The Kerala connection: EP Unny decodes the state’s strong bond with political cartoons

E P Unny
Shankar presenting his book of cartoons on Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to Indira Gandhi in 1983. (Source: Express Archive)

Editor on a bus spots cartoonist strolling down the sidewalk, hops off, greets him and makes a job offer. This could sum up how Shankar’s career took off in the capital. Hindustan Times’s editor Pothen Joseph was on a visit to Mumbai, where Shankar was getting noticed as a freelance cartoonist. Both were from what was then the princely state of Travancore; their exchange could well have been transacted in Malayalam. This comfort apart, it wasn’t an easy decision to take for the 30-year-old. The newly-married law school dropout had a day job in a shipping company that paid more than the uncertain position on offer. Yet, the passion to mock the mighty got the better of him. The self-taught doodler packed his bags and moved to Delhi.

The year was 1932. The Raj had just shifted base from Kolkata to Lutyens-built Delhi and the one-year-old capital had its first regular cartoonist, a full-fledged Keralite. Thus began the much-mentioned Malayali link to this profession. From Nehruvian times down to these anti-Nehruvian times, expats from Kerala have had a disproportionate presence in the capital’s cartooning. The tiny southwestern land mass seems to produce a steady surplus of satire. Enough to spill over from first language Malayalam to export-grade English.

The first temptation would be to attribute the surge of satire to traditional strengths. The region’s performing art practices, Chakyar Koothu and Ottan Thullal, had ritual sanction to take a dig at the ruler. But this would hardly be enough to surmise that Kerala would have pioneered caricaturing if the Italians hadn’t. There is nothing in the past to suggest any clear cartooning edge, no more than anything in the other Indian languages. In any case, what kind of satire can cut across a hugely caste-bound society? Kerala practised not just untouchability, but unseeability, as well. Cartooning emerged in these parts when caste was challenged and that took a while.

The First Malayalam Cartoon: Mahakshamadevata (The Great Famine God) published in 1919.

The cartoon came to Kerala late. Northern and western India had Punch magazine clones way back in the 19th century. Lucknow had Awadh Punch in Urdu from 1877 and Mumbai its Parsi Punch from 1854. In Tamil Nadu, poet Subramania Bharati formally presented the cartoon (probably already a familiar form) as sithira vilakkam (pictorial elucidation) in 1906 in the weekly newspaper, India, that he edited. It took a good 13 years more for the rectangle to appear in Malayalam print. The earliest one traced so far was in the October 1919 issue of Vidooshakan, a humour magazine published from Kollam. That was exactly a 100 years ago.

In a mere century, the genre made up for late arrival. The first cartoon set a trend. Humour magazines that mushroomed in and around Kollam started featuring cartoons. Many of these shoestring publications were short-lived but the cartoon eventually found its pride of place on the last page in widely circulated periodicals. These full-page sequential comic spreads with a fixed cast, often led by child protagonists, was addictive entertainment. The biggest of them all, Boban & Molly, by Toms, ran for 50 years. Before his foray into movie making, G Aravindan used the same format to tell a serialised full-scale story that anticipated the graphic novel.

You say it best when you say nothing at all: Subramania Bharati (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, the Malayalam cartoon was mainstreamed in Kozhikode even as Shankar was settling down in Delhi. The celebrated humourist Sanjayan, who worked out of the coastal town, taught English at Malabar Christian College and edited a satire magazine called Vishwaroopam. He promoted the cartoon as passionately as the Tamil poet Bharati. In fact, he did everything short of posing for his artist, which is what the poet had done decades back to get the right gestural language into the frame. Such micro-management was no longer necessary because newspaper illustrators were familiar with the craft of caricature. Sanjayan left it to his resident artist M Bhaskaran to interpret the editorial idea.

READ | Why a satirical comic strip became a cult in Kerala

The cartoon itself was shifting from the visceral freedom-yearning mode of Bharati’s days to quick-fire news response. Pious pleadings on behalf of Bharat Mata were giving way to a harder look at global players blundering into a war even as our subcontinent was heading for mixed outcomes. Malayalam cartoon came of age with World War II. Nothing drives news more than war. Radio brought the updates from multiple conflict zones and the papers covered war extensively. Reader interest wasn’t entirely vicarious. Many had friends or relatives who had enlisted.

The erudite Sanjayan brought perspective to the developing war story with a lightness of touch that appealed to a growing statewide fan following. He created verbal caricatures of Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franco and Stalin. Readers sensed a liberal nationalist world view, where the only thing sacrosanct was the right to mock. There was hardly a page in his publication without a cartoon or a comic drawing.

Imperfect marriage: The bedroom metaphor still recurs in Malayalam. (Courtesy: Thanthri, 1970 cartoons)

The same high density of cartooning is now found in Malayalam dailies and it could well be a world record. While cartoons have vanished from most front pages even in their traditional European strongholds and from edit pages in the US, there isn’t a single Malayalam newspaper that appears without at least a single-column pocket cartoon on its front page. You know your paper by the cartoon, not the masthead. There are bigger ones inside, often by more than one cartoonist. Cartoonists in the fully literate state cater to readerships that outmatch their counterparts elsewhere in India, including the English language papers.

The day’s cartoon remains as political as the very first one of 1919. Captioned Mahakshamadevata (The Great Famine God), it depicted a figure that personified the famine that came in the wake of World War I. Since then, if Kerala’s cartooning boomed, it is thanks to its hastened social and political activism. First, the reform movements under Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali in the early 20th century prepared a readership that sought literacy to protest and defy — values vital to the cartoon art. This momentum invariably waned, but, by then, unstable power politics came to the cartoonist’s aid.

Cartoons by BM Gafoor. (Courtesy: Mathrubhumi)

Unstable is a mild word; what came to pass was nothing short of serial instability. In the seven years before the state’s formation, the region saw five chief ministers. Then came an oddly-elected Communist government, terminated prematurely through a doubly odd central intervention. Experimental coalitions continued, generating a steady flux that fed the cartoon. Long before the nation caught up with “aaya Ram” and “gaya Ram”, shifty politics was routinely lampooned here. One metaphor recurred through this brazen phase — the bedroom. It was overused to equate political disloyalty with marital infidelity. The sexist subtext stays. With all its progressive pretensions, Malayalam cartoon can still get very gender-insensitive.

Much smugness springs from the settled polity the cartoonist comments on. The last three decades have seen two multi-party fronts predictably taking turns at governance. There is nothing much to distinguish between the two except for the labels. Both have come to share the same welfarist agenda and budget for alternating terms in and out of power. Unlike neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where two Dravidian majors contest, here both the contenders are coalitions. No single party is big enough to bother the cartoonist. This is like the best of post-war cartoon-friendly social democracies of Europe. The splendid isolation was too good to last.

Cartoons by KS Pilla (Courtesy: Malayala Manorama)

Sure enough, a third player, BJP, is in and it is making friends. Core social issues one thought were settled are getting revisited. Terms like “Hindu vote”, “Muslim vote” and 'Christian vote” are being aired with a vengeance on prime-time TV. As the evening advances, caste and sub-caste wise voter sentiments emerge. The Congress and the CPI(M) that lead their fronts have internalised these categories and compete to please any interest group that is making a noise.

The last big noise was heard over an award-winning cartoon that offended a section of the Church. With a newfound alacrity, the Marxist culture minister asked the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi to cancel the award. When touchiness gets normalised, the first casualty is the cartoon. This is Malayalam cartoon’s centenary year. It is already October and one sees little enthusiasm to celebrate the event. There is evident cartooning talent on campuses. Tapping the young and promoting animation hubs was a much bandied-about plan not long ago. Now, mention the cartoon and all you get is a sheepish ministerial grin. No one here is hopping off the bandwagon to greet the cartoonist.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline 'Truth Be Told'