It is hard to believe that Mario Miranda is no more. It can’t be. His soul may have flown away but Mario will always remain alive as much through his outstanding work as through his ever gracious presence. There has never been anyone like him in the past and I am sure there won’t be anyone like him in the future, a man who intensely loved the world of art as the people who inhabited it.
In more than one sense he was unique. And the fact that the media has noticed it is most gratifying. I am deeply touched by the tributes paid to him by the print media and cannot but give the highest praise to The Hindu which devoted almost an entire page (12 December) to celebrate his life and work. The lead article by Sadanand Menon described Mario as a “gentle portraitist of a pulsing mosaic”, which said it all. Through his son, Srinivas, RK Laxman expressed his grief at the passing away of one of his “oldest friends” in Mumbai.
It was my pleasure when I was Sunday editor of The Times of India and later as editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India to have Mario as a colleague, though I remember asking him way he was always making fun of Goa and its people. It took me some time to realise that Mario was in reality presenting a mosaic of Goan life in all its colourful facets and as I began to understand Mario better our friendship grew and I felt honoured to be invited by him to be his guest at his ancestral heritage (over three hundred years old) home, in Loutelem, Goa, architecturally reminiscent of the Portuguese presence in the 17th and 18th centuries. Still later it was a pleasure to see him getting the prestigious Distinguished Konkani Award given by the Manipal-based Dr TMA Pai Foundation.
When I wrote a book on India and the US entitled Bridge Over The River Timex, Mario readily agreed to do the cover page, a piece of art brilliant of its capture of two civilisations. He was proud of his Brahmin ancestry and was closely connected with a temple to which the Miranda family had traditionally contributed a maund of oil every year on a specific day. Mario stuck to the family tradition, what is most touching is the fact that the media gave him the notice he so richly deserved.
Deccan Herald (14 December) said that with Mario’s death “the country has lost an eye that looked at it with understanding, compassion and irony for many decades and saw what was most often unseen and lost to most of us”. And no truer words described Mario. Everything was grist to his mocking eye and, said the paper, “Mario’s world was peopled with things and characters everyone recognised and lived with”. There was, said the paper, “no prejudice or malice” in Mario’s world, “only a nudge to extract a spontaneous smile”. Those who knew him well – and that includes Siddharth Bhatia and Sudhir Tailang in their respective tributes to Mario, couldn’t have better tributes, with Tailang, the cartoonist reminding us of that which was so special about Mario: “drawings like Jaisalmer stone carvings, not an inch without activity, intricate, minute and detailed lines, almost like miniature paintings with a third dimension”.
The Indian Express (13 December) described Mario “as an icon who richly deserved the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan titles which he received by setting “an example of how fun can be totally devoid of bitterness”. What was so special about Mario was the way he handled lines. Every dot and dash carried a message. There hasn’t been another artist who could make lines express an emotion. He was never out of line. On the contrary he brought life and art into line with his work and that was his USP. Mario never would take credit for it, insisting that all that he did was to draw pictures. He was invariably self-deprecatory and, as Devika Sequeira noted in her assessment of Mario’s work, in his more introspective moments he would regret not having art more seriously. His reasoning was what he had no real formal training in art, but those who had seen the huge body of work that he has left behind will swear that formal training might have robbed Maria of his sheer originality.
The Art Establishment may not have accepted him as one of their own, but the loss is theirs, not his. Mario was a one-man Institution. Cartooning was only one aspect of his art career. He gave it a life all its own, that none of his fellow professionals could ever match. He took on the whole world though many continue to remember him as a Goan who was too deeply rooted in Goa to be given his due. If only his over 8,000 sketches and drawings which his friend and admirer, architect Gerard da Cunha had compiled were more widely available, one would be more chary of making off-hand remarks. To be sure, Shankar Pillai – Shankar as the world knew him – would have been a great admirer of Mario. Shankar, as few know, went beyond cartooning as did Mario. But cartooning, as we know today seems to be quietly getting out of fashion. The Shankar Pillai’s, Abu Abrahams, Vijayans, Kuttys, Kulkarnis and Puris are becoming passé.
The Hindu still has the grace to feature a cartoon on Edit Page and Asian Age has its Sudhir Tailang. But for many papers cartooning belongs to another – and long dead – age. David Low, like Shankar has long been wiped out of public memory. Devika Sequeira quotes Mario as having once said that he was doing fewer cartoons “because there’s not much humour left in the world.” That may have been said in a moment of despair. With the likes of Kapil Sibal, Digvijay Singh, Manish Tewari and Mayawati around, the scope for cartooning should be endless.
Even Dr Manmohan Singh remains a good target. According to The Indian Express (13 December) cartoons are a reflection of national temperament and the reason why India has a rich tradition of cartoons “is probably that there is never a dull moment in its turbulent politics.” Politics may be good ground for cartoonists to prosper but Mario went beyond politics into the larger world of Rajni Nimbupani, Bundeldas, Bulbul Brandy, Col Curry and Framrz Waysidepatrolstationwala to make his point. That was his greatest contribution of Mario to journalism.
I miss Mario as, I am sure, thousands do. I see him in front of the Pearly Gate sketching the angel so he can give a gift to Him as the latest guest. Au revoir, Mario. Keep your sketch book and pencil aside, for a while. Heaven, one understands, can be a boring place.