Sunday, May 17, 2009
Making people laugh
Toms and K. J. Yesudasan have been the premier cartoonists in Kerala in the last 50 years. They talk about their lives and careers
Photos: Toms and Yesudasan
By Shevlin Sebastian
When cartoonist Toms was a young man, thanks to unseasonal rain in Kuttanad, around 40 acres of his family’s paddy cultivation was destroyed. Devastated and dejected, he read in the newspaper that the government was providing compensation for those who had been affected. So Toms went to the government office in Alleppey.
At that time the writer N.V. Chellapan Nair was the special officer who was distributing the money. But on the day Toms went, Nair had not yet arrived in the office.
“Around seven people were waiting under a tree,” says Tom. This included Tom’s former classmate, Eashwar Pillai. “He knew I had sent cartoons to newspapers and had got rejected. In order to make fun of me he said, ‘What’s happened to all your drawings?’”
Tom replied, “Whatever talent I have, it makes no difference unless you have godfathers in newspaper offices. That is the only way our creations can appear in print. Otherwise, I will have to go and mollycoddle them which I am incapable of doing.”
Standing under a nearby tree, holding an umbrella was a thin man. “I assumed he was a farmer like me,” says Tom. “After a while he came up to me and said, ‘I heard you abusing newspaper people. Do you write poetry?’”
“No, I do very good cartoons,” said Toms. “But nobody is giving me the opportunity.”
The man said, “I will give you an address and you can send the cartoons there.”
Then he took out a pen and wrote, ‘Varghese Kalathil, Editor, Malayala Manorama, Kottayam.’
Toms said, “Who are you to tell me this?”
In a low voice, the man said, “You can call me Varghese Kalathil.” The editor of the Manorama Weekly, Varghese had come to collect an article from Chellapan Nair.
So Toms sent his cartoons, they were accepted for publication by Varghese and soon he was given a regular column. For the next 30 years he contributed to the Malayala Manorama newspaper and in 1961, he also became a staffer. And his cartoons revolved around the antics of ten-year-old twins, Boban and Molly.
They lived near Tom’s house and would go through his garden because it was a short cut. One day he befriended them and when they went into Tom’s room, they saw a lot of drawings lying around. One day Molly said, “Can you draw me?”
Tom told her to sit down and did a sketch. “She liked it a lot,” he says. “She took it to school and the children appreciated it also.” Boban got jealous and asked Tom to do a drawing of him.
“So I did it,” he says. “Thereafter, instead of drawing elephants and other animals, I started drawing their faces and the little antics they would have done.”
This strip of Boban and Molly became immensely popular and captured the imagination of Malayalis everywhere. “The Malayala Manorama made me what I am,” he says. “I will never forget that.”
However, when he retired in 1987, Toms brought out a book on Boban and Molly which became very popular. This led to a court case with the Malayala Manorama about who owned the copyright. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court and Toms won.
“Relations were strained for quite a while but now I am on good terms with them,” he says. Toms then started ‘Toms publications’ which continues to bring out Boban and Molly (circulation: 1.5 lakh), Unni Kuttan, Mandoos, and Tom’s Chitra Katha.
In his home at Kottayam there are a couple of vans parked in the courtyard. The name ‘Toms Publications’ is written in bold letters at the back of the vehicles.
Toms is a sprightly 81, who is still drawing cartoons. “I get up at 3 a.m. and work for a few hours,” he says. Asked the secret of his long career, he says, “Hard work and passion for the job. I also do a lot of reading and traveling.”
The pen is mightier than the politician
In his air-conditioned office at the 'Metro Vaartha' newspaper in Kochi, C.J. Yesudasan, 71, looks relaxed and is all smiles. He is in his 55th year as one of Kerala’s best known political cartoonists
He started his career with the Communist Party of India newspaper ‘Janayugam. “I began a column with the character 'Kittumman', which became the first pocket cartoon in Malayalam,” he says. But it was when he went to Delhi and started working in Shankar’s weekly in 1963 that his world view changed and his work became better.
“Shankar was a perfectionist,” he says. “When you did a drawing, all the features had to be correct, otherwise, he would get angry. He would always tell me, ‘From the top of the head to the nails on the feet, everything should be right’.”
This included the way a person stood, how the mundu was tied around the waist, the physical oddities, and the type of footwear that is worn by the subjects. He gives the example of the late Tamil politician G.K. Moopanar.
“He was a millionaire,” says Yesudasan. “But Moopanar would always wear rubber slippers because he suffered from an allergic reaction to leather. So if you thought that since he was a rich man, he must be wearing shoes, it would be wrong. Shankar was insistent we should know all these details.”
In 1969 Yesudasan returned to Kerala because the Janayugam newspaper wanted to start a magazine for children, 'Balayugam’. Following that, he started a magazine called ‘Asadhu’, on the line of Shankar’s Weekly. This lasted for 12 years, but because of financial difficulties he had to close it down. Eventually he joined Malayala Manorama and was the staff cartoonist for 23 years.
Because he did political cartoons, he received abusive mail and threatening phone calls. Once when E.K. Nayanar was chief minister, Yesudasan drew a cartoon where a worker sat in a police station, his legs up on the table, nonchalantly smoking a beedi. In front of him, an obedient-looking Nayanar, who was also the Home Minister, was saluting him. This was during the general elections of 1987.
“On my way home, by sheer coincidence, near the Ernakulam railway station, there was an election rally,” he says. “I could hear Nayanar attacking me. If I stayed there I would have been lynched. I hurried on home.”
After many years Yesudasan met Nayanar to invite him for his son’s wedding. “When I told him about the speech, he said he did not remember it, but did remember the cartoon,” says Yesudasan. “He told me it was excellent.”
Yesudasan says that contrary to popular view, most leaders liked to be featured in cartoons. “Even [former prime minister] Morarji Desai who did not like cartoons, liked to appear in one. In Kerala, it was Nayanar who loved cartoons and tried to uplift the lives of cartoonists.”
Yesudasan says he meets ministers today who always ask him why they are not being featured in his cartoons.
Asked the secret of his creative process, he says, “I don’t try too hard. I have learnt to be relaxed. And then, suddenly, the idea will come.”
Raju Nair has been the cartoonist for the 'Deepika' newspaper for the past 30 years. In his small office at Kottayam, the striking sight is of numerous letters that are piled up on his table. “I get 50 to 60 letters a day,” he says.
Nair has a half page called Cartoonscope in the evening newspaper 'Rashtra Deepika' where, apart from his own cartoons, he publishes the work of upcoming talents.
“Deepika is the best place for those who have the talent and are willing to work hard,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities here.” In the beginning he used to do social cartoons. Now there is a mix of political and social cartoons.
Nair, who has done more 20,000 cartoons in his career says, “A good cartoonist should be honest and have the gift for humour. He needs a good imagination, talent, hard work and common sense. I also feel he should be a good human being.”
A keen eye
When E. Suresh started drawing for ‘Balabhankthi’, the children’s page of ‘Mathrubhumi’, he interacted closely with the editor Kunjunni Masha.
“He told me a cartoon should be like a good milk payasam, which has the correct amount of rice, milk and sugar,” says Suresh. “Similarly, a cartoon should have the right number of lines and words, and should communicate effectively.”
After drawing for several local publications, Suresh moved to Delhi, where within a couple of years he became the staff cartoonist for 'The Statesman' in 1997.
“I would do three to five cartoons a week,” he says. “I used to work for hours on a cartoon. It was a good experience for me. The editor Ravindra Kumar gave me a lot of tips.”
After a six-year stint Suresh has returned to Kerala and is now working as a freelancer for various newspapers like the CPI mouthpiece, 'Janayugam'. “Thanks to my experience it is easier now to draw cartoons,” says Suresh, who is planning to bring out a book on his work.
Is there editorial freedom?
Toms: There is no freedom for cartoonists in a daily newspaper. He has to toe the stand taken by the owners. Essentially, there is no freedom of the press.
Yesudasan: If a newspaper supports the Congress, it is very difficult to do a critical cartoon of Sonia Gandhi. I have 600 cartoons that have not been published for various reasons. I am planning to bring out a book.
Raju Nair: I have had very few rejections because I am aware of what the newspaper stands for. However, the 'Deepika' has given me a lot of freedom. And I am very careful in using this freedom.
E. Suresh: In 'The Statesman', about 30 cartoons were rejected over six years. After a while I knew what would be accepted and what would not. All newspapers have a stand and cartoonists should know this. You can get an idea of the paper’s stance by carefully reading editorials.
Famous national cartoonists of Malayali origin
Shankar: He is regarded as the doyen of political cartooning in India. Based in Delhi, he started 'Shankar's Weekly', which was the Indian version of Punch. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a fan. He also founded the Children's Book Trust. In 1991, the government of India released two postal stamps, which had two of his cartoons.
O.V. Vijayan: One of Kerala’s greatest writers he was also a cartoonist for 35 years for ‘The Statesman’ and other publications. As a reviewer wrote about his book, ‘A Cartoonist Remembers’: “Even when the contours of Vijayan's unique strokes tickle your imagination, the laughter, when it comes, comes salted with the inevitable sadness that their biting sarcasm evokes.”
Abu Abraham: In a 40-year long career, Abu Abraham worked for ‘The Bombay Chronicle’, ‘Shankar’s Weekly’, ‘ Blitz’, ‘Tribune’, British newspapers, ‘Observer’ and ‘The Guardian’, as well as ‘The Indian Express’.
Abu’s focus has always been corruption in politics, which he nailed with powerful punch lines. A member of the Rajya Sabha, the house observed a two-minute silence when he died in 2002.
Kutty: He was regarded as one of India’s premier political cartoonists. He began his career with the ‘National Herald’ but spent most of his career with the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazar publications.
Interestingly, Kutty did not know Bengali. He would write the captions in English and it would be translated into Bengali. It is a testament to his drawing skills that readers still understood his cartoons. His work also appeared in many Malayalam periodicals. He lives in the US with his son and an extended family.
E.P. Unny: Began his career with ‘The Hindu’ in 1977, then worked in the ‘Sunday Mail’ and ‘The Economic Times’. Today he is the Chief Political Cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’. With a mix of commentary and sketches he has brought out a travel book on Kerala - 'Spices and Souls - A doodler's journey through Kerala'.
Ajit Ninan: The creator of Detective Moochwala, a fictional series which used to appear in the now-defunct children’s magazine, ‘Target’. He worked in the ‘India Today’ group for several years but now works for the ‘Times of India’.
Along with senior journalist Jug Suraiya he creates bi-weekly cartoons for the newspaper. They have brought out a book, ‘Like That Only’. Ninan says his favourite characters are Jayalalitha and Sonia Gandhi, but he also likes to draw Laloo Prasad Yadav because of his appearance.
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)
at May 17, 2009