Thank you Charuhas Pandit sir for making Balbharati and English lessons so enjoyable.
It was a Sunday afternoon. My friends and I were regaling ourselves watching Instagram reels. When I glanced up at the clock, the time was 3.50 pm. I sprung up on my feet, quickly opening a chat window on WhatsApp. “Call me any time after four,” read the last message.
On pins and needles, I excused myself, went into the adjoining room, searched for the number in my contact list and placed the call. With bated breath and eyes shut, I waited for the voice on the other end of the line.
I wasn’t particularly bright in school, but I loved my English Balbharati for its lovely stories. I’d pore over it almost immediately after purchasing it at the beginning of the academic year.
While the stories were well-curated, what made the reading experience even better were the illustrations in the book.
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One day, when every single story and poem was read, I glanced at the oft-overlooked second page of the book that gave away the printing details. There, a name stood out to me — “Charuhas Pandit.”
I was reading the name of the person who did the illustrations for the Balbharati textbook. Like a red hot brand, the name was imprinted in my mind. I would never forget it for the remainder of my life.
Many, many moons later, I was helping my Linguistics professor clean out the department cupboard at SNDT University. As fate would have it, among them, were a few old edition Balbharatis.
As I thumbed through the aged pages of the textbooks, the stories, the poems and of course, the illustrations that were such a big part of my childhood came rushing back to me.
Instead of swiping the books, I asked my professor whether I could keep them. To my delight, she agreed and I took home a chunk of my childhood which I thought was lost forever.
Recently, as I was cleaning out my bookshelf, I found myself leafing through those old pages again and had an urge to look up the artist himself. I finally found him on Instagram and sent him an interview request.
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I barely expected a reply, thinking that the message may end up in his inbox for years before someone sees it. So imagine my joy when there was a reply: “You can reach out to sir on (the phone number).”
A chat with Charuhas Pandit
“Hello?” said the voice on the other end. Just as I had imagined, Charuhas sir spoke in a mellow tone we often associate with artists.
For the next few minutes, I rambled on and on about my childhood, the English textbooks, his illustrations and the indelible effect they had on my imagination.
As giddy as I was with the excitement, he was equally confounded.
Why would someone ask him specifically about Balbharati, especially since he’s a celebrated cartoonist behind the famous Sakal comic strip “Chintoo”?
Patiently, he waited for me to pause somewhere between sentences so he could slip in the crucial question. “I usually have people approach me for Chintoo, but not many know that I worked for Balbharati,” he chuckled.
I knew that his work for Balbharati, between 1983 and 2003, was a speck in his rather illustrious oeuvre. But I had my reasons.
“Your illustrations encouraged me to read more as a child. Part of the reason why I am a writer today is due to the extra attention I paid during English class, thanks to you,” I told him as he laughed in disbelief.
The Balbharati Chapter
If you are a Mumbai millennial who studied state board, you can’t possibly forget Balbharati — the English textbook.
Between classes 1 and 8, our English textbooks were peppered with brilliant illustrations that ensured our eyes were glued to the pages when the teacher went about with the English lessons.
The person tasked with the enormous responsibility was Charuhas Pandit. He was all of 22-23 when he took up the assignment.
After studying art in Pune with illustration as his specialisation, Charuhas sir took up commercial or applied art as his profession.
“In my college days, I did a lot of freelance illustration and after that, I started my own ad agency. While the ad agency gave me money, the illustrations I did on the side were merely for artistic satisfaction,” he said.
While working as a cartoonist for Sakal, he landed an illustration assignment with two writers who had penned down their experiences with children from a child psychologists’ angle. “They liked how I interpreted their thoughts,” he added.
A chance meeting with a committee member from the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production & Curriculum Research clinched him his Balbharati assignment.
I was surprised to know that he assumed the mantle from Mario Miranda, the previous illustrator of Balbharati who had to leave due to other professional commitments.
“They liked what I did and said, ‘Come on board and see what you can do.'”.
And the rest, of course, was history.
The brief was clear; the bureau needed someone to capture the essence of the stories in a way that appealed to children. How did he crack it?
His response was rooted in modesty: “Frankly, there was no thought process to speak of. It was very unconscious. I just went with the flow, at least initially.”
Back in 83, in the absence of the internet, the world was a different place for an illustrator.
“To do my research, I had to refer to a huge library of books from across the world. It was essential to stay true to the culture as well as the time period from where the story is drawn,” he explained.
Charuhas sir’s attention to detail was not lost on me even as a child. For instance, this image has been taken from a story set in Russia. Note the ushanka worn by the character on the left.
This one below was taken from the lesson on the Greek legend of Pheidippides who inspired the marathon race.
“When in Mumbai, I would cruise through the Flora Fountain area where old books were sold to look up the illustrations from across cultures. Even minute details, like the differences between Greek and Roman, had to be brought out in the illustrations,” he explained.
There were other challenges too. He had to execute the illustrations keeping the restrictions of space and printing quality in mind.
“But did you enjoy doing it?” I asked him.
“Yes, but it was taxing. I was also running my own agency and doing comics for Sakal,” he replied in the earnest.
Shared personal values with the then Balbharati English language special officer Dhanvanti Hardikar made the work even more fulfilling.
“I had a good tuning with her. She contributed immensely and was a far cry from the regular ‘sarkari officer’ we know of” he said.
Chintoo and life beyond Balbharati
Chintoo is undoubtedly Charuhas sir’s most well-known work. A comic strip he started in November 1991 with his then copywriter Prabhakar Wadekar, Chintoo is a young middle-class boy who regales us the readers with his everyday adventures.
“I was always enjoyed comics and cartoons. I loved Mad Magazine, Tin Tin, and Asterix and Obelix. But I was not interested in regular political cartoons,” he explained.
He noted that there was a dearth of homegrown funnies in the newspapers back then. “There were many western comics — from Hagar The Horrible to Garfield. While they were good on their own, I thought newspapers needed one with Indian characters. That’s how Chintoo happened,” he revealed.
These days, there’s something else that has been occupying Charuhas sir’s time. He’s been creating art out of wood as part of a venture “Srujan Art”, which he started with his wife Bhagyashree.
These artefacts are intricate overlays of wood pieces precisely cut to create a 3D effect.
“Somewhere around 2005 and 2007, I started getting bored of advertising and tired of having to work according to someone else’s ideas. So I thought of creating something different,” he said.
As our chat drew to a close, he mentioned my drawings on the website. Half embarrassed and half pleased to know that he had taken notice, I asked him what he thought about it.
“It’s a unique style. I think both children and adults will like it,” he said.
It was a perfect note to conclude our talk on — having my work evaluated by my childhood idol. What more could I ask for? Thank you once again Charuhas sir.