Please tell us about yourself
Close your eyes and listen to Savio Mascarenhas enthusiastically describing Shikari Shambu’s adventures with chuckles in between, and you’ll think he’s a seven-year-old who’s just discovered Tinkle, the much loved children’s magazine.
But Savio discovered Tinkle decades ago. Scratch that. Tinkle discovered Savio decades ago.
46-year-old Savio is currently the Group Art Director for Amar Chitra Katha, which also owns Tinkle, and makes sure that the art department functions efficiently and consistently across all of the group’s brands.
What did you study?
Savio grew up in Mumbai and remembers doodling and drawing all the time as a child. But back then, art was nothing more than a hobby. He studied Commerce at the undergraduate level and went on to do a diploma in Advertising and Public Relations because he fancied himself as a writer.
He started as a copywriter at an ad agency and stayed with the profile for a few years. His doodles caught the attention of his CEO at Sunflower ad agency, who encouraged him to keep at it.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Savio was deeply influenced by Mario Miranda’s illustrations which peppered his school textbooks. “I also loved RK Laxman’s cartoons which used to come in the Times of India,” he says.
Around this time, in 1992, he saw an advertisement in the newspaper asking for artists to apply for jobs with Tinkle magazine. Savio took a few of his drawings, and the consolation prize he’d won at Shankar’s International Children’s Competition (started by K Shankar Pillai, founder of Children’s Book Trust), and went to the Tinkle office.
There, he met the magazine’s legendary artist, Chandrakanta Rane, who was impressed enough with his drawings to ask if Savio was an art graduate. Rane took his work to Anant Pai, the founder of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.
Anant Pai was popularly called “Uncle Pai” and that’s how Savio endearingly refers to him even now. “Uncle Pai liked my drawings. He told me to do pocket cartoons for the magazine. They offered to pay Rs 50 per cartoon and they said they wanted ten of these! Rs 500 back then was a very big deal. I said yes immediately,” Savio recalls.
He describes walking into the Tinkle office like Alice wandering into Wonderland. “These were people whose work I greatly admired. I grew up reading this magazine and I was so happy to be there!” he says.
Savio freelanced for Tinkle for a year. Starting with one page and then two and then six, he saw that everyone loved his work, especially Uncle Pai. At the end of that year, he went to wish Uncle Pai on New Year’s Eve with a piece of cake, and got a gift in return – a full-time position starting from January 2, 1994.
Tell us about the evolution of Tinkle
22 years since Savio joined Tinkle, the magazine has managed to survive the television and the iPad, the new scapegoat for the question – why don’t children read?
“In my view, Tinkle has always been conscious of the reader’s perspective,” Savio says thoughtfully. “Uncle Pai was very clear that we won’t have any mythology in the magazine. That was being taken care of through the Amar Chitra Katha comics.”
Instead, Tinkle stuck to fun, simple, straight-forward stories with contemporary themes.
With changing times, Tinkle revamped its characters and added new ones to remain relevant to its audience. One of the recent introductions is Mapui, a North-eastern girl who fights crime! “We have a good readership in the North-east, so we thought it was time we had some representation in the magazine,” says Savio.
A Bengaluru-based 10-year-old boy called Wai Knot, who questions the world at large and has a curious mind, has also joined the cast. Then there’s SuperWeirdo, a girl who can detect special powers in others and fights crime.
Is including such empowered girl models a conscious decision? “Yes,” says Savio. “We realized that most of our characters are male. This didn’t happen on purpose…it’s just how things were back then. We’ve broken gender stereotypes along the way because we felt it was important to do so.”
Being a father to two feisty girls, Sophie (11) and Sarah (9) has also influenced how he approaches stories and artwork: “I see why we need more stories with female characters. My daughters reflect in my work. They make up weird stories. I make comic strips based on the kind of things they tell me. It helps me understand a child’s psychology.”
What did you do at Tinkle?
When Savio joined Tinkle, the popular “Shikari Shambu” was being illustrated by Vasant Halbe. The goofy hunter with a hat that hid half his face and sported a bristling moustache was a hit with children. “Shikari Shambu” was the brainchild of Luis Fernandes and was inspired by a character from the famous British television series, “I Love Lucy”.
Halbe came up with the hat that has immortalized Shambu in public imagination. “The idea was that Shambu was a shikari who was so scared of animals, he couldn’t even see them!” laughs Savio.
Halbe drew Shikari Shambu for 16 years, and Savio was his fanboy. But by the late 1990s, however, Halbe’s age was beginning to show.
“He was over seventy,” Savio says, in a hushed voice, “but he was still drawing. His hand used to shake a lot. I still found everything he drew to be beautiful.”
Uncle Pai decided that the time had come for someone else to step into Halbe’s very large shoes. And that person was Savio.
“I was so afraid,” Savio confesses. “Halbe was a master. I sketched non-stop. I tried to imitate his style the best I could. I practised for a year. In 1999, Halbe retired and I started doing the comic. He passed away later that year.”
Savio didn’t try anything new with Shambu. “My job is to keep his hat on!” Savio grins. “The writers keep trying to show his face. The children write to us, saying they want to see Shambu’s face. But even if the writers do a story where he falls from a tree and his hat flies off, I draw him in such a way that his face remains hidden.”
Under Savio, Tinkle also started a series on “Little Shambu” which featured the hunter as a child. And who was his neighbour? Shanti, his wife, whom you will see chasing the adult Shambu with a rolling pin!
In 1995, Savio created Mopes and Purr, a dog and cat who run a detective agency in Mumbai’s Crawford Market. The idea came from Reena Puri, then Assistant Editor of the magazine, who had a dog called Mopes and a cat who died.
“She was a hard-core animal lover. She came up with the idea for the series and I was the illustrator,” he says with evident excitement. Together they wrote numerous stories involving animal rescue and non-preachy messages on conservation. When Salman Khan was embroiled in the poaching case, Savio and Reena did a story based on it.
“Janoo and Wooly Woo” was another series that Savio worked on. The writer, Vanita Vaid, based her stories on a good witch – yes, this was before Hermoine Granger.
Then there’s Super Suppandi. “He exists only in Suppandi’s head and has some really crazy adventures. So just imagine if Suppandi goofs up so much in real life, as a super hero he would goof up big time! A super goofer!” grins Savio.
What about Amar Chitra Katha?
Amar Chitra Katha continues to be an evergreen favourite. “We’re doing reprints,” Savio says. “People still want to read them. They can never get enough of it.”
But like Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha too has evolved – it has moved away from showing evil characters to be dark-skinned, for instance.
“Even in the reprints, we have changed the colouring of the characters. We’ve become a lot more conscious about these things,” says Savio.
Other than the reprints, new titles on Param Veer Chakra heroes, the different kandas of the Ramayana and the saptharishis have come out of the ACK stables.
“We’ve partnered with the Union government for the Swachh Bharat campaign,” Savio reveals. “The comic goes back in time, to the Harappa-Mohenjo Daro civilization and talks about how cleanliness and city planning were integral to the people then. We’ve talked about Gandhi and his philosophy, and also shown real life inspirational stories from modern times.”
Savio still remains enchanted by Tinkle and the possibilities that it offers. He walked in as an ardent fan of the comic and decades later, it’s clear that he still remains one.