Those who grew up devouring English language newspapers and magazines of the 1960s and ’70s lost a little bit of their childhood, adolescence and their adult lives, with the passing of Mario Miranda on December 11. He slipped away quietly in the early hours, in the arms of his beloved wife Habiba, and so ended a career that entertained millions for more than half a century — and also one of the most spirited love stories their friends knew.
At the funeral next morning, the Church of the Saviour of the World, across the village square from the Mirandas’ ancestral home, reverberated with Ave Maria sung by the fadista Sonia Shirsat, as fellow Goans paid homage to not just a loved son of Goa but to one of the most remarkable cartoonists, illustrators and artists that India produced. Gone is the creator of that zany cast of characters: the voluptuous Bollywood temptress Rajni Nimbupani, her male opposite number Balraj Balram, the scheming steno Miss Fonseca, Bundledass the pompous politico, not to mention the strays that lolloped knowingly in corners, or exploded mid-action like Shakespearean jokers who mock the main plot of the drama. No one drew dogs like Mario – at least not since James Thurber – nor captured the sombre majesty of Goa’s churches and seminaries, or the susurration of the breeze through its palms and rice paddies, as evocatively.
Leafing through the excellent volume on his art and life published by the architect Gerard da Cunha (Mario de Miranda, Architecture Autonomous, 2008), one is again captivated by his range of subject matter and skilled draughtsmanship. He called himself a social rather than a political cartoonist. “I’m a keen observer of people,” he once said. “They are generally doing something they should not be doing.”
But he was more than a chronicler of anarchic humanity. Mario’s large-scale scenes of foreign lands (Portugal and Britain where he had lived, or Paris, New York and Berlin, where he was an honoured guest) are often devoid of people. His views of New York’s vertical heights or the stark beauty of Germany in wintertime – part of travelling exhibitions – are painstakingly achieved by the chiaroscuro effect of classical pen-and-ink drawings.
His style was so distinctive that whether pocket cartoon, advert, wall murals in Bombay, Goa’s cafes or books he illustrated, his small imprimatur scrawled on the bottom right hand corner was superfluous. It was unmistakably Mario. Some of his portraits are iconic: Khushwant Singh inside the lightbulb, for instance, or his own goateed self-image that suddenly appears – like Hitchcock in his films – as a baffled bystander in his drawings.
Born in Diu, Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto a Miranda (to give him his full, musical, name) came from a line of reputed Goan administradors. He was educated in Bangalore and Bombay, where his creative talents flowered, but two events anchored his long, productive life. The first was his romance, and marriage in 1963, to the lovely Habiba Hydari, granddaughter of Sir Akbar Hydari, prime minister of Hyderabad and founder of Osmania University. Differences of region and religion were no obstacle — both were indomitable personalities, and to the manor born.
The second centrepiece of Mario’s life was, in fact, a manor. In the 1980s, when the Mirandas left Bombay to go and live in his 330-year-old family mansion, friends protested, pointing out that the move to Goa could finish off his famous career; many predicted that they would soon be back. They were wrong on both counts.
His childhood home is a magical place – deep verandas, a magnificent private chapel, a ballroom and maze of rooms – but it was in perilous condition. Parts of it were collapsing, water and electricity was erratic, and there was a single communal bathroom where, towels in hand, guests and household queued up in the morning. But it is the embodiment of Goa’s laid-back spirit of sosegado, a reflection of Mario’s personal style.
Except with close friends, he was a shy, retiring man. Guests sometimes wondered where, or when, Mario disappeared; he had quietly sloped off to his study to finish the cartoon of the day. By his own estimate, he had produced 50,000 cartoons for dailies alone. Saving the Goa house, and its gradual restoration, gave his life and art a second wind. His hand was now seen as a sought-after endorsement for products in Goa — even of Goa itself.
As a young man Mario admired many great cartoonists, and had met Oliphant, Schultz and Herblock. But Ronald Searle remained his all-time favourite. Manohar Malgonkar, who wrote a biographical sketch of Mario, describes a meeting between Searle and Mario in London in the late 1950s. The British master advised the Indian acolyte to resist influences and find his own “signature tune”. It struck Mario that when people saw a Searle drawing they said “Ah! Searle!”: “From then on I felt confident that the day would come when people would see my work and say ‘Ah! Mario!’ ”
[Mario de Miranda, who died December 11, was the cartoonist for Business Standard in the early 1990s.]