What CariToon Kochi 2016 Taught Me

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Mohan Sivanand (Cartoonist and former Chief Editor, Reader’s Digest (India)

When Sudheer Nath invited me to witness and to participate in “CariToon Kochi 2016”, I sent a few of my cartoons. But in Kochi, I couldn’t have imagined what I saw. He’d “lined” the town for over 10 days. I say so because somebody once described cartooning and caricature as ‘the art of the crooked line’. Durbar Hall was filled to the brim with cartoons, and so was the Press Club’s art gallery. Kochi’s sprawling Subhash Park displayed at least a thousand drawings. There were other events in almost every major public venue in town, and then, at the upstairs library hall in the Government Guest House were daily talks and presentations by cartoonists from all over India, TV personalities, editors and others that elevated the crooked line to fun-but-high academic levels.

No other city on earth would have held a cartoon festival of this magnitude.  And if this is to be held every year as planned, you can just see it grow into a national event.

Come to think of it, this had to be in Kerala. I’ve often been asked why Kerala has produced so many cartoonists, right from Shankar Pillai, the first great Indian cartoonist, to Toms and Abu Abraham right up to E.P. Unny of The Indian Express. That’s easy to understand if, like me, you grew up in Kerala and spoke Malayalam like a native. Listening to Keralites, I’ve sometimes thought that almost every Malayali is a potential cartoonist. We think funny.  We’re born cynics. We laugh at enemies and friends alike. We often speak in cartoon captions. We can be sufficiently crooked. So thank the gods, not every Keralite can draw!

If like me you lived outside the state, you’d only be familiar with the few Kerala cartoonists who draw for the English press. But then you’re missing the innumerable others who contribute to the Malayalam press. Looking back, when I was in college, cartooning came naturally to me. There was the Trivandrum British Council Library situated in the same student YMCA building, where I stayed. The library always had Punch, the British humour magazine with a great lot of cartoons that I pored over. And there was Shankar’s Weekly. So, one day, I drew two cartoons of my own and mailed them to Mr Shankar in Delhi. One came back in a few days, giving me hope. Indeed the other one was published!

And so began a journey. I got a few more cartoons into Shankar’s Weekly before the magazine shut shop in 1975. Forty years later, I still draw cartoons. But I never became a full-time cartoonist. Instead, last year I retired as a magazine’s chief editor. I’d always regretted not being a cartoonist, what with my wife reminding me over the years that cartooning is “your metiér—what you do best”.  It’s after attending CariToon Kochi 2016 that I realized firsthand that I was not alone. The majority of Indian cartoonists and caricaturists cannot practise their art alone for a living. One fine caricaturist who came down all the way from Dubai to see the festival is an executive with Swatch; another, a cartoonist, is a deputy Income Tax commissioner; yet another teaches handicapped children.

So CariToon Kochi’s standards were high. As I went around Subhash Park looking at the works, there was also a different genre displayed there: meme. Photos with captions in bubbles lampooning current events, all by a group of youngsters who call themselves trolls, and run a Facebook page named ICU or International Chalu Union (chalu in Malayalam roughly means to “making fun of…”). I watched as people admired the caricatures of eminent personalities, and then I watched as groups of young ladies giggled at ICU’s memes. In Durbar Hall, after I saw all the hundreds of cartoons displayed, I spent time observing how people looked at cartoons. One man was often smiling to himself. Another looked deadpan but didn’t want to miss a single drawing (cartooning can be a serious business). A young lady stopped occasionally to take cellphone pictures of her favourite toons.

The seminars held at Government Guest House were a learning experience. Several cartoonists, myself included, screened their works. One cartoonist who did not was Mr E.P. Unny, staff cartoonist of The Indian Express. Instead, he screened and commented on the inimitable works of three seminal yesteryears cartoonists, David Low (a New Zealander who worked mostly in the UK), Herblock (Herbert Lawrence Block from the US) and Boris Efimov, the great Soviet-era cartoonist. “Two practitioners from the free press in the UK and the USA who loved their country for its democracy, and a third who loved his for its leader Stalin,” explained Unny. “The supreme irony is that the democracies with all their flaws survived as nation states while the Soviet state collapsed.”

The power and the glory of cartoons! The memorable point Mr Unny made was that a nation with active cartooning has a better chance of survival.

 

 

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