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  Down Memory Lane  
  End of Cartooning  
  The privilege of reading the newspaper first was my grandfather's. And once he started reading it, he would not put it down, till he completed it. I would, therefore, run down the flight of stairs to pick up the paper from where the hawker would leave it, after alerting us. While returning, I would read the popular cartoon strip "Mandrake, the Magician" by Lee Falk. This was one chore I happily did day after day.

On weekends, the "Malayala Manorama Weekly" that carried an assortment of regular columns would arrive. I would instantly go to the last page where the cartoon column "Bobanum Mollyum" (Boban and Molly) by Toms appeared. Boban and Molly were brilliant, though naughty and troublesome, siblings. Their comments were sharp and intelligent and, therefore, memorable. Even after five decades, I still remember many of them.

For instance, when the teacher explains in the class that President S. Radhakrishnan's birthday is celebrated as "Teacher's Day" because he was once a teacher, Molly asks him: "Is Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday celebrated as "Children's Day" because he was once a child?" Toms used these characters to comment on contemporary issues. When the whole of Kerala was protesting against the stinking rice supplied through the fair price shops, Boban and Molly were shown holding their noses tight while eating rice at home.

Boban and Molly were able to do many things which I wanted to do like stealing the ripe bananas from the storeroom and showing their parents the slate upside down so that they read their marks as "9" not "6". When I graduated to the more cerebral "Mathrubhoomi Weekly", I continued the habit of reading the last page first because it contained G. Aravindan's cartoon series "Cheriya Manusharum, Valia Lokavum" (The Small People and the Big World).

Aravindan left cartooning to direct some of the best Malayalam movies like "Esthappan" in which debutante Rajan Kakkanadan played the lead role. His cartoon column had that innate ability to make the reader think over the foibles and predicaments of men, not necessarily politicians and bureaucrats. He was not a purveyor of jokes, for he saw his calling higher than merely making people laugh.

"Kunjukuruppu" is a daily pocket cartoon column that began appearing in the "Malayala Manorama" during my childhood. It provided me my first exposure to political cartooning. When I was at school, one cartoonist who made waves was Mantri. He was a government school teacher, who used a pseudonym to draw cartoons for Kalanilayam Krishnan Nair's broadsheet scandal-monger "Thaniniram" (Real Colour).

Some may say Mantri's cartoons bordered on the unacceptable, particularly when he directed his ire at Education Minister C.H. Mohammed Koya. Mantri got his "comeuppance" when Koya got him suspended from his job. The charge against him: Moonlighting.

While most people protested against Koya's vindictiveness, nobody said that he should have been appointed as a regular cartoonist and paid a salary, higher than what he received as a school teacher. That would have been a fitting reply to the minister.

A habit that I continue from those days is to go to the last page first when I pick up any magazine. Small wonder that I read the "Obituary" column first in the "Economist" I have been reading for nearly three decades, though the full-size cartoon appears on a page ahead of the editorials. The little pocket money I had was invariably spent on "Sarasan" (The Wit), a satirical monthly magazine like the Shankar's Weekly. But it, too, did not last long.

It was to improve my command of the English language that I started reading "The Hindu". O.V. Vijayan was at that time drawing cartoons for the paper. I was impressed more by his short comments than by his drawings, though at times I had difficulty to decipher them. For instance, when the demand for a separate Meghalaya state was at its peak, Vijayan drew a cartoon of Indira Gandhi with the comment, "To B-ifurcate or not to B-ifurcate (Assam), that is the question".

Those who knew that it was an adaptation of Hamlet's monologue in the Shakespeare's play by the same name were able to appreciate it better. After all, the line "to be or not to be" is considered an example of what is known as the highest poetic utterance like Kumaran Asan's opening line in his poem "Veenapoovu" (The Fallen Flower), "Ha Pushpame" (Alas, Flower). In just two words, Asan depicts the tragedy that befalls the flower.

Vijayan's cartoon often appeared on the front page and I was greatly impressed by the sheer sweep of his canvass that included philosophy, politics, literature and history. The first time I saw a cartoonist in life was when I went to the now-defunct "Motherland" as a job-seeker. Ranga was its staff cartoonist. I saw him coming out of Editor K.R. Malkani's chamber with his cartoon in hand.

What I could make out from the conversation at the Desk was that Ranga had drawn Pakistani leader Z.A. Bhutto as a pig, which the editor did not approve of. Next day I found Ranga's cartoon on the front page. It showed Bhutto as a lapdog of Uncle Sam. With a few strokes of his pen, Ranga was able to convert a pig into a dog.

Ranga's forte was caricature. However high a visiting VIP was, he could not escape Ranga who would approach him with his caricature and get it signed by him for his collection. One joke, extant those days, was that US State Secretary Henry Kissinger managed to evade Ranga during his visit to Delhi but as he entered his personal aircraft to fly back to Washington, he found the cartoonist worming out from under his seat with his caricature and requesting him: "Sir, your signature please". Ranga could even outwit Kissinger!

The first time I tried to meet a cartoonist was a total disaster. I had gone to the "Times of India", Bombay, for some work. When I saw R.K. Lakshman's cabin, I knocked on the door. When I heard, "Come in", I entered the room, only to be told that he had no time to spare for an itinerant journalist. I had no other purpose than to meet him because I was an admirer of his "Common Man".

One of the pleasures I had after joining "The Searchlight" at Patna in the early eighties was to receive Ranga's cartoons, which arrived by the morning flight from Delhi. It solved my problem of finding an illustration for Page One. Photographs did not appear well, whereas the reproduction of cartoon was excellent. Ranga never missed an opportunity to draw Mahatma Gandhi. He took only a few seconds to draw the father of the nation.

By the time I moved back to New Delhi, Sudhir Dhar had been replaced by a much-younger Sudhir Tailang as HT cartoonist. We became close and I learnt a lot about cartooning from him. For once I realised that finding a subject for a cartoon was far more difficult than drawing it. As was his practice, Sudhir would draw two or three rough sketches before one was finalised. He would often involve me in the process of selection, though the last word was the editor's.

When H.K. Dua put me in charge of a weekly column "Profile", published all across eight columns on the Op-ed page, Sudhir and I collaborated to produce it. I would interview people like K.R. Narayanan, the day he was chosen to be the Vice-President and singer K.J. Jesudas, while Sudhir sketched them simultaneously. One of the profiles I did was O.V. Vijayan's with a caricature by Sudhir.

A few days later, I got a phone call from Vijayan, who first congratulated me, and then told me in the politest possible manner that I should not have mentioned the "debilitating diseases" that forced him to dictate, rather than write. When I apologised, he told me there was no need for the same, as what I wrote was only factual. For once, I realised the greatness of the man.

It also opened my eyes to the truth contained in the Sanskrit verse "Sathyam brooyath priyam brooyath na brooyath sathyam apriyam, Priyam cha na anritham brooyath esha Dharma sanatanaha". (No doubt, one should always tell the Truth, but it should be spoken in a pleasing manner. If the truth is unpleasant, it is better to avoid telling it.)

When I left the HT to join the "Indian Express", one gift I got was my caricature done by Sudhir and signed by all my colleagues. A few days after I joined the IE, Sudhir followed suit, but only to return to the HT for he had become "indispensable" to the organisation. Ajit Ninan was already there. We collaborated to produce the "Express Diary" that appeared on alternate days.

One day, I gave Ninan an item contributed by a staffer from Kerala. It said the mahout of an elephant used to harass shopkeepers to extract money from them. It took Ninan only a few seconds to draw an elephant lifting up a man by his legs and money automatically falling from his pocket. Soon afterwards, he left for the 'Times of India', where he became more an illustrator than a cartoonist.

The days of front page cartoons had more or less come to an end. When Pulitzer first started publishing cartoons on the front page of his newspaper, it was to end the monotony of text. Now with the advent of high-speed offset presses, when reproduction of photographs is as good as the original, editors choose photographs, rather than cartoons. E.P. Unny, who joined the IE, was in due course given a weekly column on the edit page which continues to this day.

Unny enjoyed attending the edit conference and he would often use me as a sounding board for his cartoon ideas. He would give me a cartoon and then watch my face to know my reaction. I did not even have to tell him whether I liked an idea or not, for my facial expression was a give-away. By his own admission, he was the last student to pass out of what I would call the Shankar School of Journalism, for it was in Shankar's Weekly that Unny's first cartoon appeared, though he never had the fortune of learning the art at the feet of the great master.

I do not know what Unny likes more, cartooning or sketching. His "Spices & Souls: A Doodler's Journey Through Kerala" (DC Books) bears testimony to his formidable writing and sketching skills. He travelled the whole state with his sketch book and captured scenes as varied as the Udayamperoor Church and the Chinese net in Kochi and fishermen enjoying a game of cards and Sufi singer Abdul Razak performing a private concert.

When I left the "Indian Express", I wished to get a farewell caricature from him. Instead, I was gifted a book and a greetings card, on which Unny drew my caricature highlighting my spectacles, which I still preserve. At "The Tribune", I interacted with cartoonist Sandeep Joshi on a daily basis. Unlike many others, he did not suffer from any complexes and gladly accepted ideas. He gifted me a framed caricature signed by my colleagues that today adorns my drawing room.

Pudukkody Kottuthody Sankaran Kutty Nair or simply Kutti, born on September 4, 1921, is, perhaps, the oldest living cartoonist. A function was held on his 90th birthday at Kerala House in New Delhi. It was a function I wanted to attend but missed, as I had a deadline to honour. Kutty, who is now in the USA, has in a letter to the Cartoon Academy, which was one of the co-organisers of the function, expressed happiness that he was honoured before and not "after", as is usually the case. If anything, it shows that his sense of humour is still intact.

Why has Kerala produced more cartoonists than any other state? I once heard cartoonist Abu Abraham say that poets like Kunchan Nambiar and art forms like Chakyar Koothu instilled in the Malayali mind a sense of irreverence that militates against hero-worship and feet-touching. Abu's cartoons, particularly the one that shows President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in the bathtub signing an Emergency proclamation is still etched in the minds of readers.

With the advent of colour printing and computer-generated graphics, cartoonists find themselves pushed to the wall. Abu's wife Psyche Abraham narrates in her autobiography "From Kippers to Karimeen: A Life" how his salary in the "Indian Express" remained constant during the 12 years he worked there since 1969. Sudhir Tailang has a worse story to narrate about his departure from the "Hindustan Times", where his job included holding a prestigious annual cartoon competition that attracted hundreds of entries from all over the country.

When viewers can watch and listen to live cartoons on news channels, the space for cartoons is getting shrunk. Today only a few newspapers employ full-time cartoonists, while the scope for graphic artistes and illustrators has increased. Of course, cartoonists cannot complain, as newspapers themselves face a threat to their survival. But readers like this columnist will miss cartoons and cartoonists for as long as they live. (Concluded)

The writer can be reached at
  By  A.J. Philip  
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