The Timeless Relevance of Cartooning


M.P. Veerendra Kumar

Cartoons, though generally comic and sarcastic, can sometimes even surpass an editorial in its punch. Cartoonists are a legendary breed honing their skills down the centuries. It was during the medieval era that cartoons first appeared on walls and coarse canvas. Most often, it was a farrago of half-truths and fiction.

During the 19th century, the form evolved in magazines and daily newspapers. Archival materials reveal that lampooning increasingly caught the public imagination in Victorian England. A century on, cartooning became popular in Kerala also. It is widely accepted that Mahaashaamadevatha published in the Malayalam publicationVidooshakan was the first of its genre in the language.

With the later burgeoning of publications and the advent of television, the art of cartooning became wildly popular. A happy marriage of ideas and draughtsmanship results in the birth of a great cartoon. The ability of cartoonists to expose the dark underbelly of power and to lay bare the injustices prevailing in an inequitable society endeared them to the public. Such was the potency of the art form that a single cartoon was quite often more powerful than a thousand words. Thus, it became an invariable ingredient in publications aspiring to capture popular appeal.

Mathrubhumi was indeed a pioneer in this field in Malayalam, directing barbs of sarcasm against societal evils. The name of our reputed columnist Sanjayan needs respectful mention in this context. Similarly, another acerbic practitioner of sarcasm who enlivened our pages and had a profound effect on readers was VKN.

Down the years, Mathrubhumi devoted great attention to attracting quality talent, recognising the special niche the form it has among the reading public in Malayalam. In fact, our readers used to eagerly await contributions by our cartoonists. We raised the bar for political cartoons in the language. This is a role that we continue to perform, with both the newspaper and our periodicals providing adequate space for cartoons.

In fact this year marks the 25th death anniversary of one of Kerala’s most creative sons, cartoonist-auteur G Aravindan. His iconic Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum {Little men and the big world} cartoon strip, which graced the back page of Mathrubhumi Weekly from 1961 to 1973, unerringly capturing the zeitgeist of that tumultuous period. Later, P V Krishnan’s Kuttan Kandathum Kettathum {Kuttan in his milieu} graced the same space.

Artist Namboodiri’s Naniammayum lokavum {Naniamma and the world} was the gold standard in the pocket cartoon genre. Eyes would stray in that direction even before glancing at attention-seeking headlines, such was the allure it held for readers of Mathrubhumi. The artistic flourish of the master needs no special mention.

The late B M Gafoor’s Kunjammaavan too was quite popular. Published on the front page of the daily it cast an unvarnished eye on politics. We even made an adaptation of the genial character, much in the nature of the amiable cartoonist himself, for television during an Onam season.

A S Nair, that maestro among illustrators with an unerring eye to capture the secret of trees, too had a great following for his cartoon series Akavum Puravum {inside out}. His chiaroscuro effect lent incandescence to the pages of the Mathrubhumi Weekly. The sublime aura of AS still permeates the landscape of art-lovers.

Renowned writer and artist O V Vijayan made a mark for himself through his powerful body of black and white cartoons in Mathrubhumi. And none more so than in the dark period of the Emergency. His cartoons were the outpourings of an anguished soul that finds no solace in a cruel world. His nephew, Ravi Shankar, too contributed to us.

The doyen among Indian cartoonists, the urbane Abu Abraham, came to us in the bloom of his ripe years. From Saranam, the house he co-designed with Laurie Baker in Thiruvananthapuram, Abu through Membodi {icing} in the Mathrubhumi Weekly cast a profoundly philosophical gaze on the goings-on in our increasingly ‘loud’ society, as he once confided to E P Unny, probably India’s greatest living political cartoonist.

It is with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I would like to state that we are beholden to this galaxy of talent that has expanded the boundaries of Malayalee’s thought and insights. Through carrying their artistic contributions Mathrubhumi was able to occupy a cherished niche in the mindscape of our people.

Mathrubhumi was instrumental in providing respectability to caricaturing, by substituting photographs with caricatures of prominent people. This bold experiment, which proved enormously popular, earned the greatest compliment with the competition too adopting it. Today, almost all the newspapers in Malayalam follow this trend.

In keeping with our rich cartooning legacy, Mathrubhumi continues to nourish the form. Gopikrishnan’s Kaakadrishti {Crow’s view} and other political cartoons are the staple diet of Keralites. Rajeendra Kumar’s Exekuttan {Smart executive} lends comic relief to the classifieds page. Other cartoonists on our roster include K Unnikrishnan and K V M Unni. K Unnikrishnan’s Open Vote was chosen as the best cartoon series during the last elections.

Apart from the daily, our children-oriented periodicals like Balabhumi, Chitrakatha and Minnaminni carry high quality of humour. We also pay good attention to animation, very much the rage among the young.

A novel venture we embarked on was a cartooning camp for women in our home town of Kozhikode, under the aegis of Grihalakshmi Vedi. Though women cartoonists are a rare breed, the camp was well attended. This fact is mentioned only to lay emphasis on how seriously we take the issue of cartooning.

As our world and society gets more fractious and debilitatingly polarised, the tribe of cartoonists becomes more precious. We have to ensure that they enjoy untrammeled freedom to cut down to size the movers and shakers intoxicated on power and pelf. Instead of exhibiting intolerance towards lampoonery, those criticised must realise the error of their ways and correct themselves.

In this context, am reminded of our first Prime Minister and a democrat to the core, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Once, when the peerless Shanker produced a carping cartoon everyone awaited with bated breath for the legendary rage of Nehru to descend on the hapless cartoonist. But, much to their astonishment, the gentleman-PM invited the bemused cartoonist to breakfast! Decades back, in the nascent stages of our democratic experiment, Nehru was laying down a worthy example, which lesser mortals would do well to emulate.


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