Reggie Candappa: advertising life


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Reggie Candappa at his favourite pastime. Had four successful one-man exhibitions. Photograph at the background features three of his grandchildren (Photograph by L. E. Samararatne)

by Malinda Seneviratne
Advertisements enthrall me. The high quality ones as well as those that are ridiculous humour me and give my the kicks that help suffer social processes that are hard to celebrate. Advertisements are also revealing of social process in that they are a powerful medium of ideology dissemination.

I love windows and to the extent that they constitute a window into the minds of those who play with our minds, I have become an avid consumer of advertisements and a conscious bypasser of their subjects, i.e., the largely unnecessary products we are told to purchase.

Times have changed and the changing times have sent that creative breed called advertisers in new directions, not all of which can be celebrated. Today politicians contract advertisers to alter their suspect images and produce veritable cherubs for the voters to cuddle. Multinationals and their agents use them to push their agendas down the throats of the people they seek to plunder. Advertising campaigns are no longer limited to make popular a simple product or a brand name. Advertisers, therefore, have my respect, though not necessarily my admiration.

Reggie Candappa, by all accounts, is a special name in the advertising field. After all he is the Chairman of the leading advertising company in the country, Grant McCann-Erickson, among other things of course. At the ripe age of 82 he can certainly claim to have seen it all, from the early days of simple illustrations right up to the electronic age where drawing skills and word play have to be complemented by the ability to make thing dance on the computer. He had a story to tell, and as I found out, not just about his chosen field.

Reginald Sebastian Rodrigo Candappa was born in 1919 and was originally named Ragendra. His father, A. R. Candappa, a Colombo Chetty, a former Inspector of Police and a widower had at the age of 40 had one day gone to the Kelaniya temple with the vidanaarachchi... There he had met a 16 year old girl, Kalubowila Arachchige Dona Alice, who had come to offer flowers at the temple. The vidanaarachchi had been requested to make inquiries and Candappa Snr. had ended up marrying her, converting to Buddhism in the process. Tragedy struck, however, just three months after young Reggie was born. His father, a widower once again, is said to have checked the baby’s horoscope and had discovered that he was the cause of his mother’s death. The distraught man had wanted to give the child away.

"That Christmas, I was later told, there had been a party and a cousin of my father’s had come to play cards. I had been brought into the room and he had said ‘nice baby’. My step-sister had asked him ‘uncleta oneda meyava?’ and he had replied ‘yes’. Apparently he had been high at that point. A week later my step-sister is supposed to have made an appearance at his place in Kotahena carrying me. My uncle, John Cassie Chetty, a landed proprietor, living with his three brothers and sister, took me in. None of them knew how to raise a child, it had been like Snow White and the dwarfs. He had gone out and bought a cow so that I would have enough milk.

"Anyway, they showered me with love and affection, and gave me a good education. I was christened as Reginald, sent to St. Benedict’s and later to St. Joseph’s. I did not know my father until I was 12, when he came to see me, learning that I was sick."

Young Reggie had demonstrated early in life his latent talent for art. Apparently his talent was first recognised by J. P. de Fonseka, a teacher at St. Joseph’s and a famous literary figure of his day. It had been on Remembrance Day, November 11th, where the entire country had to observe two minutes of silence in memory of war heroes. Reggie had produced a sketch of a fat man on a wastepaper basket, smoking a cigarette hanging from a cigarette-holder with the words ‘Made in Japan’ written on it.

"Anything ‘Made in Japan’ was considered third rate at that time. I passed the sketch around the class and the entire class erupted in laughter. The teacher was naturally angry and demanded that the piece of paper be handed over."

Instead of being angry and punishing Reggie, Fonseka had laughed and wanted to know who had drawn it. He had said that Reggie possessed an extraordinary talent and gone on to talk about cartoons and cartoonists. Later that year, he had told the editor of the school magazine "Blue and White" to get Reggie to do the illustrations. He had also told Fr. Edmund Peiris about Reggie and that is how Reggie got to illustrate a series of text books authored by the priest.

"He wanted me to illustrate Aesop’s Fables, giving them a religious twist. He also wanted me to do the cover, suggesting that I have Christ standing on a moonstone, flanked by a boy and a girl and standing under a Kandyan arch. I hadn’t seen a moonstone nor a Kandyan arch, so he showed me Ananda Coomaraswamy’s ‘Medieval Sinhala Art’ and opened my world to Oriental Art."

Reggie warmly expressed his gratitude: "These teachers could have crushed me, and I would never have become what I am today. They had vision."

After the Matriculation exam, Reggie had set his sights on becoming an architect, since he did not see any scope in becoming an artist. He had joined the Technical College to study architecture. The courses had been at night, so he had attended art classes in the morning. While still a student, he had read an article in the Sunday Observer about one S. Shanmuganathan, an architect and a versatile man, and had been duly impressed. A couple of days later he had gone to Paiva’s Tea Room. As he parked his bike and looked up, he had seen a signboard with the words "S. Shanmuganathan, Architect".

Deciding that he must meet the man, Reggie had got some of his drawings and got an appointment. Shanmuganathan had said "I can give you a table, but no salary. You can work and learn here".

"He had a fabulous library, with books on typography, painters etc. I was soon doing posters, book covers etc., in addition to drawing plans."

The war intervened, naturally, and Reggie had moved with his family to Eheliyagoda. It was in Eheliyagoda that Reggie Candappa the Advertiser was really born. He had seen a classified ad calling for a free lance artist and had responded. He had then got a reply from the Managing Director of Swadeshi Industrial Works, who wanted him to get back to him with specimens of advertisements. Reggie, never having done advertisements before, had gone to Ratnapura and got copies of the Illustrated Weekly of India.

"I got some ideas and did some illustrations with Rani Sandalwood Soap. The Managing Director wanted 10 ads every month at Rs. 20 per ad. I was in clover!"

Later, when Swadeshi expanded, Reggie was doing 20-25 ads a month. When the war ended, Reggie decided to set up his own office, his dream being to have one like Shanmuganathan’s. His office was situated in Prince Street, near Swadeshi and he had about three or four artists working under him.

His initials, RSRC had become quite famous and he was getting calls from various companies. Once he had gone to Lake House to get a block made. There he had met Bernard de Silva who later became the Government Printer. Bernard had seen the ad that Reggie had designed and had asked for permission to show it to D. R. Wijewardena. Apparently Wijewardena had also been impressed and had asked Bernard to offer Reggie a job at Lake House as an artist.

"I said ‘no’, but became bosom pals with Bernard. Later, when the artist at Lake House had gone on leave, Bernard got me to do some art work. I was asked to do a crest of the Royal Air Force. I had to go to the Department of Information. I went with a note from Bernard to Anandatissa de Alwis. Anandatissa soon became a friend. I was already friends with Pieter Keuneman, Doreen Wickremesinghe and Sanmugathasan and was well versed in Marxism. In fact I illustrated cover designs for them. Anandatissa was in charge of the propaganda for the war effort and wanted me to help him. Later I helped him start a journal called "Lanka". I financed it and illustrated it."

Reggie showed me a bound copy of the magazine. Even the most casual perusal was enough to tell me that it was a top quality product. The magazine had failed because, according to Reggie, they didn’t know how to handle the finances. Apparently a friend who was in charge of finances had pocketed a fair amount of their income.

It was around this time that something happened which changed Reggie’s life and lifestyle forever. As is often the case, it had to do with love. Reggie had fallen for the daughter of a Gate Mudaliyar. Naturally, the family didn’t want their daughter having anything to do with an artist and certainly not with one who didn’t have a steady income. A situation that called for drastic measures, and Reggie being the flamboyant character he is, had taken up the challenge.

He had gone to court with a habeas corpus application. The girl, Therese Senadheera, had been 6 months short of her 21st birthday and the judge had postponed the case for six months. Her parents had tried to force her to marry someone else, so Reggie had to contemplate eloping with her.

"Anandatissa and Anton Wickramasinghe (later Chairman of the Film Corporation) took me to an astrologer, Prof. Sunder. He told me that astrology is not a supposition but an exact science and predicted that I would never marry the girl."

The young couple had eloped, but Reggie was faced with a big problem. He didn’t have a place to take her to since all his friends were single, living with their parents. Anton had said he would speak with Prof. Sunder, who had agreed to let them stay at his place. About his prediction, Prof. Sunder had said "I knew all the problems, so I wanted to save you all the trouble".

Trouble was putting it mildly. The girl’s father had complained to Reggie’s family and they had threatened to cut him off. Naturally they were disappointed with him.

"I didn’t have a car, my wife’s family had cut her off too, so I told her that we will have to use bus. One day, on our way to see a film at the Regal, some drunks got into the bus and someone vomited all over. My wife refused to go by bus after that, so I bought two bikes for us. It was a disgrace for a Gate Mudaliyar to have his daughter riding a bike! Her father gave our marriage just 6 months, but we were together until six months ago, when she died.

"Things were bad, so I called up Bernard and told him I am interested in getting a job. He got me an appointment with D. R. Wijewardena, who interviewed me for two hours. I asked for a salary of Rs. 350 a month and settled for 300, which was quite good since the editor of the Daily News was getting only 500."

Reggie joined Lake House in 1946 and remained there for 12 years. "It was a great opening for me. I was trained in printing, print production, wrote articles, drew political cartoons, and illustrated the Sunday Observer. I became famous, and ended up with four desks, in the Advertising Department, Art Department, Engraving Department and the lithographic Department."

Six months after he got married, Reggie had been contacted by the propaganda officer of the Department of Commerce and Industry, who wanted him to do some slides. He was paid 500 rupees for the work and promptly bought a car for Rs. 1,500, which he had driven up and down the road in front of his father-in-law’s house!

Things had improved thereafter. His wife also got a job at Lake House, working for the Navayugaya. Around 1957, the American Embassy had offered the Lake House a scholarship for a journalist. Reggie had been nominated since the management wanted to give it to a working journalist. "They didn’t want to be seen as having been bought over by the USA."

"The scholarship involved two semesters at North Western University, a month each at two workplaces and a month of travel within the USA. I opted to work for Time Life and Sunset, in California. But three weeks before I was due to leave, George Gomes, Managing Director of Lake House told me that Grant Advertising had wanted to open a branch here and asked him to recommend someone to head it. He had suggested me for the job. I asked him what would happen to my scholarship and he said I could use it. His argument was that advertising was going to be important in the future and that he wanted a friend to head this international agency.

"Grant Advertising was one of the 10 largest agencies and was based in Chicago. So instead of going to Time Life and Sunset, I thought I would work at Grant offices in Chicago and Hollywood. I went with my wife, stopping in countries where Grants had offices, getting a good overall view of the organisation. When I returned I held an exhibition of photographs titled ‘One World’, the theme being that people are the same everywhere in the world when it comes to their day to day engagements, their poverty, their laughter etc."

Grants had given him just a thousand dollars to start things in Colombo. "This included my salary, starting up costs, rent, legal fees etc. I started at home, on my dining table. I had contacts with all the business houses because of Lake House and managed to get a lot of business to Grants."

From that dining table, beginning as an employee, Reggie Candappa went on to own the company (which now only has a management contract with the parent organisation) with over 140 employees.

I asked him if he always thought like an advertiser. He said "in a way, yes". And yet, Reggie is certainly more than that. He is a painter, having held four one man exhibitions. In 1988 he was honoured with the "Kalapathy" award by the Ceylon Society of Arts, when it celebrated its centenary, for his contributions to art and culture. In 1993 he was conferred the national honour of "Deshabandu". He is also a trustee of the Ceylon Society of Arts as well as the George Keyt Foundation, the President of the Colombo Chetty Association, the President of the Community Concern Society, an organisation that rehabilitates poor children, and the Chairman of the Colombo Club, one of the oldest clubs in Asia, re-elected for the 10th time last December.

Reggie acknowledges that advertising as a field has undergone vast changes. "Back then, if you could write and draw, it was enough. Now you have to do research and be conversant with the technology and that is something that changes fast. This is why we have a division called ‘Strategic Planning’."

An amiable man and an excellent conversationalist whose anecdotes flow from one to another much like a series of images that helps enhance the marketability of a given product, Reggie is nevertheless someone who revels in a healthy work ethic. I asked him what gives him the drive to do all things he does, even at his age. "I want to excel. I have always been a versatile reader. I want to learn. Even now I am taking classes so that I can be upto date about the internet. It is these things that have kept me alive and keeps me abreast of things."

Listening to Reggie, it occurred to me that it is probable that the most creative among us are being sucked in by the advertising industry, perhaps because we have, as a society, by and large been consumed by the money ethic. Artistic genius, instead of focusing on bringing out the finer sensibilities of the human being is being channelled into enhancing the worth of a given product; instead of honing our critical faculties, enslaving us, shaping our tastes. That, after all, is the ultimate goal of any advertisement.

Reggie, a consumer himself (like us all), seems to have escaped from that unhappy prison for I found his remarks about politics and power to be extremely cogent. I could see how he would endear himself to all his friends. As a comrade in a political situation he would have been indispensable. Maybe the fact that he has lost nothing of his humanity even on that which I consider to be "the other side" in the broader division of ideological terrain, is enough. Maybe what is more important is not that he is an advertiser but that his life itself is an advertisement, for he advertises life, in all its colours, all its subtle nuances and delicate melodies.