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Ranga: Deft lines, master strokes

A few quick lines were enough for Ranga to create an instantly recognisable image of somebody. But just a few words do not suffice to do justice to the unique man who endeared himself to millions through his caricatures and cartoons and set up standards of excellence in journalism for generations to come. ANJANA RAJAN pays a tribute... .

SIMPLE LINES form instant images on a stark background. They seem to emerge out of nowhere but claim unerring, immediate recognition. Cartoonist Ranga's minimalist, deft lines speak volumes. But what of the man who wielded the sketch pen? Listening to his friends reminisce about the veteran cartoonist who made Delhi his home and headquarters for the greater part of his life and returned to Bangalore this past week to breathe his last is like witnessing a painting emerge from the shadows - a painting with far more contours and complicated layering than meet the eye in the sketches that made him famous.

N.K. Ranganath, hailing from a village in Karnataka was a product of Benares Hindu and Allahabad Universities and - though caricaturing had already begun in college - started his career as a reporter with All India Radio's Newsreel.

"Ranga was a one-man institution," remark his friends. He did not have the luxury of an office infrastructure. From selecting the works to inviting the chief guest, every task was handled by Ranga himself, but he had wonderful support in his wife Shyamala. Every associate recalls with the greatest respect and awe her quiet yet irreplaceable role by his side till she died two years ago. S.S. Bhagat, of All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society with whom Ranga had been planning an exhibition dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi was shocked to hear of his demise but will hold the show as a memorial tribute in October.

1924 -- 2002

K.K. Sud, under whom Ranga worked in Newsreel, recalls his sharpness and points out that he was AIR's man with the mike, and as there were no TV channels then, parted the crowds with aplomb.

Lal Bahadur Shastri's fateful visit to Tashkent was documented by Ranga in unusual circumstances. As the Prime Minister made his statement after signing the agreement with Ayub Khan, K.K. Sud was distressed at not being able to record it as Ranga was out of the room. Making his way back into the gathering, Ranga asked "What language did he speak in?" Being told that it was English, he salvaged the situation by requesting, "Sir, will you please say something in Hindi?" These turned out to be his last recorded words, which were broadcast repeatedly to the entire nation.

Security personnel recognised him and VIPs tended to make sure he was present before starting an event. His pen and mike were never far from each other, and he would sketch with characteristic speed and present it to the dignitary. Noted cartoonist Sudhir Dar - who also worked with Newsreel - comments on his lightning speed. By always making two copies, he ensured that he had a huge collection of autographed caricatures. Political figures from India's first President to statesmen the world over accounted for over 2000 cartoons. Later he was able to leave AIR and concentrate on cartooning, and he was meticulous about studying the visiting dignitaries' schedules to work out where to steal five minutes.

During the visit of the Shah of Iran, a general in his entourage was particularly enraged with Ranga's persistent efforts to get near the Shah, warning him against any "funny business". At last there was a press conference, and as the Shah sat on the dais, with three rows of security before him, Ranga placed himself in the fourth. Completing his characteristic two sketches, he waved out to the Shah, who called him up to the stage, accepted and signed the cartoon. The general's dire warning then turned to "You had better get one for me too!"

He was probably the only cartoonist who sketched such a large number of sportspersons, feels K.R. Wadhwaney, former Sports Editor of The Indian Express. Gregarious and popular, he was a regular fixture at the Press Club of India of which he served as Vice President, and - though he had no offspring of his own - endeared himself to children by organising art competitions and events for them in Delhi's Press Enclave where he lived. Illustrating a brochure for a college sports meet when the students had run out of money and could not have hoped for a professional finish was a typical gesture.

From the Allahabad University days when he was an active cultural figure in the famed Holland Hall hostel, through the period of struggle when journalism was neither a comfortable nor profitable profession, when he would sketch on the quiet for magazines like the Bharatiya Jan Sangh's "Motherland", to going underground in the Emergency and finally emerging from the difficult aftermath of that association, to what his friends feel were his best years from 1978 to the late `90s, the picture painted of Ranga is of a "one-man dynamo", a professional who encouraged young artists and so dashing that few could resist his determination, as well as a wonderful host - whose wonderful wife made that possible, and whose death he never really recovered from.

Close friend and neighbour Samir Pal, whom Ranga called from Bangalore the night before he died with the disturbingly urgent request to switch off the electricity mains of his flat, wistfully sums up, "Some people leave their mark on society. Ranga was one such. He will be remembered... ."

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