In memoriam

Bal Mundkur – one of a kind

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SOME persons carry off with them a part of life itself, a part they had made their own. It was so with journalist Behram Contractor (Busy Bee), his bhel puri and bentwood Bombay, with Mario Miranda and his insider insights into depictions of Luso-Indian Goa. That city and that colony by the sea are gone for good. The paradox is that, by the very gap they leave, these folk live on. It carries too personal a stamp, a post-life DNA.

It is certainly so with Bal Mundkur. His amalgam and ‘gap’ are harder to define, like Bal himself: the Royal Indian Navy in World War II, the Royal Dartmouth College in England and Air India before his career in advertising, painted in a riot of colours. Add to that a devotion to baroque western classical music and Art (capital A) which took him 20 miles, early mornings, to auctions of masterworks in the far suburbs. What was this nice Saraswat boy doing with Herbert von Karajan, studying the next day’s scores during the Salzburg Festival? Waiting to invite the great one to Bombay, of course, along with his Berlin Philharmonic. Eventually, they came.

He was a passionate chess player. Nothing but the best for Bal, so his chess set was exquisite ivory. He lent it to Satyajit Ray for Shatranj ke Khiladi. Every year, he would take off on holidays sailing on the Aegean or for trips through Tuscany.

But the main strand in this tapestry of many weaves is Bal the Advertising Man. He made his first contact with the business when he posed for a Dalda advertisement for Rs 100, at the bidding of his brother, then with Levers. But his real encounter with the profession came when an existing passion and a passion yet to come, met at Rhythm House, Kala Ghoda. He was listening to his beloved Mozart and caught the attention of Robert (Bob) Hardcastle, then head of D.J. Keymer. The two had lunch at the Wayside Inn next door and a career was launched as the bill of seven rupees got paid. Bal became the Indian face of Keymers for prospective Indian clients. But there was a stumble.

On his first day at work, January 2, 1951, Bal discovered that there were separate washrooms for expatriates and Indians. He took a letter of resignation to the Head of Agency. Seeing the point, the wise and deft Hardcastle settled the matter. No more relief by race. Bal Mundkur stayed on to build a unique advertising career.

He found himself in an agency handling multinationals and many consumer goods, also the British Overseas Airways Corporation. He recalled a meeting with John Thurman, Country Head of BOAC. ‘Why not replace European stewardesses in our ads with Indian models in saris?’ Mundkur suggested. Thurman: ‘Rubbish. Spray them a bit dark and put a tikka on their foreheads.’

India was no easy country to understand at the time, emerging from the bullock cart age to flying machines, following the turbulence of Partition. In a memoir, Bal Mundkur remembered that there was a paucity of essential advertising services like translation. A single firm handled all translation. Advertising was also short of commercial photography and, of course, models. Parents frowned on modelling. Bal boasted that he was perhaps the first person to fight this. He writes that he ‘called on the daunting Prakash Tandon, Chairman of Hindustan Lever, at his home in Bandra to persuade him to allow his lovely daughter Maya to model for Lakme. He agreed albeit reluctantly.’

I remember Bal Mundkur going swiftly to the top levels of Keymer, then rechristened Bomas. But advertising growth was beckoning ambitious and experienced professionals like Bal Mundkur. He left to set up his own shop, Ulka (Sanskrit for ‘meteor’).

Ulka work was bold and different. For Ceat, he convinced the client to put up special diamond shaped hoardings that echoed the shape of the logo. Ulka conceived and is still running the bearded Zodiac man. For ITC, Ulka created ‘The best means of growth come from within.’ For Hongkong Bank, the agency changed the utterly unintelligible ‘Automated Teller Machine’ to ‘AnyTimeMoney’. Hero Honda appropriated the fuel economy plank with the starkly simple, ‘Fill it. Shut it. Forget it.’

Bal did not work for brands and money alone. Ulka’s work for Bangladesh was tremendously effective. He championed causes ranging from restoring the Afghan Memorial Church in Mumbai to raising funds for a new cerebral palsy wing in a children’s hospital and renovating the Asiatic Society premises also in Mumbai. He brought the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, on a tour of India. One of his proudest achievements was raising money for Asia’s first Museum of Sacred Art in Goa.

Bal and I, in a burst of what he called Octogen, created, produced and published, ‘Ad Katha – the Story of Indian Advertising’, two 80-year olds who should have left well alone. But the book was ready for the AdAsia Congress in November 2011 and a launch by Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni. It got done in a record ten months. Half way through, Bal wrote to me, ‘I have done many good things in my time’ (never one to overlook his own achievements), ‘but this is the best thing that I have ever done.’

Bal tackled the problem of funding. Many thought he was tilting at windmills but he got windfalls of support – and that because Bal Mundkur was owed. People owed him brands that great advertising had built, Ulka campaigns that set new creative standards. Many to whom he appealed owed their first jobs and early careers to him. The money came, we never looked back, the book was done in time.

He and I travelled to Cochin not long ago. We were in the departure lounge. He waited till the last passengers were aboard and then walked to the plane. He said to me, ‘I never carry hand baggage and I never queue.’ In his sudden passing, on the banks of the Mandovi in Goa, Bal Mundkur did neither. No baggage but the love of grieving friends, or queuing in a departure lounge.

Gerson da Cunha


The art and loss of Mario

Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto Miranda, according to Google, was born of Goan Catholic parents of Goud Saraswat Brahmin origin. Their surname was originally Sardessai, the title of local princelings. Yet, atop the main entrance to his rambling home in Loutulim, Goa, appears the coat of arms of Portuguese kings, recognition of some long ago service. Of such was Mario, whose hand we have lost but whose art is timelessly with us.

While Mario’s style and thought are universal, the roots of his observation lie in his Goan soul – that blend of the truly Indian and the international. Mix that confection with zany wit, often the cutting edge of truth, and you have an entry point into the Mario Miranda persona. Other parts of it are Goan grandee, which he was, and gentleman.

At an early age when his mother saw him drawing on household walls, she bought him a copybook, which he called his ‘Diary’. My first remembrance of Mario is of summer holidays in the mid-1940s. A score of us would collect for an early-evening-to-dinner-time pro-menade along the river Mandovi in Panjim. Its high point would be crowded inspection of that Diary, drawn not written. Am I in it today? That was in every mind, politely hidden but the elbows were pointed. From those sketchbooks grew the Mario Miranda we came to know and love.

A few details of his bio may deserve underlining. After receiving the Padma Shri (1988), he was elevated to the Padma Bhushan (2002). It was a rare recognition by the State of a man whose eminence existed in every heart because it was won with a smile. His ‘Miss Fonseca’ and ‘Miss Nimbupani’ will live on.

Mario was patronized by C.R. Mandy, Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India. His work benefited from travels through countries whose consulates discovered the magic of a Miranda trip through their lands and finally, from that headiest of brews, the adulation of his peers and his public. A big break came in 1974, when he travelled to the US. This enabled him to promote his art and interact with other cartoonists there, even work with Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. He held solo exhibitions in over 22 countries.

It is hard to think of such a man in the past tense. In fact, it would be wrong to do so because his work stays on, fresh and incisive. In his loss we must condole with his widow, Habiba. More than that, in the exit of ‘the hand that drew and the heart that fed’, we must condole with ourselves.

Gerson da Cunha