Building himself as a brand, he drew a lot from his first career as cartoonist to fashion his second as politician


In 1998, on Christmas Eve, when the rest of Mumbai was slipping into festive mood, it was business as usual at Matoshree. Bal Thackeray received me in a room not much bigger than Dilbert's cubicle. A considerable clientele waited in a much larger anteroom that could well have been part of a lawyer's or a doctor's chamber.

There was a routine functional air about the place — nothing that gave away the practitioner's background. There wasn't a single framed cartoon original on the wall, not even that rare one he signed off as "Thack" in his Free Press Journal days. Nor one by his younger brother Shrikant Thackeray, cartoonist, violinist and composer of film music, who single-handedly produced Marmik, the Shiv Sena weekly. Nor a caricature by the third cartooning Thackeray — Raj, Shrikant's son, very much the visible scion then. Such familial convergence of cartooning is singular, the politics it spawned no less.

Quite unlike the soloists of our regional democracies — MGR, NTR, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati... — Bal Thackeray chose to simplify his image. He had little use for overwhelming hoardings, cut-outs and statues. The cartoonist made his point with characteristic economy. In bold strokes and blobs of black that framed the white. Hair jet black, garment in flowing white plus that little flourish to lift the visual — three beaded necklaces, one with a metallic Om sign. Those were confident clean-shaven days before the beard appeared, costume turned saffron and the necklaces lengthened and multiplied to make up for waning power.

Not that he minded adulation, but it was attention Thackeray sought most. Perhaps our first post-feudal supremo, he knew he was in a big business city. He built himself up more as a visible brand than an aloof icon by serially baiting and taunting his rival brands. He drew a lot out of his first career to fashion his second — picked easy targets, caricatured them mercilessly, dwelt on themes obsessively and delivered the polarising message with compulsive clarity.

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