The Friendly Savage: a tribute to Mickey Patel
by Dr. Ajanta Sen
Where it all began was Karachi, which is Mickey's words was "the city of his (sic) first six months of existence". Whose bombing and the subsequent sub-continental partitioning meant for him a complete "historical and political denial of his place of birth". One wonders if that was the earliest seeds of the genesis of the cartoonist in him. Mickey had his first cartoon published at age fourteen around the mid-fifties when he was preparing to support himself through college. At that time, his overwhelming influence in cartooning may be traced to Punch ...... the British magazine that set the trend for cartoons in those days. He slowly graduated to what critic Shankar Menon describes as the "Time magazine cover style" and then onwards to the grim and sardonic style of Jules Pfeiffer. A much-touted reason advanced for Mickey not occupying the absolute centerstage of cartooning as Laxman, Mario, Abu, and Dar have done the fact that Mickey never "devoted an entire career to it ". Mickey's career began and stretched into advertising, beginning with the Lintas in the late fifties, which was when and where Mickey assimilated in him social influences as variegated in character as " the Westside story, and Paris blues to Norman Mailer." As Mickey grew in years as an artist to a visualiser to a copywriter to an art director in succession, Mickey's work began to reveal the real truth behind why he had to keep off the center stage of the greats of cartooning in India. Someone once speculated about this in a popular magazine as being the result of his characteristic " digs at Doon school heirs". If these digs came in around the mid-eighties("Darling , who do you expect will be appointed minister for the Doon School"), there couldn't have been much of a future for an Indian cartoonist who wasn't into politics or business cartooning. But even outside of digs, healthy and sour, had already emerged the Mickey Patel oeuvre: a brand of jet black humor that is hard to come by in the very intensity of its pitch. A good look at Mickey's works, and one is reminded of a predominant Norman Mailer attitude-- "mate the absurd with the apocalyptic and one has the desired captive". What did drive the young Mickey to defiance? Was it some kind of snobbery --- maybe not snobbery necessarily of the most direct sort? Or was it some kind of deep disillusionment "with the manner in which our politicians have betrayed the ideals of decency and democracy"--- the way an art critic once read into his cartoons way back in the late-seventies (A bureaucrat to the salesman in a shoe-shop: "I 'am looking for something edible, mine are often licked"). For certainty, however, remains the fact that to expand the irony of Mickey's cartoons with their characteristic jibes at the system was to be able to see them well past any smooth radical rhetoric.
• His Characters:
It isn't easy to be able to extend a tidy metaphor that might quickly embrace the essential Mickey Patel oeuvre. Maybe there was a certain inquisitive perspective to his work since Mickey was always gathering up information from the air without even perhaps meaning to. Mickey's apparently inscrutable face would betray just that hint of opening up. But overall, for him, to revert to his expression of eloquent boredom would take him barely the split of a second. The formalism attached to the bird on the flute -player's shoulders; a sense of regard shown for those elements that have remained incorruptible-- his vultures, birds, tigers and monkeys; the image of a baby drawn in anticipation while still in her mother's womb; the twitches, the twirls, the hops and the jumps of his lines, their "life of infinite expandability of a form beyond the enclosure", their ontological soundness as construed within Mickey's universe of aesthetics compounded with sound as an essential "break in the air"--- are the aspects that one likes to ponder over. For me, Mickey's work has tried to say what jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson once said that "singers aren't taught to hear (unlikely )intervals". That 'perfect pitch' as against the usual 'relative pitch' that one aspires for, one gathers only through one's own impulses and instincts. In one stride of such thought, Mickey's personal imagery of life could begin to show up in his art. The bird on the flute player's shoulders perhaps signaled Mickey's personal sense of freedom---- the way he lived till the end; perched on the flute player, bird and man breathed life into one another. Without a doubt, Mickey indulges in a sort of trendy self-satisfaction; and without it, there would have been none of his art.
• His works:
Mickey's works also reflected a fair amount of eclecticism --- an essential attribute of the Mickey Patel personae anyway. By merely flipping through his drawings and cartoons, therefore, could one construct a profile of this man? One example of a cartoon that shows two high-ranking (despotic-looking) army generals shaking hands with one another (perhaps after a screening) with the blurb "we hate violence in the cinema" could well serve as a take-off into an area of art that Mickey admired, viz., the cinema. On the occasion of an exhibition of his famed series on the 'Sarod player' in Bombay about ten years ago, film-critic Ashish Rajadhayaksha attempted to use the metaphor of the cinema language (stripped to its bones) in terms of its continued narrative as a transposition on Mickey's own language of the cartoon. Even apart from the frames that he used to enclose, his Gandhi's, or his fascination for the cinema reflected in his drawings of Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Monroe, and others, had arrived his tendency to show "defined temporal movement" in his works. And alongside its visual expression remained these: "I like my feature film in colour, my regional film in sepia, my news in black & white and my cereal in milk and sugar." In one stroke, he had gathered the entire spectrum of the contemporary politics of cinema in India, and by implication, the status accorded to regional and documentary film-making. Ten years ago, this comment on the state of art of cinema might have seemed distant and absurd, today it is a reality that dawned upon us, and therefore it seems passe. Another gem which says "Ray directs Attenborough, Attenborough redirects modern Indian history" could well represent the subtle but insidious neo-colonial forces that have managed to find their way into every aspect of our post-colonial private and public spheres of living. Mickey's eclecticism ranged from these neo-colonialism related jibes that even gave us the artist's vision of impending globalisation long before it had arrived on the scene, to serious social and political issues in relation to Third World development and exploitation, power blocs and power play, the environmental holocaust, society riff-raff (charity balls, country clubs) and so ongoing by this and more and his awards (Noma Concours, etc.). Mickey had a lot to say and a way to say these. Some of his detractors would go so far as to consider his words too overpowering as a communications device to be accompanying its visuals. Making the net effect of some of the cartoons being rather laboured. One admits that occasionally these visuals would be threatened by what appeared to me and to many others to be the artist's inability to translate abstraction into appropriate visual parallels. Creating in the process, Rudolf Arnheim's ultimate nightmare of the 'word' is substituting for the 'feeling'. Above all, Mickey challenged the artist to a "singular dedicated ferocity" against all adversity and against all tides of history "lest he forgets his own image". Obviously, Mickey Patel was not trying to create any kind of a lowest-denominator brand of art that sells or appeals easily. On the other hand, by merely following his instincts for authenticity and human identity, "regardless of the colour of the medium" of expression, Mickey's art in its inimitable style added a dazzling new dimension to cartooning.
• In conclusion:
And now, if I said Mickey never became anybody's 'personal hero' because he just swept aside those 'virtues' that parents usually ask their kids to emulate, it would not be saying too much. And if I ascribed to this man who drew endearing cartoons in his typical straight line-spiral line - dotted line style what Walt Whitman did to someone else in his 'Song of Myself', it would not be any (gross) exaggeration of my notion of this artist Mickey Patel:
("The friendly and flowing savage...... who is he? Is he waiting for civilization or past it and mastering it ?")