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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The Homecoming Cartoonist

The contribution of Palakkad to the fine art of satire.

Published: November 3, 2013 5:17:36 am

How do you live with the idea of a hometown you share with such eminences as TN Seshan,E Sreedharan,Prakash Karat,Shashi Tharoor and Bharat Ratna MG Ramachandran? The best known one-liner on the place came from Seshan,“Palakkad produces cooks,crooks and civil servants.”

The C-word left out was “cartoonists”. Three formidable brother cartoonists hail from these parts — PKS Kutty,OV Vijayan and Ravi Shankar. How such surfeit of satire was nourished in a region as laid back as this and eventually got exported to the national capital is a mystery. One thing common to the points of origin and destination is that both are land-locked. Vijayan was to later touch upon such hinterlands of insularity as only he could. In a 1970s cartoon,his characteristic Congressman proclaimed that all good things should come to UP,including the Cochin Shipyard and,sure enough,the ocean.

Warmer than the rest of Kerala,the beach-less Palakkad isn’t visibly touristy. Nature,however,made up by putting us in the big gap in the Western Ghats — a land port that facilitated much movement,including full-scale invasions. First,by the Sultans of Mysore and close on their heels,the British. Hyder Ali’s engineer built a fort here and the Brits a college. Between the two landmarks (there isn’t a third),the municipal town lay neatly bracketed. Our world was a low-rise sprawl in parenthesis. No scenic backwaters and stuff. True,we didn’t have to look far for paddy fields but the stretch never seemed quite as green as it turned out in photographs. We have a river as well,nudging the Tamil Brahmin settlement in Kalpathy but the poets have the first lien on it.

Under such visually-deprived circumstances,you couldn’t doodle your way to a finer art than cartooning. Even as cartoonists go,the Palakkad gharana tended to be sparse. Kutty trained with Shankar,a master who crafted at length,but quickly switched to a workaday functional style. Vijayan betrayed no sense of place. His characters floated in a political space that turned increasingly sombre — against a broad dark backdrop,he created with a khadi cloth dipped in Indian ink. Acerbic wit delivered with a Gandhian flourish. Ravi Shankar,Vijayan’s nephew,has an eye for the minutiae,as yet unexplored.

Form apart,Palakkad had a lot to offer by way of cartooning content. It hosted a broader spectrum of political activity than the rest of Kerala. Congressmen who swore by Kamaraj to Indira Gandhi,comrades who saluted AK Gopalan to Charu Mazumdar,feuding factions of Lohiaites,and most of all,an amply physical RSS.

Having thus apprenticed,we found work in Delhi. Kutty returned on an occasional holiday. Vijayan visited more as writer than cartoonist. Which put him amidst groupies who never let him relax or reflect. The sort that must daily mourn a dying river or two. A maverick at heart,Vijayan was terrified by the mounting political correctness back home. That was one more reason why he chose to stay on in Chanakyapuri before finally retiring to Hyderabad. He paid multiple prices for it,as writer and cartoonist who sought nuances,linguistic and visual. Yet he stayed put,far away from his first language.

Nothing unusual. Two all-time greats migrated across continents and never felt the need to return. David Low left New Zealand to become a Fleet Street legend in the World War II era. Closer to our times,in 1964,Patrick Oliphant left Australia on a Friday evening to start work on Monday at Denver Post in the US.

Now don’t think all expat cartoonists are destined to live on as rootless aliens. I have seen Mario Miranda and Abu Abraham,active and relaxed,in a home setting. Mario had a compelling reason to return to Loutolim — his ancestral home over 300 years old with 30-odd rooms. Abu had no less — “temple bells,festivals and the scent of jasmine”. One evening at Saranam,the house he co-designed with Laurie Baker in Thiruvananthapuram,Abu wondered whether I’d someday look homeward. He thought Kerala had much in store for a cartoonist who also liked to walk around and sketch. He did warn me though that Keralites were getting louder in more ways than one. Take a recce,he suggested. Earlier this year,I did just that through the monsoon months

in Palakkad.

Never saw such rains. Endless. Flawless. Measured. Enough to please the farmer and let the rest of us get on with our lives. The evening sky looked set on Photoshop. Rain clouds floated with choreographic grace to let the slanting rays light up the steady drizzle. And who were out in the evening? Rajasthani traders who camp here annually to sell blankets. Locals were scurrying back to television. Kerala was celebrating a season of scams with a couple of women players thrown in and that was better than the World Cup.

So what kind of homecoming can you have in these parts? Live out of an MUV,sketch and move on before the place gets on your nerves? Carl Giles,the celebrated British cartoonist,worked out of a mobile studio for other reasons. He toured the countryside in a self-built caravan and leisurely produced large cartoons,generously displayed by his paper,Daily Express.

Now,where are the roads? Where’s

the countryside? And where are the papers that print five-column cartoons? For now,

I am fine where I am — on the information highway.

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