Cartooning chartbusters

E.P. UNNY

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MALAYALAM newspapers might go without the masthead, but never the cartoon on page one. Turn the pages and you’ll find more. Kerala’s cartoonists are more professional than elsewhere in the Indian language press, and organized as well. The state has a cartoon academy, now past its silver jubilee, and the country’s only Lalithakala Akademi that honours this ‘low art’ with annual awards and an exhibition.

As any skilled Keralite, the cartoonist too has ventured out, most visibly to the national capital and has made the occasional global foray. London’s Fleet Street hosted Abu Abraham for sixteen years from 1953 and Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review was carrying O.V. Vijayan in the 1960s. Back home, the success story quickly caught up with television. P. Mohanan crossed over with the regular cartoon and Anil Banerji (very much a Malayali) set a more TV-friendly trend with his cartoonish sitcom ‘Munshi’, logging 2000 daily episodes on Asianet TV.

Between the morning paper and the evening TV, the place generates a steady surfeit of satire but how? If you are into heritage, you can look for clues in a distant enough past. The conventional connect is the 18th century temple art Ottan Thullal, where the performer had the ritual sanction to mock the mighty. The exponent Kunjan Nambiar made the language itself perform as never before – sound and sense in such sync that his wicked verses retain a synaptic grip to this day. However, while there are other languages with similar comedic traditions, there are none with a matching cartoon culture.

In the cartooning context, Malayali satire could as well be traced back to a more recent past, the middle decades of the last century and to a less hoary setting – the tea shop. Adrian C. Mayer, a social anthropologist who visited Malabar in 1950, found in the wayside tea shops the first breakdown of inter-dining caste taboos. By the 1960s, a familiar sign on the shop walls was: ‘Don’t discuss politics here.’ Having dared caste barriers, Malayalis weren’t exactly exchanging pleasantries over a cup of tea. Verbal cartoons on the politics of the day must have flown thick and fast, waiting to be drawn. This then is the key to Kerala’s cartooning edge, its appetite for politics – more precisely the politics of change.

 

No wonder a Malayali came to do cartoons for Delhi when it was making political history. After a part-time cartooning stint in Mumbai, the 30 year old Shankar Pillai from the erstwhile Travancore state came to the Raj capital in 1932. For the next 14 years, from the front page of The Hindustan Times, he prepared the cartoon for Free India. In those heady days, the Nehruvian script would have been woefully incomplete without this visual satire, already a tested tool of dissent in the western press that Panditji valued.

True again to the Nehruvian propensity for institution building, Shankar created quite a few of his own – Children’s Book Trust, Dolls Museum and, remarkably, for a solo-flying career, a collective for generational shift, the Shankar’s Weekly. From 1948 to 1975, the weekly offered the best available mentoring to a talent pool that had an overwhelming Malayali presence – be it P.K.S. Kutty, T. Samuel, Kerala Varma, Abu Abraham and O.V. Vijayan, all of whom stayed on with English publications, or B.M. Gafoor and Yesudasan, who returned to Malayalam cartooning.

Three cartoonists of Malayali origin who worked out of Delhi

P.K.S. Kutty

Courtesy AajKaal

Shankar

Courtesy, ‘Don’t Spare me, Shankar’, Children’s Book Trust, Delhi.

O.V. Vijayan (below)

Courtesy The Statesman

It would be easy to attribute this Malayali convergence in the cartoon magazine to the founder editor’s clannish comfort. The third floor lodgings of the Shankar’s Weekly above Connaught Place’s Odeon cinema would have felt a bit like Kerala’s extended family presided over by a patriarch. On closer look though, Shankar’s hiring and training come across as lot less personalized. He did have his exacting norms about cartoon craft but unlike the Walt Disney studio, imposed no house style on the acolytes. It is difficult to imagine a more divergent band emerging from a single platform, each moving on to become a professional in his own right.

 

Again, in the three decades and a half since the closure of Shankar’s Weekly, new Malayali cartoonists have continued to pop up in the national capital – Ravi Shankar in the 1980s (The Indian Express), Bonny Thomas (The Economic Times) and E. Suresh (The Statesman) in the 1990s and, more recently, R. Prasad (Mail Today) and Sajith Kumar (The Financial Chronicler). How does one of the country’s smaller linguistic regions consistently throw up export-grade practitioners of an art by no means common, besides nurturing considerable talent locally?

Cartooning is among the most difficult of instant arts, one that demands the widest of skills – quick artwork and quicker appraisal to ideating with a comic flair. While such diverse attributes rarely converge in an individual, cartoonists are actually not such rarified stand alone artists as they are made out to be. The breed has in fact clustered in societies as diverse as the democratic West, the erstwhile East Bloc, traditional and techno-savvy Japan, and a Pakistan that defies description. In each case, there must be contextual factors that motivate individual practitioners.

Now don’t look for the ready model – the familiar folly of the Kerala watcher. There is little overarching commonality between any two of the cartooning clusters, not even a functioning democracy that formalizes dissent. Each cluster is best seen in its own setting. Given its sheer cartooning abundance, Kerala too must have its specific cartoon-friendly factors. A good way to stress test the Kerala impact is to see how it played out in the practitioners who left home.

 

Barring two accomplished cartoonists of Malayali origin, Manjula Padmanabhan and Ajit Ninan, the rest of the expat lot has had as much of a Kerala upbringing as the home-bound ones. Local influences apply across the board. Shankar himself didn’t spring out of a vacuum. Kayamkulam where he grew up was within reach of Kollam town, arguably Kerala’s gateway to cartooning. The earliest Malayalam cartoon excavated so far was published here in 1919 in a local humour journal. Titled Kshamadevatha (Goddess of Famine), this bare line drawing, modelled predictably on the Punch cartoon, was showcased by the editor (as yet anonymous) as a satirical visual form popular in the West that should hopefully catch on here. Too sombre to raise a laugh, this early Malayalam cartoon nonetheless had telltale signs of the unsparing political gaze which, more than anything else, has marked the Malayali’s cartoon.

 

Many Punch clones mushroomed in the then Kollam featuring the occasional cartoon that must have caught the schoolgoing Shankar’s eye – enough for him to caricature his headmaster and get into trouble, the baptism by fire common to the profession. When Shankar came to Thiruvananthapuram to join the then Maharaja’s College, his access to supporting material must have surely improved. The native state of Travancore prided in its educational thrust and the medium of higher learning was English, a sure passport for the job hunter, particularly so if you are seeking a career that involves terse and witty verbal expression. The capital town itself was in the throes of a nationalist movement, at once taking on the local royalty and the British Raj.

Courtesy Mathrubhumi

Courtesy Malayala Manorama

The front page pocket cartoon, a must in Malayalam newspapers

An aspiring cartoonist couldn’t have asked for more in terms of cerebral and emotional inputs, but where did this beginner get his cartooning craft that betrays an amazingly early maturity? Like all pioneers in the colonies, he had a colonial role model to look up to – the legendary David Low, whom he eventually met up with during his mid-career sabbatical in London. By then Shankar had already tropicalized the borrowed format. There was enough in his early Kerala life to prompt this instinctive adaptation.

 

In a Delhi driven by personality politics, this cartoonist came to deal with scores of political heavyweights who flocked around Gandhiji and Nehru. He often packed as many as 25 of them into a single cartoon frame. The template has the look and feel of festive congregations a Kerala kid grows up with. Not a chaotic clutter but a stylized ordered ensemble where everyone has her place. Again, there are reflections of his well-known love for Kathakali and theatre in the way Shankar foregrounded characters and depicted gestures and stance. This went well with the self-image of the then national capital as the centre-stage that performed for the entire nation.

 

The Kerala connect is even more apparent in P.K.S. Kutty, Shankar’s prime disciple. Shankar had to wait till his freelancing days in Mumbai to be discovered by the legendary editor, Pothen Joseph; Kutty was spotted right in his home state by M.R. Nair, better known by his pen name, Sanjayan. A literary critic, humourist and a much adored teacher of English at Kozhikode’s Malabar Christian College, Sanjayan mainstreamed the Malayalam cartoon in the weeklies he edited, Sanjayan and Viswaroopam, not just in terms of supporting talents like Kutty and M. Bhaskaran but by promoting cartoon awareness and readership. So much so that the laid-back port town of Kozhikode in the late 1930s came to acquire subscribers for the Punch magazine in unlikely numbers.

Long displaced from his place of origin and quite at ease in the country’s capital, Kutty wasn’t particularly prone to the nostalgic lapse. But his art carried much from back home. He would, for instance, ask you to work on a caricature as a musician perfects the raga through sadhakam (repetitive practice). Kutty hails from Ottappalam in Palakkad district, a region with a surfeit of classical music and performing arts which traditionally train by rote. Again, when Kutty took up cartooning in Bengali, a language he did not know, the first language did the bridging.

Apart from Marxism, Bengal and Kerala have long been connected by a one-way flow of literature from the former to the latter. Enough to sensitize Kutty to the mores of the bhadralok as well as the Bihari, Oriya migrants who mark Bengali life. He reworked the cartoon into a self-evident visual, supported by a pithy gag that retained its punch through the workaday translation in the newsroom. You can find successfully translated comic art like the Asterix and Tintin comics, but to programme the fragile news cartoon for re-rendering is remarkable.

Cartoonist Thomas’ artwork for an ad.

One expat cartoonist who drew the most from his roots and blossomed amply was O.V. Vijayan. A true star with the gravity of a black hole, Vijayan wrote in Malayalam and English and cartooned in English and Malayalam (in that order). Through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, working out of a Delhi without satellite TV and the Internet, he stayed uncannily tuned to the culture of his first language, deriving from it a delicate prose for his literary writing and lethal punch lines for his Malayalam cartoons. Thematically, he engaged even more with every radical political shift in the horizon, mostly being piloted in his very home state.

Much churning was happening then in Kerala’s left politics – socialist, humanist, radical humanist, Marxist, neo-Marxist, and Maoist – even as religious revivalists were taking surer baby steps. Vijayan whizzed past this spectrum with the characteristic urgency and adversarial slant of the cartoonist, making it difficult to fit him into a frame. He wasn’t reverential enough to humour the left and was far too irreverent to amuse the right. Back home, the readership split – some baying for his blood and some craving for his autograph. This masterly satirist survived largely on the strength of his formidable literary stature.

 

Meanwhile, Kerala’s own cartoonists treated politics as a routine chore, staying clear of combative debate. Not for want of aggression. The place did have its combatants, but they chose to lead the battle into the bedroom. In the 1960s and early ’70s, a recurring metaphor in the Kerala cartoon was the double bed. The state was experimenting, as is its wont, with shifty coalition politics which lent itself to visualizing in terms of marital infidelity. Such cartoons were largely featured by eveningers and periodicals that sought and created a tabloidish readership, a far cry from the literary journalism of a Sanjayan.

The mainstream morning dailies stuck to surer ground. Acknowledging the cartoon’s appeal, they hired tested practitioners like Yesudasan and B.M. Gafoor, both incidentally from the Shankar school. There was no way these even-tempered commentators would hit below the belt or between the eyes. Unlike West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where politics is polarized between two parties, two coalition fronts run Kerala by turn. The sheer multiplicity of parties generates enough daily decibels for the cartoon to retort, and no party gets big enough to retaliate. In the process, the Malayali practitioner was already ready for a Delhi when it first saw closet coalition in the multipolar Janata Party in 1977 and lately, the full-blown ‘coalition dharma’ the BJP and the Congress Party grin and bear.

The recurring bedroom metaphor: Balakrishna Pillai – a small party head trying to woo the ruling coalition.

Courtesy Thanthri, 1970.

Surcharged politics trickled down to a thin stream in the sequential social cartoon Malayalam magazines loved to run. The most popular was Bobanum Moliyum by Toms which began in Malayala Manorama Weekly as a display of pranks by the two kids of a briefless lawyer. It went on to evoke a neighbourhood dotted with stereotypes – the loud-mouthed politico to the trendy hippie. Peppered with amusing sidelights, Toms kept retelling the small town story to assured laughter.

The popular full page back-of-the-book format was put to an altogether different use by G. Aravindan to chronicle a Kerala in social and familial flux. Featuring rounded characters that grew up, aged and moved on, some disappearing and reappearing after years, his Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Little Men and the Big World) evolved seamlessly into a sinewy narrative. It ran in Mathrubhumi Weekly for 13 years from 1961, picking up loyal serial readers who read into it a novel, well before Will Eisner formally proclaimed the birth of the graphic novel in New York in 1978. Whenever the Indian cartoon history gets written, Aravindan will pip Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, for conceiving comic characters that aged over time.

Two veterans, B.M. Gafoor and K.S. Pillai.

Courtesy Malayala Manorama

 

Courtesy Mathrubhumi

The 1960s and ’70s that saw a campus-centred surge in Malayalam literature, arts and cinema, also witnessed the run of an unusual cartoonist who never went to college. Thomas picked up his deft brush work in the village reading room, poring over the back issues of The Hindu that carried David Low’s cartoons. He had little use for the rest of the paper. What he lacked in formal education he made up with enterprise. A natural caricaturist with a comic eye for everyday life, Thomas was as innovative as he was prolific. He ran an ad agency that used the cartoon art to promote retailer to banker.

 

By the 1980s, Malayalam newspapers were gearing up for a growing market, driven largely by rising literacy and the emerging nuclear families. Each neo-literate meant an extra newspaper copy and a new household meant one more. Editions were launched to carpet-bomb an expanding footprint across regions, classes, cultures and dialects. An editorial middle path was suitably mapped out that shunned all extremes and the cartoon, part of the package on offer, had to abide. In the bargain, the cartoonist might have pulled punches but gained a readership that outmatched anything his better-known counterparts in the nation’s English dailies have. Major Malayalam dailies outsell the market leaders in the English press.

This market-savvy phase to its credit sustained even more talent – Gopikrishnan, Raju Nair, Venu, Sujith, Sagir, Unnikrishnan – a varied lot with its share of stars, readers adore and politicians embarrassingly endorse. They raise the laugh in a domain that has however shrunk, mostly for no fault of theirs. Kerala’s print medium has maximized its spread, roping in for good measure the migrant Malayali pockets. Every paper zealously guards its saturated readership, eager to please every little interest group. This means new streams of news, the bulk of which comes from seasonal festivities of temples, churches and mosques. However, in no way does this add to the cartooning domain. Faith is no laughing matter.

Three recent display cartoons

A Marxist MLA quits and defects to contest as a Congress candidate.

Courtesy Malayala Manorama

Manmohan Singh and Anna Hazare.

Courtesy Kerala Kaumudi

Congress CM lets jailbirds, including a political one, stroll out on parole.

Courtesy Mathrubhumi

When new pastures stretch out, the cartoonist looks the other way. Malayalam media covers the new economy extensively and the stock cartooning response is outright market aversion. Highly principled and no less convenient, economics doesn’t yield half as easily to the funny rectangle as party politics. You are finally staring at a daily bunch of locally-driven editions with a reduced residual news base to target. Since you can’t possibly micro-cartoon for each edition, you look for whatever cuts across. The most obvious instance of this is the constant allusion in the cartoon to the songs and titles of the latest movies, popular cinema being that rare adhesive that holds Malayalis together.

Through much of the last century, this left coast landmass has run on an unusual urge to challenge the status quo socially and politically, creating a natural turf for defiance and satire. Since this was also the span that saw the rise and boom of the print industry, the mandate to mock came to the cartoonist. The cartoon at its best stayed ahead of this Kerala story and mostly with it – earning a pride of place within the state and a clear edge in the slower moving polities that made national news. Now the state’s cartoonist looks even more fatigued than its politician. The latter is at least making an effort to catch up with a Kerala getting at once younger and older; the comic chronicler clings to a smug mid-zone of comfort. On an issue as sensitive as gender justice, the cartoon makes the right noises with a visual excess that self-destructs. While on gender, I must apologize for the repeated use of the ‘he’ pronoun for the cartoonist instead of the ‘she’. On women cartoonists, Kerala is even more of a blank than the rest of the country.

Satire has long been the salt of this spice coast and the salt is losing its savour. Perhaps it will refresh on another platform like the web or in another form, the graphic novel. When that happens, Kerala will again excite the political observer as much as the cartoon watcher.

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