In fantasy land, King Vikram and Vetala may still be trying to win against each other, but in real life, they have joined hands to pull off a major victory against change. They continue to remain on the pages of Chandamama , even though the fortunes of the magazine — synonymous with childhood for several generations of Indians — have fluctuated in recent decades, from being closed down for about a year in the late 1990s to changing hands in 2010.
What's, however, more heartening is that the man who created the theme picture for the popular series — showing the sword-wielding King Vikram carrying the corpse on his shoulder through a cremation ground — continues to do illustrations for Chandamama , unmindful of the vicissitudes of his own life or that of the magazine.
Sankar is 87 today: that not only makes him the oldest in the Chandamama team but also the only surviving member of the original team — led by none other than its founder, the legendary B. Nagi Reddi — that steered the multilingual magazine to a combined circulation of nine lakh in the mid-1980s.
Sankar doesn't remember when exactly he created the theme illustration for the King Vikram and Vetala series: “Sometime in the Sixties, I think.” But many other memories are vivid. When you ask him for his story, he begins to narrate it like a folk tale with the eagerness of a child. He is easily the brand ambassador of the innocent era he depicts in his drawings.
Sankar, or K.C. Sivasankaran, was born in 1924 in a village near Erode. His father was a teacher in the local school. In 1934, when a close relative living in Madras died, Sankar along with his mother and siblings came to the city to stay with the bereaved family. “My elder brother was already in Madras, studying in Pachaiyappa's College. My father had told my mother to put us in a corporation school so that we did not remain idle. Corporation schools did not charge any fee. So she took me and my younger brother to the corporation school in Broadway. There, as a test, we were asked to write the sentence, George V is our King . I wrote it immediately. I had beautiful handwriting. I was admitted to the fifth standard and my brother to the third standard. Because of my handwriting, the teachers always made me write the daily proverb on the notice board — this went on till high school.”
It was at the Muthialpet High School, where Nagi Reddi had also studied, that the drawing teacher discovered Sankar's talent as an artist and often made him come on Sundays — together they would correct the sketches made by the other boys. “‘Look! I asked them to draw a cat but it looks like a rat. What if the inspector of schools comes tomorrow? We will get a black mark.' In return he would give me drawing books, pencils and erasers. It was he who advised me, ‘Son, do not go for BA or MA. I know your value. You must join the arts school.'”
Gaining admission to the five-year course at the School of Arts meant completing a three-week assignment to the satisfaction of the teachers. For one of the assignments, Sankar found that the paint-brush was not cooperating with him, but the effect the obstinate brush produced on paper surprised the principal, the legendary D.P. Roy Chowdhury. “‘Where did you learn the pen-and-knife treatment?' he asked. I just kept quiet. It is best to keep quiet at such moments. He straightaway admitted me to the second year,” laughs Sankar.
Immediately after passing out, in 1946, he joined the Tamil magazine Kalaimagal on a monthly salary of Rs. 85. By 1952, he was earning Rs. 150, but that wasn't sufficient to support a large family, so he was also moonlighting for other magazines, making another Rs. 150. That year, Nagi Reddi hired him for Chandamama , on a salary of Rs. 350: on paper it was shown as Rs. 300 only because Chithra, the chief artist, was drawing Rs. 350.
Moral of the story
Chithra and Sankar began as rivals but went on to become best friends until Chithra died of peptic ulcer in 1979. “Nagi Reddi used to say, ‘Chithra and Sankar are the two bullocks of Chandamama . Without either of them, the bullock cart can't reach the village,'” recalls Sankar. His two other contemporaries, Razi and Vapa, are also no more. Today, since the magazine has become larger in format, Sankar is often called upon to expand their illustrations — for example, drawing the waist-down portion of a king or a hermit whose torso was sketched by one of his late colleagues four or five decades ago.
Today Sankar lives with his wife on a quiet street in Virugambakkam. One morning, about a year ago, he fell into a faint in the staff van while on the way to office, and since then has been working out of home. Arthritis may have twisted his fingers, but the lines he makes with the Wality fountain pen remain just as firm. Two of his sons and a daughter live in Chennai; two other sons live abroad — one in Canada and another in Malaysia.
He may have enriched countless childhoods, yet Sankar lives a modest life. But he has heard stories that make him feel rich: his favourite being that of a young shepherd in Orissa, who preserved his hard-earned copy of Chandamama by rolling it up and inserting it into the hollow of a bamboo. “You know, his ambition in life was to be able to draw like Sankar and Chithra,” says Sankar with the excitement of a child.
The moral of the story: the drawing teacher was right when he told the young Sankar, “Son, don't go for BA or MA.”