The lines of Mr. Biswas

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Well, this is not really meant to be a series, but yes, Orijit’s last post can be blamed for prodding me to this.

Summer 1990. Now school was over and it was time to grow up. In other words, a painful process. One of the ways to hoodwink that would be to become an artist. But that would be a long call, so for now join the Art College. That was pretty much decided.

My school art teacher had warned me, “The entrance is a tough process-shape up!

Start sketching, there is no getting away from hard work”. As far as I remember I enjoyed drawing, but all of a sudden this seemed to be a job. Rigour, discipline, oh boy it seems I was applying for the IIT of visual arts. Before u think anymore, NID was out for me, my mother hadn’t heard about, and could not bear to see her Bengali son going away. In other words, College of Art was my last and only option. Before you make a villain out of her, College of Art was my choice too. I had entered the premise way back in school for a painting competition, I knew this was the place for me. Not only were the women beautiful, the men were scraggy, long haired and energetic with a purpose. In short, I loved appropriating my future career into a bloody stereotype. But before all of this I had to pass an entrance to get in. “Start sketching, there is no getting away from hard work”

So the in between period of school and college arrived in shaping up, sketching and taking a Plan-B admission in Delhi University for an honours course in English (of all things). One such afternoon, pottering at home I came across a small book from my grandmother’s collection, an old NBT book, printed on newsprint in late 70’s or early 80’s, titled in Hindi ‘Bahut Din hue’. A casual browse  and that afternoon’s had disappeared. The book had the most elegant, beautiful and simplest of illustrations that opened another window for me. I had discovered the magic and the power of the line.

The drawings were all in black ink with a second colour wash, but the strength and the flow of those lines struck me forever. And that is the power of the master. The sheer effortlessness to carry the lines with signature sophistication, to bring the story alive in the faces of the characters and the minimal but powerful use of the second colour…trust me since that afternoon I wanted to be an illustrator.

I wanted to be like the man himself, Pulak Biswas.

In the coming month, I made it to the selected 80 and everyone around, including me was happy. It must have been the second or the third day when some senior told me that Pulak babu’s son was studying here and that was a senior to me. Heaven couldn’t be closer! I was ready to do anything to meet the man. Finally when I met Sandip, the son, I remember the first thing I asked:

“Are you the son of Pulak Biswas?” (of course I knew he is)

Sandip: “Well..yes…”

“He is my favourite illustrator!!!”

Sandip did not really know how to react so said “ya..i mean ya…”

Over the years Sandip and I became very good friends and would tell him at regular intervals that I will come and show my sketches to Pulak Babu one of these days. The truth is I never did, I never had the guts to. I think I still don’t. I would even have conversations with Sandip’s closest friends who would frequent his place and meet his dad on the man himself. Often they would describe me his latest illustration, his next big book and even his telephonic conversations with his publishers. My queries were never sublime, they were ridiculous “how many cigarettes does he smoke” “what paper does he use?” “are his pencils indian or imported” “his watercolours are they all winston and newton?” (now this is something I still want to know, now that I know how ridiculously expensive those paints are and how generous the publisher is to an illustrator)

Early 90s. Remember it was still the end of socialism in our land, the only options were NBT or CBT for children’s fiction. I had just started freelancing as an illustrator in my 3rd year and I saw Pulak Babu’s work in OUP, he was actually doing a science text book.

“Such a man, doing a text book?”

My editor smiled at me, a smile reserved for a naïve idiot in his early 20’s.

She went on “I met him yesterday. He was busy cutting out a Mortein ad from a newspaper. He wanted a good reference of a cockroach and he felt that his drawing was not good enough, so he was looking for a better reference.”

For a young, arrogant wannabe illustrator who believed in the power of drawing from memory, I sat humbled. I deserved that smile. (Remember I am talking of a time when Google was not the solution for all problems.)

The following year, Lustre Press released Ramayana, illustrated by Pulak Biswas.

His magnum opus. Again the sheer easiness, the effortless washes and those lines. An exercise in water colours. “When I have the money I will buy it…” In the later years, a very close friend was generous enough to gift me the book as a birthday present. Ankur Ahuja, you have no idea how indebted I am.

Come 1993-94, Indian children’s illustrators were showing in Barcelona. I was the youngest of the lot and was also a volunteer helping the organizers in CBT. Curated by Suddhasatwa Basu, it is here I met the legends. I shook hands with Suddha, picking his brains on some of his particular illustrations for Target, “oh that was bad” he would dismiss. It was an experience to remember. I saw the originals, I touched the works of the legends. There was Mickey Patel, Atanu Ray, Sigrun Srivastava, Jagdish Joshi, Mrinal Mitra, Suddhasatwa Basu and more, more, more. The two illustrations I remember touching and gazing for hours were Satyajit Ray and Pulak Biswas’s. Though it wasn’t the best of Pulak babu, but it was an original, nevertheless.

It’s been many years now, Sandip and I continue to be friends and Pulak babu does not do as many books as he used to. But when I was meeting publishers in Paris, each one of them asked me about only one man from India –Pulak Biswas. How they were all fighting tooth and nail to buy the rights of his books with Tara and how mesmerized they were. Little did they know, they were talking to the self proclaimed president of his fan club. It’s true that the golden age of children’s illustration in India is over. None, I repeat none of the illustrator’s of the next generation (that is mine) have really made that giant leap of skill or understanding in children’s illustrations with the exception of Ajanta Guhathakurta (her works still have the old world puritanism). But I am glad I saw that last sunset before they turned cynical old men.

Over the years I have met Pulak babu over a few social occasions, but could never tell him with ease how much of an influence he was. Even while completing the pages of ‘Delhi Calm’ I would browse through his old works which I am sure he has forgotten.

Expressing my awe would now require some effort, at the same time I wish I could draw as effortlessly.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh