Vinod Mehta on Mario

Two years ago I found myself closeted with Mario in a foreign land. The country was rich, the wine heady and the natives friendly. Not surprisingly, we had a terrific time.

During those 16 days I had a good, long look at Mario and I am ashamed to report that I discovered only one solitary eccentricity. I noticed that when we were in a pub or a theatre or a restaurant, he would suddenly disappear. I also noticed that just before he left he surreptitiously pocketed a beer coaster or a menu card. Initially I suspected Mario to be a latent kleptomaniac or one of those souvenir hunters, but that appeared too simplistic an explanation. My journalistic antenna suggested something decidedly more serious.


So, the next time he withdrew I followed him (we were then at a French restaurant) and found him near the kitchen, hand cupped, eyes frenetic, pen busy. He was taking "notes".


The notes were a few hasty lines which to my untutored eye meant very little. For Mario, however, they represented homework, the germ of a future drawing. He told me that that was the way he worked.


To understand what Mario is saying to us through his drawings we have to understand his premise, which is that of the detached observer, the outsider looking in, the artist passing by. It is no coincidence that on the two occasions the author himself appears in Germany in Wintertime he is either peering in or passing by. It is this attitude Mario adopts in his German travels, an attitude which lends his drawings a clarity, sharpness and integrity unsullied by ill-digested ideology or spurious subjectivity. Mario takes no sides, has no axe to grind; he records with sympathy and accuracy the scene as he sees it. I believe Mario's forte is trivia. For what else is a great drawing but an accumulation of trivia judiciously and harmoniously composed? Mario's notes, as I mentioned earlier are sketchy to say the least. He uses them only to jog his memory, to quicken his artistic response (the actual drawing is stored safely in his head). We all remember the salient, the striking, the predominant, but that is too obvious even mundane an observation; it needs to be placed in the context of its environment (which may be a stray dog, a crooked tree an inebriated drunk) to give it fullness and vitality. Germany in Wintertime is a collection of drawings brimming with such fullness and vitality.


A few examples might help. Very early on in this collection Mario draws one of the many departure lounges at Frankfurt airport. By a happy coincidence I have just returned from one such Frankfurt departure lounges and I promise you I actually "saw" the people in Mario's drawing.


Or take the four businessmen drinking coffee. How well Mario captures their stiff protocol, their air of aloofness, their obvious affluence, their exclusive camaraderie, their slight arrogance.


And here another Mario virtue - consistently visible in this collection - presents itself: He is devastatingly good with clothes. He gets every single nuance of how men and women, young and old, Bavarian and Hamburgian, dress in present day Germany. If Mario wasn't doing what he is doing today, he would make an excellent tailor!


My own favourite in Germany in Wintertime concerns beer. I'll giving away no secrets if I reveal that both Mario and I like the stuff, preferably in vast quantities. But that is not the reason for my preference.


The drawing in question shows a lady in a Munich beer cellar dispensing her wares. Consider the authenticity of the sketch.


Firstly, the six mugs - Mario gets the number exactly right. Examine the general health of the Fräulein - Munich beer cellar girls are strong - you have to be if you are going up and down carrying six beer mugs late into the night. Watch out for that hint of bosom - you can see just enough of it to add piquancy to your beer. Look at that wide cherubic smile - she is selling not only beer but a mugful of conviviality. Finally, the high-heeled shoes - what lovely music they make on the wooden floor! If even one of these elements had been missing the drawing would have been incomplete; in its totality it is an extraordinary representation not so much of a girl selling mugs of beer but of atmosphere.


Mario's critics maintain that his drawings lack venom, that he is too good-natured and good-hearted an individual to include malice in this artistic repertoire. And because he has no malice, they argue, he has "no point of view". There is some truth in this criticism. I wish Mario would get angry sometimes, I wish he would cultivate a bit of venom. But how do we know that venom and anger wouldn't destroy his perspective, his objectivity? What would you rather have, authenticity or dogma?


And who can deny that of all contemporary illustrators and cartoonists in India Mario stands alone as far as draughtsmanship is concerned? His work shows a command over the grammar of drawing which none of his contemporaries possess. And I believe that in his quiet, wry, ironic, detached way, Mario gets his message across. Which is? Well, I've never discussed this with him because he confesses he abhors "intellectual talk" and prefers playing the drums. Mario celebrates human frailty. None of us, he says, are perfect. Some of us have long ears, other have nagging wives or horrible mothers-in-law; buses never arrive on time, our bosses are foolish and our politicians are corrupt, but life must go on. Mario asks us not to succumb to despair or cynicism. Tomorrow is another day... In short he makes a plea for tolerance and understanding - and optimism. Recently I spoke to an angry left-wing German editor. "We are for the first time," he said, "asking some fundamental questions about how our country is run, and I believe the whole basis of German society will drastically change in the next few years. We are living in contentious times." Meanwhile, Mario goes to the same country in the same contentious times and emerges with a different picture, which says that no traumatic changes are likely to occur in Germany in the near future. Naturally, the country will change but through consensus rather than radicalism.


I am no pundit but I have a feeling that Mario's vision and not the angry left-wing editor's will stand the test of time.