Artful lines from a master

Art needs to be appreciated and loved for itself, says veteran illustrator Jeyaraj. Photo: A.Muralitharan

Art needs to be appreciated and loved for itself, says veteran illustrator Jeyaraj. Photo: A.Muralitharan   | Photo Credit: A_MURALITHARAN


Meet Jeyaraj, the artist who wears his mantle of ‘rockstar illustrator’ quite lightly

Photo-editing software and digital photography may have altered our perception of fine art forever, but there are still artists whose lines and strokes speak louder than the most sophisticated simulation a machine can create.

Readers of a certain age who grew up with Tamil magazines may be able to recall the thrill the latest issue would create at home – the eager thumbing through for a quick taste of the week’s trove of articles. And of course, the artwork – images of the divine, the comic, and as in the case of this particular master – the slightly titillating.

It is easy to see why artist Jeyaraj is often called oviya chakravarthi (emperor of drawing). Everything he draws is rooted in a reality of its own. And there are no second thoughts – each line seems to be pre-ordained.

Early years

Self-effacing and patient with the throng of parents and students who queued up for autographs and the inevitable selfies, where he officiated as chief guest at a youth art show in Tiruchi recently, Mr. Jeyaraj (born in 1937 as Thomas Jeyaraj Fernando), wears the mantle of rockstar illustrator quite lightly.

As a three-year-old growing up in Madurai, Mr. Jeyaraj, whose family is originally from Tuticorin, says he drew the front view of a Ford Model T-4. His father, who was working as the manager of a leading Raj-era department store, was so pleased with his son’s work that he took it to the car showroom.

“I was always been encouraged by my father,” recalls Mr. Jeyaraj. “It is his appreciation that has taken me so far.” When he was still in school, Mr. Jeyaraj learned to how to draw the human anatomy accurately from two pages torn off a text-book. “While my mother scolded me for drawing nude figures, my father realised that I was trying to learn the craft seriously,” says Mr. Jeyaraj.

Off to a start

The story of how Mr. Jeyaraj became a much sought-after artist in the heyday of the vernacular publishing industry may well be plucked out of one of those magazines. Unable to find a job in sales or marketing despite being a graduate of Economics from American University, Madurai, Mr. Jeyaraj had however, had always been an artist-in-waiting, participating in drawing competitions and illustrating the college magazine.

“My father then suggested that I should try my luck with my drawings in Madras, where all the publishers were,” he recalls. “So in 1958, I went with a file full of my work to the Kumudam magazine office. The senior editorial staff asked me to come back the next day because Mr. S.A.P. Annmalai, the editor was not in.”

Calling himself a ‘second-time lucky guy’, Mr. Jeyaraj recounts that his first drawing that day was commissioned for a story by ‘Ra.Ki’ Rangarajan (1927-2012), then a chief sub-editor at Kumudam. Rangarajan, who was associated with Kumudam for over 40 years, is also known for his prolific output (1,500 short stories and over 50 novels) under 10 pen-names.

That first job earned Mr. Jeyaraj Rs. 10. His speed earned him a good name from all his employers.

“For that, I owe my wife Regina,” he says. “We were married in 1962, and she was the one who said that if I was able to produce a drawing in half an hour, then why not I deliver it to the publishers the next day? This was at a time when artists used to take at least three days to complete one drawing.”

As his popularity grew, so did Mr. Jeyaraj’s work rate. At his career peak, his illustrations could be seen in 45 magazines.

Today, that number has come down to 12, largely due to a change in reading habits and publishing trends, says Mr. Jeyaraj. “People don’t want to pick up a magazine in their free time; they’d rather watch a movie or switch on the television,” he says. “But in a way getting less work is good for me. I can concentrate on my art, and do it to my satisfaction.”

While his work may have reduced, his working style stays the same. Mrs. Regina is his ‘copy-taster’ – she reads all the articles and stories first.

“Regina summarises the story for me, and marks out the descriptive passages, which I go through. No matter what the deadline, I have to study the story to get characters’ expressions and clothes right,” says Mr. Jeyaraj. English synopses are used for the other regional language magazine stories.

Changing styles

Having illustrated for writers like Sujatha, Sivasankari, Pushpa Thangadurai, Indhumathi, and DMK President M. Karunanidhi, has he found any change in creative writing today? “The style has changed, but not for its own good,” says Mr. Jeyaraj. “The earlier writers had a depth and descriptive power. Today, it is like ‘cellphone style’. Too full of the young spirit, and not really memorable,” he adds.

Often criticised for his sexy drawings of female characters, Mr. Jeyaraj clarifies that all his work was always driven by the story. “If the story value depended on the sexual content, I’d just do a straight illustration of that idea,” he says, adding with a smile, “But luckily I also had a lot of fans for that sort of work!”

To this day, Mr. Jeyaraj colours in his work by hand, in an era when illustrators often opt for help from computer software.

Body of work

Mr. Jeyaraj’s oeuvre spans far outside the magazine industry, and a little-known fact is that he has also dabbled in costume design (the 1980 films Nenjathai Killathe and Johnny) and publicity posters (the 1964 Sridhar classic rom-com Kadhalikka Neramillai) for the Tamil film industry.

“I also did a pictorial dictionary and atlas project for the Oxford University Press that was translated and distributed widely in the 1970s. It took me three months to do the 300 drawings for the atlas, that is the map, plus all the landmarks of a place, and 10 months for the dictionary. Later, I also did many posters for government awareness campaigns on family planning and AIDS, for rural areas,” he says.

Art is art

Ironically, the man who is credited with drawing over 2 lakh pictures, doesn’t own many of them personally. “Conventionally, my drawings are paid for by the publishers, so they become their property. Sometimes I have had to borrow my own work to use it for my art exhibitions!” he guffaws.

These days he scans and saves his drawings on to his computer hard drive before they are published.

Art is art, he says, whether it is in a magazine or a gallery. “Actually it is more difficult to illustrate for a magazine, you have to work within a narrow frame of story plot and printers’ deadlines,” he points out.

Having taught himself how to draw, Mr. Jeyaraj sees the proliferation of art courses as a positive sign.

“The youngsters today are much more confident about their skills, and it’s good to see their parents encouraging them to develop their talent,” he says.

His final masterstroke? “I would like to tell my readers that even with a powerful medium like cinema, please don’t part with your love for art. I love art, and I’d like my readers to love it too.”

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Printable version | Nov 15, 2018 5:54:13 AM |

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