“S.A.P. Annamalai was surprised by my versatility and asked me to illustrate for Kumudam.”
From timid youth to popular illustrator, artist Thomas Jeyaraj Fernando has come a long way. He has illustrated for hundreds of Tamil short stories, jokes and serials. This artist, hailing from Tuticorin, is unassuming and reticent, but inspired his son and daughter to follow in his footsteps. In this interview with R. Sujatha, he dwells on some of the lesser known events in his life that influenced his work.
When his bachelor’s degree in economics did not fetch him a job in the city, his father encouraged him to use his talent. He had won prizes in school and college for his sketches. “‘When you have your hands why should you worry’, he told me. I was shy to approach editors with my work,” Mr. Jeyaraj says, recalling his initial days in Chennai as a 21-year-old in the late 1950s. “I had small and big illustrations in a file that I showed S.A.P. Annamalai of Kumudam magazine. “He was surprised by my versatility and asked me to illustrate for the magazine.” His first illustration for a short story by Ra.Ki. Rangarajan fetched him Rs. 10. By 1962, he was earning Rs. 180 a month as a freelancer.
Usually illustrators must abide by the script they are given. But, Mr. Jeyaraj has inspired a short story writer to use his sketch depicting a scene from his personal life.
“My wife was in Tuticorin during our early days after marriage. I would take off from Chennai to see her whenever I could. She would wait for me by the gate of her maternal home in pavadai-davani and would rush to greet me. I used this as an illustration for a cover of Kumudam and Ja.Ra. Sundaresan wrote a short story based on it. My wife recognised herself when it was published,” he recalls.
His inspiration is the famous American illustrator Norman Rockwell, “but I cannot claim to have achieved even a bit of what he has,” he says self-effacingly.
When he made an illustration of Lord Balaji for journalist Saavi, he says he refrained from eating meat though that was all his wife, Regina, had cooked that day. The illustration was done in three hours for the inaugural puja of Saavi’s magazine to be held the next day. “I did a good job despite the speed at which I worked.” He is known as a speed artist who can turn up illustrations in 30 minutes. In the 1970s, he says he used to make 40 illustrations a day. Today, despite more advertisement space and photographs of film stars, he continues to illustrate for 12 magazines, including a Telugu and a Kannada magazine.
When he broke his wrist his friend Ramana told him to use his left hand. His feat impressed Saavi enough to write about it.
Saavi’s readers’ festivals brought him fame and took him on a world tour. On the criticism about his portrayal of female characters he says, “I know it is wrong but they used to sell copies back then, just as today we have film stars in revealing clothes.”
He has illustrated for an atlas published by Oxford University Press, school textbooks, and is now sketching explanatory posters for AIDS and family planning for the State’s Health Department, which are used to teach people in rural areas.