Kerala the land of cartoonists


Thomas Jacob

Shankar, did you build up the Hindustan Times or the Hindustan Times, you?’’

Mahatma Gandhi was of course not joking when he asked this fascinating question to the father of Indian cartooning.

Such was the star presence of Shankara Pillai, the Keralite who migrated to Delhi and became a doyen in the art and armour of cartooning. Led by the legendary Shankar, the cartooning talent of Kerala settled in the national capital to amuse, anger and accentuate the sense and sentiments of the reading, reacting Indian. Rajendra Puri, the famous cartoonist, was so much impressed by this exciting exodus that he called Kerala the very capital of Indian cartooning.

Almost all of India’s highly renowned cartoonists except R.K.Lakshman and Puri are from Kerala. T. Samuel who started the genre of pocket cartooning in India was a Keralite. And there are many more reasons, why  Kerala should feel proud about the cartooning manpower it vigorously ‘exported’ to the national capital.

Cartooning in Kerala is 97 years old (And the cartooning spirit looks younger year by year). Mahakshama Devatha (Goddess of Severe Famine), published inVidushakan (October, 1919) is the first cartoon in Kerala’s history. With a few simple strokes , the unnamed cartoonist was staging a vibrant protest against the disastrous First World War and oppressive Imperialism.

I would prefer a more antique look back into the past. And there stands the satirist stalwart Kunjan Nambiar, the greatest exponent of Ottan Thullal in the 18th century. Kunjan Nambiar through his Thullal art form with sharp and witty social criticism, created exuberant verbal caricatures with masterful ease. Saluting his sharp eye for details and acerbic commentary( both of which befit great cartooning) I would rather call him the first ‘cartoonist’ of Kerala.

Decades ago, when Tarzie Vittachi sat down to write about Kerala, he famously defined the State as a land of elephants and bishops. If Vittachi were alive today for another visit, the legendary Srilankan journalist would have revised his attribute and included cartoonists as a third category so abundant in our population. For, anyone would be amazed at the present membership strength of Kerala Cartoon Academy: nearly 200.

In Kerala there seem to exist three distinct geographical areas profusely producing cartoonists –  Onaattukara, Palakkad and Thikkodi. Of these Palakkad and Onattukara are the places where Kunjan Nambiar spent most of his time giving every one a hearty laugh.

Shankar is the veteran progenitor of the Onattukara ‘clan’. Onattukara encompasses a vast geographical area shared by the districts of Kollam and Alappuzha. Once upon a time, the winds of Onattukara carried the aroma of sesame flowers. Later in history, sesame fields withered; but great cartooning took roots. One could say, the smell of cartoon ink pervaded and possessed Onattukara.

I honestly believe that the greatest moment in Indian cartooning was the one when Pothen Joseph, the famous journalist, got down from the bus in Mumbai to catch up with Shankar who was walking on the roadside. Two Keralites meeting on a Mumbai road to open the way for great Indian cartooning.

Shankar was then an accountant with a shipping company. Pothen Joseph hugged Shankar tight and told him that he was greatly impressed with a cartoon of Shankar’s in Bombay Chronicle that morning.  When Pothen Joseph became the Editor of Hindustan Times, New Delhi, Shankar joined the daily as its staff cartoonist.

Cartoonist Kerala Varma (Kevy), an accountant with Indian Overseas Bank in Mumbai was a native of Harippad in Onattukara. B.G. Varma, K.S.Pillai, Abu Abraham, Ajit Ninan, Yesudasan, P.K. Manthri, Joy Kulanada and Ravi Kattanam form the rest of Onattukara cartooning figures.

O.V. Vijayan, native of Palakkad, is a rare star in Indian cartooning. A great island of original thought, he wrote and cartooned with international brilliance. Shankar was the Guru and guide who helped Vijayan launch his tempestuous career in political cartooning. Whenever Vijayan’s bitter, venomous sarcasm scorched his targets, Shankar would advice: ‘’Don’t hit hard. these men are men to be pitied. Laugh generously.’’

Apart from Vijayan, Palakkad’s gift to Indian cartooning are eminent figures like Ravishankar (Vijayan’s nephew), Kutty and and the great Unni. The illustrious illustrator AS, K.C.S. Panikker and Namboodiri too tried their gifted hands at cartooning.

B.M. Gafoor, E. Suresh, Soman Kadaloor and Gopikrishnan are natives of the third ‘cartoon locality’ of Kerala called Thikkodi. The seniors in the profession are from some different geographical areas: Malayattoor Ramakrishnan from Ernakulam, Toms from Kuttanad and Sukumar from Thiruvanathapuram.

T.Samuel who pioneered pocket cartooning in India, initially joined the army during second world war and served in Lahore until the regiment was dismissed. Back to civilian life, he joined Punjab University as a graduate student only to be driven back to India during the Partition and riots that followed. Burying his military past in Pakistan, Samuel reached Delhi as a refugee and soon joined Shankar’s Weekly. He too was Shankar’s gift to India.

When he released the first issue of Shankar’s Weekly, Nehru had just one request before the cartoonist- Don’t spare me, Mr. Shankar.

True, Shankar spared no one, no cartooning Keralite ever spared any one.

Apart from Delhi, Madras too became the creative hub of Keralite cartoonists. Vasu who drew cartoons for The Mail daily from Madras, pioneered Keralite cartooning from the Tamil city. Very soon the Madras cartoon canvas got the Midas touch from many others like Thaanu, Jomton (John Thomas), O.V.Vijayan, (E.P) Unni and Janam (G. Janardanan Nair). Janam’s nephew is Aravindan, the legendary film director and creator of the famous cartoon series ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum’.

Kerala’s contribution to Tamil cartooning is now on the wane with E.P. Peter, retiring from  Dinamalar daily. Peter too had launched his career in Shankar’s Weekly.

Cartoonists like Janam, Vijayan, Kutty, Unni, Yesudasan and Raju Nair never had any formal training in the art. Yet they wielded the cartoon brush with so much ease and elegance. I know two cartoonists who originally wanted to become journalists- Abu Abraham and Raju Nair. I also know a journalist who cherished a cartooning career but ended up otherwise- that’s me.


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