A cheeky signboard welcomes you to aPaulogy, an art gallery in the cantonment area of old Bengaluru. This is artist Paul Fernandes’s gallery of ‘Curious Illustration’. Alongside the name is a quixotic figure armed with a lance-like paintbrush wobbling down the road on a rickety bicycle. You smile and step inside, to find yourself in a longish room whose walls are painted with all sorts of funny figures and bustling places.
Fernandes breaks into a smile that disappears into his salt-and-pepper beard as he introduces me to Chicku Jayadeva, his longtime friend and co-writer. They have worked together on two books that have gotten much acclaim: Coastline, Fernandes’s latest, and Bangalore: Swinging in the 70s, both published almost on the trot.
Fernandes has lived in Bengaluru most of his life, with frequent visits to Mangaluru for weddings and holidays. After graduating in 1983 from Baroda’s M.S. University, he stayed in Mumbai for a few years, pursuing a career in advertising and revelling in the sense of living history all around him. All these places come to life in his illustrations. Another favourite place of his is Goa — “that incredible strip of land” — captured in all its eccentricity in Coastline.
At the centre of the gallery hangs a large mural from Coastline of a traditional Mangaluru wedding — with eccentric aunts, oddball uncles and sundry inebriated songbirds. They are rendered with aplomb, as are the rest of the figures in Coastline.
The two describe the book as their version of a travelogue, a “happy haphazard tour,” with stops at Mumbai, Goa, Mangaluru and Kerala. The timeless charm of these places jumps out of the illustrations, but there’s more. Fernandes has an eye for the quirky and the funny — for instance, in the picture of the shore bar in Goa’s Baga, you find Boastiao’s Sunshine Shack offering “Sarong, Bikini, Slippers, Tattoos” as a fisherman walks by, dressed in the poor man’s monokini, the langot. The accompanying text by Jayadeva has its own brand of delicate humour.
Predictably, Aamchi Mumbai gets the lion’s share of Coastline, its fabled past merging seamlessly with a lived present. According to Fernandes, the book makes “a strong attempt” to capture the city’s persona: “I could not articulate it then [while working], but I think Mumbai’s sights, sounds and smells gave me a better sense of history’s continuum than any lesson I was taught,” he says. He made frequent visits over 12 years. Jayadeva opens the book to reveal a breathtaking aerial view of South Mumbai, spreading from the Gateway of India in the east to the Air India building in the west and gathering in its sweep everything in between, recorded in the minutest detail. “From an architectural point of view, it’s so meticulously done,” she says, adding that this particular drawing took Fernandes five years to complete.
Everything that makes Mumbai Mumbai — its iconic monuments, cultural diversity, BEST buses, kaali-peeli taxis, Irani cafés, dabbawalas and more — is vibrantly depicted. But you can’t ignore the shadier side either. “You have to go everywhere and see. Even the red light area, the back roads,” Fernandes says.
Boats dominate the imagery, right from the cover page showing ferryboats milling around the Mumbai harbour. They are also there in the evocative sketches of the Alappuzha backwaters, in Fort Kochi with its Chinese fishing nets, in Susegad, Goa, where time stands still, and on the waterways of Mangaluru, with its boat-building and fishing communities.
How was working on Coastline different from working on Bangalore? “The Bangalore book exists in a limited, very intimate relationship with the cantonment area. Coastline has a further view of things. In Bangalore, you’re looking at a lot of green. On the coast, it’s a lot of blue: there’s the horizon to deal with, there’s the new element of boats which is such a world of its own. Just a boat is such poetry,” Fernandes says.
Get up and dance
One of Paul Fernandes’s illustrations from ‘Coastline’.
So, what sets off a drawing? Fernandes confides that a clear and fresh thought brings a smile to his face and tells him he’s ready to draw. “If you start giggling to yourself, you know you’re ready. And if something better happens, you can get up and start dancing.” On a more serious note, he says, “Essentially, a story marks the beginning of a drawing — even a small anecdote, a small memory or a chat with someone who’ll tell me about the old days. All those are triggers.”
Looking at his drawings, Mario Miranda inevitably comes to mind and indeed Miranda is the cartoonist to whom Fernandes is often compared. When I point this out, Fernandes says, “I learnt a lot from Mario’s way of thinking and the way he approached the subject but, style-wise, I think we’re different.” It took Fernandes 40 years to arrive at his distinctive style. “I’d been drawing for advertising, but slowly I got out of drawing for other people and started drawing for myself. This was much more difficult but totally worth it.”
Now, Fernandes has the leisure to study and portray his subjects in depth without being bound by deadlines. “You got to have the time to just sit and look,” he says. I ask if his drawings are only about smiling faces. Are they meant to encourage deeper reflection too perhaps? “Maybe in hindsight,” Fernandes says. “A person like me can’t be an activist or a voice in front of a crowd. But if through a drawing I can show people that the gentle way is the better way, well…,” he trails off, leaving the rest to the imagination, as he does so often in his illustrations.
The writer is an English teacher who sets off on quirky quests in Bengaluru.