They brought alive the stories of master writers through their drawings. Akila Kannadasan meets five artists across three generations who have been illustrating Tamil magazines and novels for decades

Jeyaraj

Jeyaraj held the manuscript with disbelief. It was fresh off author Ra.Ki. Rangarajan’s pen. “I was asked to read it and illustrate a scene,” recalls Jeyaraj. “I can never forget that moment.” A voracious reader of Ra.Ki’s stories, there he was, illustrating for one!

Jeyaraj came to Chennai looking for a regular job. But his flair for art took him places. His first illustration, a scene in a college principal’s office, appeared in the magazine Kumudam in 1958. Its editor S.A.P. Annamalai spotted the youngster with magic in his hands and encouraged him.

People took notice of him — though Jeyaraj faced criticism for the voluptuous women he portrayed, it was this aspect that made him famous. “Youngsters liked my drawings. They improved readership for magazines,” he says. Jeyaraj’s career was at its peak between the 1970s and 1990s — he worked for about 195 magazines then! As stories arrived by the dozen, his wife Regina read them and suggested suitable scenes for him to illustrate. Jokes, covers for novels, posters for awareness on HIV and family planning, school textbooks… it’s also variety that earned him fans across age groups.

Ramu

Did you know that the second man from right on the Labour statue by the Marina is a well-known artist? S.S. Ramadass, better known as Ramu, modelled for sculptor Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury when he was a student at the Tamil Nadu Government College of Fine Arts. The 72-year-old has done illustrations for several Tamil magazines — his illustrations can still be seen today on the cover of the political weekly Thuglak.

Ramu’s illustrations appeared in magazines even while he was in college. It was S.A.P. Annamalai who encouraged him to learn the various facets of art. Ramu holds the years between 1965 and 1985 dear — that was when his career flourished. He illustrated stories with his wife Bala Saraswathi’s help. She maintained a notebook where she wrote down her husband’s deadlines for various magazines and sometimes delivered his works. Ramu tried various techniques such as collage work and texturing to impeccable results. He has done caricatures, political cartoons, comic strips, portraits…why, he was even summoned to court thrice for his controversial political cartoons in Thuglak! Movie stills are taking over illustrations in Tamil magazines — does the trend disturb him? “No,” says Ramu. “It’s a cycle. The heydays for artists will be back.”

Maruthi

The first story he illustrated for was called Ayyo Paavam. But, today Maruthi is anything but that — he has created a brand for himself through his elegant women with beautiful eyes. Ayyo PaavamMaruthi always wanted to be an artist. He drew all over the walls of his home in Pudukottai as a little boy, like one processed. When he came to Chennai, it’s this fire in him that gave him the strength to fight for opportunities in a city he barely knew. Maruthi was drawing cinema posters when his first illustration got published in Kumudham. He had submitted his painting without his current employer’s knowledge. “I would be in trouble if my name Ranganathan went with the picture,” he says. Maruthi Pharmacy, located on a near-by street came to his rescue — he liked the name, and so Ranganathan became Maruthi.

Maruthi is celebrated for his realistic wash drawings — they decorated the covers of novels by Sujatha, Chandilyan, Jayakanthan and Balakumaran. The 75-year-old continues to paint in his light-filled room, surrounded by paints, brushes and his masterpieces.

Aras

It was a mermaid who kick-started V.S. Thirunavukasasu’s career as an artist. Aras, as he is popularly known, drew her for the daily Malaimurasu. Aras entered the industry as a layout artist. He walked from one magazine office to another with a file of his best works, hoping for an opportunity. He recalls how he once met artist Maruthi when he ran an errand during his stint at Devi. “He was drawing by a window. It was a sight to see him at work — with his long hair afloat, he was bent into his suitcase that he used as a table to draw.” Aras got tips from the master to improve his skill. His first big opportunity was to illustrate Sujatha’s serial Viruppam Illa Thiruppangal in Saavi. For 25 weeks, he poured his heart and soul into the stories and came up with apt illustrations for each week. People started taking note of the new artist on the block. Letters poured in from readers. Soon, Aras became well-known. Aras’s catchy caricatures have appeared in magazines such as Kumudham and Ananda Vikatan — his caricature of Veerappan is well-known, so is his drawing of serial-killer ‘Auto’ Shankar for the wrapper of Junior Vikatan. He is also known for the gory images for Rajesh Kumar’s crime novels. However, its abstract drawings for essays by intellectuals, that he enjoys the most. Aras likes to use the computer to add value to his work. “It has been 10 years since I touched the paintbrush,” says the 51-year-old. He also has plans to make his own animation movies.

Shyam

Shyam is the youngest of the lot. The 34-year-old came to Chennai as a teenager with a mission — he challenged his friends that he will get his drawing of Rajinikanth autographed by the actor himself. The mission is incomplete till date, but Shyam is not complaining. On his second day in Chennai, he found a job as an artist in the magazine Ambulimama. On his third day, writer Bhagyam Ramasamy spotted him at Kumudam’s office. “He asked me to illustrate a scene on paper,” he recalls. That was the beginning of Shyam’s dream career. He first illustrated Rajesh Kumar’s series August Adhirchi for Kumudam. A freelance artist for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada magazines, Shyam’s entry into the field was effortless. “It just happened,” he says. There are times he does over 60 illustrations a day — “If I sit down to draw in the morning, I would look up only in the evening,” he says.

Shyam prefers to use his hand to paint, rather than the computer. “There is a surprise element when we hand-paint. When I mix a colour and place it on the paper with a brush, I know if I will achieve the shade only afterwards.” His illustrations for Vairamuthu’s latest series Moondram Ulaga Por in Ananda Vikatan, won him a lot of praise.

Shyam feels psychological stories lend themselves to illustrations. “Sometimes, we can tell an entire story in a picture,” he says. There are times when Shyam has seen the characters he created come alive — literally! “I once drew a girl called Meenakshi for a story. She had a stern demeanour and rode a two-wheeler. A week later, I saw her spitting image on the Gemini flyover. Only the vehicle’s colour was different,” he laughs.