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Mainstream, VOL L, No 22, May 19, 2012

Shankar: An Appreciation of The Cartoon Wizard

Tuesday 22 May 2012, by Anees Chishti

[The following piece on Shankar, the reputed cartoonist, appeared in Mainstream (May 1, 1965). Anees Chishti, the well-known veteran writer-cum-journalist, who then worked in this journal, wrote it at the suggestion of N.C. and it was quoted by Pothan Joseph. It is being reproduced precisely because Shankar is in the news these days, one of his cartoons used in an NCERT textbook having been withdrawn due to vociferous protests by MPs who charged him with “insulting” a Dalit icon in it—something which has evoked sharp reaction from the public at large.]


If you are in a largely attended soiree unmindful of the evening’s humdrums and in search of a dark corner to satisfy your introvert instincts, an Argus-eyed, well-meaning elderly gentleman would surprise you in your melancholic stance with the question: “Can you write some books for children?” This rather unwelcome enquiry by a stranger might raise even the most stable eyebrows, but certainly not so if the questioner happens to be K. Shankar Pillai whose polite query dissolves all irritation.

Shankar, the renowned cartoonist, is, perhaps, the best known living artist of India. Through his quickly drawn lines he has been serving a creative branch of journalism for over three decades and is a nightmare of many a politician. But he hates politics and refuses to talk anything about himself, not even the purely academic points about his art.

“No one has been able to get anything about me from myself during the last thirty years, and you too won’t get it,” said he, patting his knuckles when I requested him for an interview.

Shankar started his artistic career as a freelance cartoonist in Bombay about 1932. His science degree from Madras University had given him an exacting precision and he achieved remarkable successes soon after holding the brush. His cartoons started appearing extensively in the Bombay Chronicle. He had to face some really gruelling time due to his anti-British slant but he never allowed his art to be corrupted even under the toughest circumstances. A friend of the cartoonist recollected that a Police raid in the locality had once frightened his wife who burnt many of Shankar’s originals.

His stay in Bombay was very short. Pothan Joseph brought him to Delhi and appointed him on the staff of the Hindustan Times when the former was its Editor. Jodseph gave Shankar complete freedom to draw whatever he liked during his assignment with the Hindustan Times which he served for over a decade. He made some of his best cartoons during his association with the daily; it is still debatable whether Shankar built the newspaper or the newspaper built him.

His stay in the Hindustan Times after Pothan Joseph’s departure was not very smooth; differences of opinion with some high-ups led Shankar to leave the newspaper. He, then, decided to start a new daily of his own. This plan met with innumerable financial and other difficulties and he started Shankar’s Weekly in May 1948.

The studio of Shankar is a modest establishment—a comfortable reclining chair, a colourful diwan with pillows, a small table and a fow boards, the paper over the smooth table giving the impression of a landscape due to the cartoonist’s painted doodlings.

His cartoons look like real life drama on a stage: he emphasises most on the fundamentals of caricature. To give an admirable effect to his sketches, he goes in for expressive backgrounds; he craves for simplicity in its clearest form unlike his other modern colleagues who use the highly intricate instrument of abstract symbolic figures.

His two-year stay in Europe brought some significant changes in his drawing techniques: the lines became more communicative and his emphasis on the overall figurative effect receded into the background.

SOME fellow cartoonists often criticise Shankar for his not being influenced by the recent trends in the West. They quote the names of Tim, Feiffer, Anear Dean and many others who have brought a renaissance in the art of caricature making. Apart from being cartoonists, they are philosophers, poets, existentialists and use symbols and figures that are the creations of the last ten years’ art and literature. But Shankar, who, according to my friend Vijayan, put India on the cartooning map of the world, still finds solace in his traditional approach; for, he has to feed the intellect of a people who are not very sophisticated in their approach to art and literature. How to influence through surrealism a following that hardly reads even the news-paper?

The first art competition for children in 1949 attracted about 1300 entries. From the next year the competition was opened to all countries of the world: now the contest is a big attraction and the total number of entries for the 1964 international competition was 1,17,000 coming from 88 countries. Children are also asked to contribute literary pieces; Nehru’s keen interest in the children’s competition was the main source of Shankar’s inspiration.

Books for children are rare in our country. Advanced countries today believe in the importance of attractive books which the child would like to read, own and keep as a dear thing. The Children’s Book Trust, organised by Shankar, has covered considerable ground in this field. Its new building on Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg is to be inaugurated in July next when the first twelve publications of the Trust will be released officially; at present, the Trust is engaged in the preparation of some useful children’s books in association wilh a board of eminent writers and artists who advise in matters of technical detail. Shankar is organising a permanent dolls museum in the Trust building; it is being artistically designed by architect Karl von Heinz. About five thousand dolls collected from some sixty countries are to be arranged in beautiful show cases. The museum is also expected to be complete by the time of inauguration of the Trust building.

The studio of a cartoonist is not even known in India. A visit to Shankar, therefore, was enlig-htening; dressed in his blue apron he spends his day walking in the corridors of the museum under construction, picking up a doll and seeing it lovingly, instructing the carpenters about the design of the furniture, relaxing in his reclining chair and making caricatures of well-known personalities.

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