Mario Miranda – a personal reminiscence

By Dev Nadkarni

Mario Miranda never really liked to talk about himself or his work. But once during an assignment, when I pressed him on how he went about his meticulously detailed illustrations, he told me in his usual shy manner that he began at one corner of the blank sheet and put his scratchy ink pen nib down only when he had fully filled up the whole sheet.

The maestro put his nib down one final time yesterday, having finished with the extraordinary canvas of his life. And what an incredibly rich and unforgettable picture he has drawn for all of us in his seven decade long career. His drawings, with their filigree-like detail, are an endless source of joy: you find something new in every illustration no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. That indeed was his genius.

I knew Mario as a fan, friend, colleague and client – as fan for a lifetime, the rest for more than two decades. My first ever introduction to Goa was through one of his illustrated books, “Goa With Love – by Mario”, a copy of which we still have in our collection nearly half a century later.

“Goa With Love” is Mario’s finest tribute to his most beloved Goa – it is completely illustrated, no copy except for an odd caption or two. It captures every aspect of Goa – the scenery, the people, the social mores, the cultural diversity, the oddly spelt Hindu names in Portuguese-influenced English, everything except perhaps the smell of feni.

I have lost count of how many times I must have pored over that book throughout my life. I remember spending hours on each page when I was a child growing up in Panaji – which back then was Panjim. I can still find things to laugh about in the drawings.

I first shook hands with Mario when I was perhaps all of five in my father’s office in Panaji’s iconic Secretariat Building – my father, Mohan Nadkarni, was the newly formed union territory’s first information officer and was in charge of publicity, publications and PR. “This uncle here drew Goa With Love – his name is Mario,” I remember my father saying. I was excited because I had shaken hands with the man whose book I was so very fond of.

In later years I often ran into him in the Times of India building in Mumbai on my errands delivering my father’s music reviews and columns to the newsroom on the third floor (no emails and faxes then). I’d reintroduced myself as his fan from Goa and chatted on some occasions about some of his illustrations from “Goa With Love” and his other work, which appeared regularly in the Khushwant Singh-edited Illustrated Weekly and the Evening News of India.

Our next significant encounter was at my first real job – as an assistant editor of the popular children’s fortnightly Tinkle at the India Book House. He was illustrating a children’s book, which my colleague Nira Benegal (noted film director Shyam Benegal’s wife) was editing. We settled down for a long chat and at the end of it, he handed two rather tired looking diaries to Nira.

I noticed Nira put away the diaries carefully in her bottom drawer. After a few days, knowing my respect for Mario and his work and my own ambitions to launch my cartoon strip, she let me have a peek at those diaries. I was amazed as I leafed through them.

They were diaries from Mario’s childhood. Most of us who kept diaries did so in long hand. Mario simply drew. On one of the pages the only words were something like: “walking back from the market I saw” and there was this amazingly stylised picture of a cow. He must have been 10 or 11 when he drew it – perhaps even younger.

The picture was greatly detailed. There were the blades of grass, the pebbles, the vegetable vendor, other trappings of the marketplace, a carrera (those small rickety buses – now extinct – with about eight seats that packed in 24 people), the fisherwoman, everything on that A8 sized diary page. It left me dumbfounded. Nira let me borrow the diaries for the weekend and boy, what a weekend that was.

The Benegals and Mirandas were close friends. Shyam’s Trikaal – based on Goa’s liberation – was shot for the most part in Mario’s splendid colonial Loutolim residence, which is where he breathed his last.

Mario’s recognition as an illustrator par excellence grew and he was invited for assignments and exhibitions across the globe. The world’s major cities invited him to draw their monuments and main squares. The volume of his published work grew and he was soon awarded both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, besides many other awards.

Then Karnataka chief minister Devraj Urs commissioned Dom Moraes and Mario to do a book on the state – and that’s another book in our collection signed by both Dom and Mario.

By 1987, I had a couple of weekly cartoon strips going. One appeared in the Sunday edition of the Indian Express and the other in the Sunday editions of the Economic Times between 1984 and 1990. The latter, called Doldrumms Ltd, based around office and business situations, was definitely inspired by Mario’s Miss Nimbupani and her cartoon colleagues.

In the middle of that year Mario and I were part of a delegation of Indian cartoonists who visited Europe as part of the Festival of India. Our works were exhibited for a week in Sierre in Switzerland. It was there that despite our great differences in age and stature, he took me on as a friend.

During those long wine filled nights, I got to see his melancholic side, which I had not seen before. On one such evening, I remember, as we were sitting on the deserted platform of the Sierre railway station after a couple of bottles of fine French Beaujolais, he told me the real reason why he left the Times of India – but not before extracting a promise that I’ll keep it only to myself.

Weeks later we reconnected in downtown London and spent a busy morning drinking some more – this time beer. Celebrated modern dancer Astad Deboo joined us for a while.

As editor of a publication for India’s first major amusement park Esselworld, I had the pleasure of commissioning some work from Mario. But what I’ll remember most is a one of a kind interview I did with him: we did a four-page cartoon strip interview. He drew the replies to my questions – how cool is that. He later told me how much he had enjoyed doing that.

Though I visited his home in Colaba, Mumbai, several times, I never really got to know his wife Habiba or his sons. At one time, I remember he had pet turtles clambering up and down the living room. Mario’s close friend and one of India’s finest humorists, Busybee (Behram Contractor), modeled two of the characters of his “Round and About” column – Darryl and Derrick, the two sons of the fabulously rich ‘my friend who lives on the 21st floor’ – on Mario’s two boys.

There will not be another cartoonist, illustrator or human being like Mario de Brito Miranda. His celebrity came in spite of his self-effacing and humble personality. He will be greatly missed by millions of his fans.

One of the final pages of “Goa With Love” has an illustration of a Goan funeral. As well as a few weeping relatives around an elderly man’s bier there is also a lot of beer and feni flowing around. The young people are eyeing one another through their tears. There is one young lady by the man’s feet, a tear flying away from her thick eyelashes, as her gaze meets a young man’s standing by the head of the departed gent. Her expression is an inexplicable mix of grief and expectation – there is a definite air of getting on with life once the grieving is over.

That’s perhaps the best way to lay the great soul to rest – celebrate his life more than grieve his passing.

RIP Mario Miranda.

 

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012