As a young school boy in Kottayam, my uncle’s Sunday morning ritual would be to excitedly flip to the last page of the Malayala Manorama Weekly. However, he was not the only one doing so. In fact, reading the magazine back to front became a norm for all of Kerala, a norm that came into practice because of two feisty characters named Boban and Molly. Boban and Molly were the protagonists of a comic strip created by cartoonist VT Thomas (also known as Toms). And over forty years, the strip etched a place in the hearts and homes of almost every Malayalee family. A brother-sister duo, the characters hailed from a Christian family living in the fictional town of Kizhukkamthookku in rural Travancore and regaled generations with their adventures and pranks, subtly commenting on contemporary social and political issues. Besides Boban and Molly, Toms introduced many other legendary characters to the Malayalee “comic” industry. There was Unnikkuttan, a naughty six-year-old who would constantly play pranks on his parents and teachers, Chettan, the president of the Panchayat and of course, their lovable dog who made it to almost every panel.
Humour is intrinsic to most creative art forms in Kerala, be it folktales or films. For example, the present crop of Malayalam cinema prefers to use humour rather than drama to highlight any serious socio-political issue. Similarly, satire — and thereby the art of cartooning — has always found a prominent place in Malayalee society. In fact, the Kerala Cartoon Academy is perhaps the only state-funded institution dedicated to cartoons and cartoonists in the entire Indian subcontinent. The Academy was formed in 1982, and has more than 100 professional cartoonists as its registered members. An initial attempt was made by a few cartoonists to organise themselves into a forum in 1967 itself but it was only much later (1982) that an official association was formed.
One could almost say cartooning in India has been associated with Kerala. Almost all major national papers have had a Malayalee cartoonist at some point. Political cartoons, depicted through witty imagery, convey powerful messages, and have a go at our beloved politicians and their parties. In fact, Pandit Nehru used to love K Shankara Pillai’s cartoons. Shankar, as he famously came to be called, is considered the “father of political cartooning” in India. Brought to Delhi in 1946 by Pothan Joseph, the editor of The Hindustan Times, Shankar went on to publish hundreds of witty political cartoons that even grabbed the attention of Viceroys like Lord Willingdon and Linlithgow. Among his most notable cartoons is the one where Jawaharlal Nehru is seen running the last leg of a race with leaders like Morarji Desai and Lal Bahadur Shashtri not very far behind. Ten days before his death, when the former Prime Minister saw this depiction, he said to the cartoonist, “Don’t Spare Me, Shankar”. Interestingly, Shankar later came out with a book of cartoons on Nehru titled, “Don’t spare me, Shankar.”
Shankar was probably the first Malayalee (political) cartoonist to have gained a name in India, and soon after, a number of other cartoonists followed, becoming famous in their own right: Abu Abraham, OV Vijayan, Ravi Shankar, are well-known names in India. Abraham was working in the Bombay Chronicle when Shankar invited him to Delhi to work for Shankar’s Weekly. He subsequently moved to London where his works were published by Punch Magazine, and the Daily Sketch under the pen name “Abraham”. OV Vijayan left Kerala in 1958 to pursue his career as a cartoonist with Shankar’s Weekly in Delhi. Later during his freelancing career, Vijayan’s works even went on to be published in the Far Eastern Economical Review as well as the New York Times. His nephew, Ravi Shankar, also a political cartoonist from Palakkad is now the Executive Editor of The New Indian Express in Delhi. The award-winning filmmaker G Aravindan started his career as a political cartoonist, his famous strip Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Small Men and the Big World) was published in the Malayalam weekly, Mathrubhumi from 1963 to 1971. A satire on the socio-political and cultural issues of Kerala, the strip had two central characters, Ramu and Guruji.
While cartoonists’ works are appreciated throughout the country, it has never got institutional support as an art, outside the sphere of journalism. And considering it is a tradition that dates back to more than a hundred years, it is quite a pity that no concerted effort has been made to archive or record it. Neither are there any dedicated cartoon appreciation courses anywhere in the country. However, things are slowly changing. A few years ago, the Lalitakala Academy decided to make cartooning a “fine art” on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Kerala Cartoon Academy.
In 2006, Boban and Molly got a new lease of life when they were brought “alive” on television in a show named “Kizhukkamthookku Panchayat”, produced by the Thiruvalla-based Keraladesom Movies. It was then that my uncle told me how in the past he would voraciously read each new strip every week. On my last visit to his house, I went through dusty piles of old issues of the Malayala Manorama Weekly, stored in the deep recesses of a cupboard in the attic. And I was hooked, to say the least. I went back home that night with close to 40 copies of the magazine and the next few days were happily spent in the village of Kizhukkamthookku, in the company of Boban, Molly and their dog.