Most children in India grow up reading Tinkle and are well-acquainted with its two superstars Shikhari Shambhu and Suppandi. There is a sense of nostalgia attached to Tinkle since many generations have read it through the years and the comic still remains popular.
Savio Mascarenhas, the art director for Tinkle Comics who works behind the scenes in creating both these characters, was one of the participants at the children's literature festival Bookaroo this year. The festival was held in Srinagar in the first week of November.
Though it was far too cold to do anything other than huddle around a heater, Mascarenhas found a few minutes to chat about how his journey began, how the characters have changed over the years and what's coming next.
Mascarenhas started working at Tinkle Comics as a freelancer in 1992. While he did art work for the 'See and Smile' section while he was working as a copywriter in an ad agency, his heart was in drawing. Anant Pai, the founding editor of the magazine, recognised this and offered him a job a couple of years later. In 1998, when Vasant Halbe—who had conceptualised and designed Shikhari Shambhu—was retiring, Mascarenhas took over over the illustrations.
The transition wasn't smooth, says Mascarenhas. Halbe was a quiet man but his style was distinct. He used a brush to create the iconic character, while Mascarenhas preferred to use a pen. It was even more unnerving, he said, when a child wrote to Tinkle, asking why Halbe no longer drew Shikhari Shambhu.
Mascarenhas wrote back to the child, explaining that artists changed over the course of time. And years later, the boy, who was now a grown-up, added him as a friend on Facebook and admitted that he was the one who had complained about the change in Shambhu's artist.
Evolving over time
Mascarenhas said that although the character's name was still Shikhari Shambhu, he had evolved with the times. He no longer carries a gun and is not a hunter but an animal conservationist. "Shambhu rescues animals and ensures they reach an animal sanctuary or rescue shelter now," he said.
Shambhu's wife Shanti, Mascarenhas said, had also changed. While Shambhu is still terrified of her, they have now done away with the stereotypical representation of her brandishing a rolling pin.
The team has also added new characters like muscle man Shaurya to make things more complex and interesting for the children today. "They want to see Shambhu bungling up but still being a hero." The comic now has mash-ups and crossovers where Shambhu and Suppandi stories intersect.
Suppandi has also changed, said Mascarenhas. Now it is Super Suppandi, who messes up on another level altogether. Super Suppandi often imagines situations to be more complex and dangerous than they are. He sees a rat, but he thinks it's a monster. Mascarenhas said this was inspired by Calvin and Hobbes.
"We don't want to show these characters growing old, because that's scary."
The original Suppandi was a servant who bungled up anything his master asked him to do. "We have done away with that. Suppandi now works in various places—offices, shops etc. He still loses his job in a day!" Suppandi now has a house of his own where he lives with his friend Maddy, but Mascarenhas admits he doesn't know where he gets the money to maintain it.
Mascarenhas also created stories from Shambhu's childhood called Little Shambhu—this is a series of its own. He said that the characters evolved with the ages but didn't actually age themselves, because there was too much at stake.
"We don't want to show these characters growing old, because that's scary," he said.
Mascarenhas said that comics often have better recall value and children can learn more because pictures register better in the memory. "Lots of parents think that reading comics like Tinkle is not really reading. They don't take comics seriously but don't realise that comics can enhance children's reading," he said.
There were plans to do animated shorts for Suppandi and Shambhu as well, but just as a way to get more children to read the comics. Tinkle is also planning to get into merchandising to compete with new comic characters like Chhota Bheem.
The team at Tinkle are also working at revamping an old fan favourite—Kaalia the crow.
Kaalia's character, Mascarenhas said, was more of an environmental hindrance than a help. He never allowed Chamataka, the fox, to eat anything. How the fox survived is a question that has plagued them for a while and, as a result, there are plans to reboot the series.
So what do Shambhu's eyes really look like?
Mascarenhas says that it was Halbe's brilliant idea to draw the character with his eyes hidden. Halbe's brief was only that the character was a hunter—he came up with the hat covering Shambhu's eyes and it has stayed on ever since.
That famed hat, however, has fallen off at times.
"Writers make it difficult for us when they write scenes with the hat falling off, but we artists have to deal with it creatively," he said. So whenever the hat falls down, a bird swoops by or a branch falls down, so readers don't see Shambhu without his hat.
Will we ever get to do so?
"Never," Mascarenhas grins.