two cartoonists lost in almost two months, does seem too much for a country in ‘deficit humour’ to take. First Kutty (aged 90) at the end of October and now Mario Joao Carlos de Rosario de Britto Miranda or Mario Miranda (aged 85). The rapidly diminishing population of frontline editorial artists in the Indian media seems rapidly pushing the art of the daily visual commentary to the edge of extinction. Simultaneously, it creates a new crisis of representation among the picaresque range of our political and social actors — for, who will now observe the tumult of their grand gesture and deftly and surgically prise out of it their petty intent?
As a post-Independence artist, Mario and his humungous menagerie of human types enacting their compulsive narratives within the theatrics of the daily cartoon frame, almost constructed a pan-Indian urban identity into which we felt ourselves being inclusively inducted in faux detail. It seemed to dovetail seamlessly with the national slogan of ‘unity in diversity’, as Mario used his pen-and-ink lines and hatches to mirror back to us a tantalising range of antagonistic types anchored within a choreographed inter-play of the individual and the collective. No wonder he agreed to be part of that ‘pulp-patriotic’ music-video of the 1980s for Doordarshan called Mile sur mera tumhara.
While his quintessentially bewitching and busty Bollywood actress Rajini Nimbupani, helplessly ogled at by an assortment of men with moustaches and leers, anticipates the contemporary flounciness of a Vidya Balan in Dirty Picture by half-a-century, his political stereotype of the smirking, oily, perpetually hamming politico B.C. Bundaldas [forever at the mercy of his resigned looking, superior-mannered and Machiavellian ‘Madrasi’ secretary M.C. Moonswamy] looks disinclined to recede even after all these decades.
The bulge-eyed ‘Boss’ and his nemesis, the curvaceous ‘secretary’ Miss Fonseca, barely fitting into the ‘pocket cartoon’ format, did lighten up many mornings in the self-consciously heavy front pages of the Economic Times, but have also been panned for their rather gratuitous ‘sexist’ content – a charge that the full-blooded Goan artist used to brush aside with raucous laughter. Mario’s ‘women’ were an exotic hybrid between the Westernized Goan, the tightly and skimpily dressed Konkani fisherwomen and Ghati women of tribal descent and the urban, Bambaiyya wannabe socialites with no compunctions about a demonstrative cleavage. Mario’s sharp eye was quick to translate into his drawings the quixotic contradictions and aspirational imitations of this newly surging population of the premiere metropolis Mumbai was becoming and hinting at the internal struggle for identity that was being played out in the use of their day-to-day cultural symbols.
But more fascinating was how Mario could effortlessly create variety and difference in his populous universe. As an artist responding to the hard contrasts of the Indian metropolis, he could unerringly zero in on the visuals of patent absurdity that one is daily bombarded with. Some of his most prolific creations are children — kids in all shapes a sizes; buck-toothed, mop-haired, shaven-headed, wide-eyed; tenderly rendered in abundant detail — staring at the viewer but always active and engaging.
‘Indian idiosyncracies’ are tucked into every corner of his frame, with special send-ups for hardened stereotypes like politicians, priests, teachers, businessmen, sahebs, bosses, drunks, socialites, army types and so on. Rendered equally lovingly are domestic helps (bai-s), drivers, waiters, dabbawalas, policemen and a similar expansive mosaic of humanity, which also brings with its own mosaic of emotions. This is, perhaps, Mario’s greatest gift — this portrait of a pulsing mosaic that we call India.
Within this, there is no intended malice, no vitriol. The strongest ‘critics’ in Mario’s frames are the ubiquitous figure of a startled Gandhiji wanting to jump out of a framed picture on the wall or a frazzled bird perched in a corner with a stentorian look or a baleful pie-dog, perplexed and unable to fathom the complexity of this dystopia and thinking nothing of raising its hind legs at the drainpipe trousers of the curly haired hero proposing ardently to a dismissive Ms. Nimbupani. Critics have slammed this lack of ‘point of view’ or savagery in Mario’s cartoons, choosing therefore to categorise them merely as ‘illustrations’.
But this would be a grave injustice. Mario is as sharp as any of his luminous contemporaries like O.V. Vijayan, R.K. Laxman, Abu Abraham, Kutty or Rajinder Puri in zeroing in on the frailty of his characters. While others chose to poke it and mock it, Mario chose to laugh along and celebrate it.
Of course, Mario’s work over six decades, like that of many of his contemporaries, divides into three segments — the daily cartoon, the graphic for illustrated journals and the more engaged and deeper sketches for publications, particularly on Goa and other countries he visited. He collaborated in half-a-dozen projects besides a vast array of more self-consciously artistic works. It will always rankle that the art establishment did not accept him as one of their own.
But Mario was on another plane. His greatest pleasure was in recording the oddities and ironies of what he saw around him, particularly of those whom he loved. Once, in an interview, asked why he had a proclivity for drawing such big-bosomed ladies, he answered with a deadpan, “Perhaps because I’m married to a South Indian”.
Sir Ronald Searle, the grand old man of international editorial art, whom Mario acknowledged as his mentor, used to describe how he “desperately wanted to put down what was happening around me every day”. That is something we can say today unfailingly about Mario — he gave us a daily picture of ourselves.