Of the thousands of sketches and cartoons that BV Panduranga Rao has drawn, he has missed seeing the first one getting printed. Sadly, that joy was not to be his. It is a tale that he has recounted many times to different people.

Sometime in May 1955, he learnt that a sketching competition had been organised by the Indian Express newspaper in Chennai, then called Madras. As a kid, if there was one passion he had, it was sketching. He decided to try his luck and send his entry for the newspaper. As he asked whoever he could, he was told not to sketch using a pencil. So, he used a ‘black Indian ink’ to complete his work.

After completing his work, Rao decided to be part of the competition and sent it by post for publication in Children’s Corner, the pullout of the Indian Express. Over half a century ago, there was hardly any other option. To his surprise, his work stood out amongst all the entries that had been received. Nearly two weeks later, someone who had travelled from Chennai to Mysore told him that the sketch had been published. Rao, could not believe his luck. He tried moving heaven and Earth but could not lay his hands on a copy of the day’s newspaper.

“There was little I could do. But I did try my best. I wrote letters to them but finally I gave up when I realised that it was difficult,” Rao says, the tinge of regret perceptible in his voice.

As a kid, Rao had developed the habit of sketching on a slate using a balapa, the hard chalkstone used by kindergarten and junior school children. Born in Mysore, he studied at the government primary school till the fourth grade at his hometown, Sidlaghatta. As his father moved from one location to another, Rao was moved to his grandfather’s home at Mysore where he completed his schooling. He would draw on the floor, on the walls and anywhere possible using the balapa.

The sketch that got printed in the newspaper was one of the first ones in ‘black Indian ink’ as it was called. While none in his family perhaps got to see it, but in Mysore it helped him earn a name as someone who could do a good job with sketching.

Several decades later, the man who was so fond of using the balapa found recognition in the 2010 edition of the Limca Book of Records, for the highest number of international awards for drawing cartoons as a hobby.

The Dasara at Mysore

Mysore’s Dasara celebrations are known for their pomp and glory around the country. The decorations at the Mysore palace, home to the erstwhile rulers of the state, the Wodeyar family, have attracted thousands of curious onlookers from far and wide. Over the years, they have also added cultural events where artists and performers present their skills for everyone to see.

At the Dasara celebrations, someone used to curate paintings by children too. It was not amongst the most popular sections but certainly was an opportunity to get noticed. Since Rao had earned some name, his panting was one of those chosen to be amongst those on display. For a kid, barely in his teens, it was the first experience of seeing his work being put up for the public to appreciate.

“I saw my sketches among several others and was very, very happy,” Rao recalls of the time.

The sketching and painting continued as he completed his three-year engineering education from Chintamani Government Polytechnic. While his specialisation was mechanical engineering, his sketching skills had started getting him attention. After completing his engineering diploma, he managed a job at a steel manufacturing company in Bangalore “for experience only,” since he was not being paid for his work. He had also enrolled at the local employment exchange, while looking for a paying job. There was enough time to make cartoons and send them to newspapers for publication.

The opportunities, or the lack of them, steeled him for tough times ahead.

New place, new job, new passion

Enrolling at the employment exchange helped and he was chosen to be a senior operating trainee with Bhilai Steel Plant, one of India’s best-known plants. He joined the plant on September 6, 1965 for a princely monthly salary of Rs. 100, of which Rs. 5 was deducted because he was living in the company provided accommodation!

The noise and temperatures at a steel plant were not for the weak hearted. Having learnt the basics at the Bangalore plant, Rao was prepared. The company had decided that whoever scored the highest marks during training would be given the option to choose the department he wanted to work in. Rao got a chance to work at the coke oven batteries. But his heart was elsewhere!

At the local publication for the employees, called BSP magazine, Rao’s cartoons became a regular feature. He would often post his cartoons around issues around the industry, plant, people, environment and pollution and other similar issues. Soon, people in the office wanted to have a cartoon or sketch from him on their desk, walls and occasionally even in their presentations!

As his popularity graph headed north, the first exhibition of his cartoons was held on December 20 & 21, 1980. It was a milestone that changed his career as a person who was working on the shop floor to the one whose pen did the talking.  It was time for take-off.

The dream for Limca Book of Records

He does not remember the exact month but sometime in 1990, Rao was in Delhi for work. At Khan Market, he saw the Limca Book of Records at a book shop, which had Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar on the cover. It was natural for a cricket fan to pick it up and he kept a copy with him.

All this while, after his first exhibition, he had been collecting awards from India and other countries since he would often send his cartoons to different parts of the world. Some years later, a friend who saw Limca Book of Records suggested that he should send it for being recognised for his exhibitions as a cartoonist. By then, as a hobby cartoonist, he had earned 25 awards from different institutions from India and overseas

As the recognition from Limca Book of Records happened, his name as a cartoonist spread far and wide.

In 2006, there was another high that he achieved. He was visiting House of Kalam in Rameshwaram, the residence of the former President of India which was converted into a museum in 2011. Sitting there, he drew a caricature of the former president. Some months later, he got an opportunity to meet him while he was in office. He requested for an autograph on the caricature that he had drawn. Kalam gave in to his request. The autographed caricature of the former President is now placed at the entrance of Kalam House at Rameshwaam.

“The sketch with his autograph is one of my fondest memories of the days when I have followed one of my passions,” Rao says.

When he was not working on the shop floor, he was taking part in badminton tournaments, and played cricket for Bhilai Steel Plant for 12 years too. He also umpired in first-class matches and was part of the panel for Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association. All this while, his wife took care of the house while he pursued his passion and profession. Sadly, she passed away last year.

Rao misses her but that has not dimmed his passion. He has now qualified to be part of the Veterans Masters Badminton Championships tournament will be held in Goa in July 2019. Each state will send two of their best badminton players across different age categories. He also plans to visit the house legendary cartoonist Mario Miranda, who passed away a few years ago.

“I was a steelmaker doing a very serious job. I ended up being known for being a cartoonist, a job known for humour,” Rao sums up his experience. With over 50 exhibitions of his cartoons and over 100 awards for which he holds 10 records in the Limca Book of Records, he did take his job seriously!