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Cartoons that chronicle Bengaluru’s past and present

Paul Fernandes’ new book, ‘The Great Bangalore Morph’, is an illustrated history of the evolution of the city

Paul Fernandes’ pen drawings serves as a mirror, reflecting Bengaluru’s intercommunal diversity, daily routines and changing face
Paul Fernandes’ pen drawings serves as a mirror, reflecting Bengaluru’s intercommunal diversity, daily routines and changing face

While some might not consider cartoons high art, Paul Fernandes’ recent book, The Great Bangalore Morph: From Kempegowda to Covid, with a narrative by Chicku Jayadeva, puts this view to test. Produced in tandem with the exhibition Bangalore Then and Now, the book enables a review of his decades-long practice.

The Great Bangalore Morph provides a brief history of the evolution of the city—nostalgic watercolours and line drawings of Bengaluru as a pensioner’s paradise; colourful interpretations of the city’s evolution into the country’s beer hub; testy, somewhat belligerent black-and-white delineations of an IT capital on steroids; and the final, unexpected arrival of covid and its effects.

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Fernandes is a diehard Bangalorean, as is evidenced by his illustrations, but what stands out are the defining characteristics of his cartoons. An abundance of pen drawings serves as a mirror, reflecting Bengaluru’s prior happy days of intercommunal diversity, harmony, and ease. In one such image, a mullah, a cleric and a Hindu priest stand together on a street corner and bid their devotees goodbye, a pointer to a time in history when communal discord was scarce. Fernandes, who has a degree in visual arts from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda and spent 30 years in the advertising industry, examines cultural norms and societal attitudes.

From the 1950s, we see cyclists of all stripes—hawkers and young lovers to office-goers—commute without a care. Old Bengaluru’s lush parks feature formal handlebar moustachioed men picnicking beside traditionally dressed women and hippies. His clever distortions and hyperbolic portrayals trigger that part of our brain that responds to physical features. Fernandes teases out comparisons and contrasts to convey ethical and social issues by means of humour, exaggeration, analogy and irony.

An overwhelming sense of nostalgia fills the book. This mood is best captured in his watercolour paintings that are bathed in transparent shades of red, violet, blue, green and brown. Retro images of gable-roofed homes with Mangalore tiles and large gardens on tree-lined, sparsely trafficked roads take the viewer back to the bygone garden city.

Even paintings like Pub City, Don’t Drink & Die, in which a drunken, suited man escapes from his battered car with his champagne bottle intact, typifies the relaxed environment of Bangalore of the 60s and 70s. Such images resonate with boomers while giving younger citizens a sense of the city’s ethos. Fernandes’ handling of emotionally charged memories speaks to his skill of using cartoons to stave off sentimentality.

Paul Fernandes captured everyday Bengaluru in his cartoons
Paul Fernandes captured everyday Bengaluru in his cartoons

There is a remarkable shift in tone when Bangalore transforms into Bengaluru and India’s Silicon Valley. Fernandes’ poster-sized prints of black-and-white cartoons depict the palpable frenzy of a city ill-equipped to handle the sudden need for upgraded infrastructure. His pictures thronged with skyscrapers, crowded malls, massive traffic jams, steel bridges supported by tree stumps, piles of garbage and an irate statue of sword-bearing Kempegowda bearing down on a helipad capture the pervading anxiety of an altered town.

The dramatic contrast between Bangalore then and Bengaluru now through his satirical, melodramatic renderings are memorials to the past, while revealing the inevitability of change and exposing the outcomes of breakneck, uncontrolled development.

In the covid series—his most recent—he combines humour and pathos to explore themes of isolation, discombobulation and readjustment. Piquant details like the stilettoed upper-class citizens who overload their cars and escape in a mad rush, or a man refusing to let his unmasked wife enter their home, and others praying to a photograph of a minister for permission to purchase alcohol during the lockdown, convey a much bigger picture of society, its vulnerabilities and its selfishness.

The unique paintings and illustrations tackle complex issues in a form accessible to everyone. It is this humane and earnest quality of his cartoons—at once childlike and funny yet a deeply engaging social commentary—that catapult them into the world of high art.

Bansie Vasvani is an independent journalist.

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