| Society |

Something in the Air?

Alan Moir

24/02/2005 Alanmoir
Moir's impressions on Munnar

Many foreigners visit India to `find themselves.' I had trouble finding the local railway stations. The cities are bubbling masses of buildings, people, cars, bicycles and animals. Colourful, everchanging, complex and bewildering for those of us from smaller, simpler societies.

But easy for an Australian to travel as the main language is cricket. Even taxi drivers whose English may be limited to doubling the fare is fluent in test match statistics, ground conditions, Sachin's back problems and theories on how to defeat the `ozzies.'

It's a cartoonist's paradise.

I yearned to visit India after reading the novelist O V Vijayan's excellent autobiography, A Cartoonist Remembers, on his cartooning years and the difficulties faced by political cartoonists in an often corrupt developing society.

Then, as I met the Indian cartoonists, I began to realise the curious relationship to cartooning of the beautiful southern state of Kerala.

Kerala has about 3 percent of the population of India, yet the majority of major Indian cartoonists seem to have come from "God's own country," as Keralans describe their state.

The `father of Indian political cartooning' and mentor to so many, Shankar, was the first, but those who followed are a `Who's Who' of Indian cartooning. Names like Vijayan, Kutty, Abu, Samuel, Ravi Shankar and Unny, are nationally, some internationally, known, and there are many other cartoonists of the first order, such as Yesudasan, KP Thomas, KS Pilla and Gaffoor who decided to stay in Kerala.

I was fascinated by this exquisite tradition.

So I trekked south to Kochi, with a quick overnight stay up in the tea plantations of Munnar, speaking Waugh and Ganguly to the driver to keep him awake.

It may have been better if I'd gone to sleep, but try nodding off when there are hundred metre cliffs on one side, mountains on the other, a narrow winding road filled with pedestrians, goats, cows, pigs... and enormous carnivorous buses that don't slow through fear they may lose momentum. I'm used to wide, flat, empty, endlessly boring roads to nowhere, so wasn't prepared for the intensity, and of drivers being drawn to overtake on blind corners like a moth to a flame. And yet we were forever taken by the amazing patience and politeness of the drivers. In Australia, drivers tend to get road-rage if they see more that three vehicles in a day. But somehow the traffic, like the indescribably complex democracy of India, works. Forever breathtaking and bewildering, but it keeps moving.

Munnar, though, was the scene of a near-major accident. My wife and I stayed in a beautiful small hotel on a plantation just out of the town. There were only half a dozen guests, and waiters were very attentive, at breakfast offering a specially made Keralan rice roll. My wife declined, but the waiter looked so disappointed I accepted. Alanmoir
But having already finished a large breakfast, I couldn't manage it, so whilst the waiter's back was turned I wrapped the steaming hot delicacy in a paper napkin, not enough as I was to learn, and pushed it into my trouser pocket. The waiter, delighted to see I had enjoyed it so much, offered me another, which I politely declined, my face grinning desperately in a painful grimace as the roll burnt into my leg like a Chernobyl core. Trying to get rid of it in the toilet without leaving telltale evidence of the crime was another error, as the parts disintegrated, but we won't go into that.

But back to Kochi.

I had been invited by the Kerala Cartoon Academy to inaugurate a retrospective of the late B M Gaffoor's work, but was constrained from speaking in Kerala because of visa requirements I hadn't been aware of. But I was impressed that in the prosperous looking city of Kochi there was a very active cartoon academy proud of the Keralan cartooning history, a history and pride missing in most other parts of India.

So what is it that nurtures all these cartoonists in the south?

Australia has a similar proud history of cartooning, dating from the late 19th century, beginning during a period of enormous political change in Australia, when the six separate former colonies united in 1901 to become a Federation. This meant that the ten or so years prior to and after that, when the nature of the future nation was being hotly debated around the country, the politics was a cartoonist's dream. Cartoonists such as May, Hopkins, the Lindsay brothers, Dyson and especially, David Low, a New Zealander who worked on The Bulletin from 1911-19, flourished, setting a precedent of lively cartoon comment that was taken to Fleet St and has been the standard in Australia to this day.

I was told a similar type of history has probably led to the great cartooning tradition in Kerala. Firstly the national success of Shankar set a drawing example, then the unusual socialist politics of Kerala since Independence supplied the political food for a dynamic cartooning tradition exported to the national newspaper centres. So it's nothing in the air, or grass, or in the coconut milk, but simply a powerful enduring tradition emulated to this day.

Cartoonists in Kerala, and throughout India, seem to have a couple of basic differences to their counterparts in the press of the `developed' nations.

First is the subject matter. India is a huge, populous, and amazingly complex society going through enormous upheaval, something the developed western countries haven't experienced since WW2. So the themes tend to be much more domestic oriented, on subjects like corruption, poverty, labour relations, health and caste (themes of the West in the 19th century, whereas western cartoonists tend to focus on the performance and ineptitude of individual politicians, and occasionally on general international events. Indian cartoonists are much closer to witnessing real social change than western cartoonists.

The other big difference is in the size of cartoons. Indian political cartoons, with a couple of exceptions, tend to be of the small "pocket cartoon" style, whereas, with some exceptions, the political cartoons of the UK, US and Australia are usually very large, featured prominently on the editorial page. This allows for more variation in approach and `mood', wording and metaphors. Cartoons have long been recognised in Australia as a major selling point, and an item that other media still cannot imitate successfully. So both Indian and western cartoonists can learn from each other.

Australian cartoonists tend to be aggressive and direct, like fast-bowlers on the Perth wicket with seamers making the politicians duck . Indian cartoonists are like off-spinners at Mumbai, seemingly easy to hit, but with clever spin and fizz, stumping their victims.

And we know from history Australia and India have a never-ending supply of fast bowlers and spinners.

Especially in cartooning's case, Kerala.

Post your comments.

Name:

Email:
(optional):

Please enter
your comments:

Comments (0)

Indian cartoonists are much closer to witnessing real social change than western cartoonists.


Indian political cartoons, with a couple of exceptions, tend to be of the small "pocket cartoon" style, whereas, with some exceptions, the political cartoons of the UK, US and Australia are usually very large, featured prominently on the editorial page. This allows for more variation in approach and `mood', wording and metaphors.


Print this article


The Quest Features and Footage
30/1896, Sarvamangala, MLA Road, Post Chevayur, Kozhikode 673017, Kerala, India
email: info@questfeatures.org