India has long been a fertile ground for the art of political cartoons. Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had a close personal relationship with Shankar, the doyen of Indian cartoonists. He saw the political and social satire implicit in cartoons as essential to a democratic society. Nehru recognised the fact that cartoonists, with a few strokes of their brush, are far more effective in conveying impactful messages than lengthy political commentaries.
His immortal words “Don’t spare me, Shankar” stand as permanent testimony to his deep-rooted democratic spirit and openness to criticism. Today, despite sections of the Indian media being under siege with journalists accused of sedition, the art of cartooning continues to flourish. While cartoonists are not impervious to overall trends, they have carried on performing the role of sentinels who speak the truth and stand guard over right and wrong.
Despite the popularity of cartoons and iconic status of leading cartoonists in our country, the life and achievements of Shankar or K Shankar Pillai have remained obscure to most people. An excellent new publication—Cartoonist Shankar, Kala, Kaalam, Jeevitham—authored in Malayalam by Sudheer Nath, a long-term practitioner and scholar of cartoon history, remedies this situation. Published by the Kerala Lalit Kala Academy, this comprehensive and well-illustrated book showcases Shankar’s immense achievements and legacy along with the best of his cartoons published over several decades.
Shankar passed away at the age of 88 on December 26, 1989, leaving behind impressive accomplishments. Born in the central Kerala town of Kayamkulam, Shankar went to school in nearby Mavelikara. He graduated from the capital city of Thiruvanantapuram and then moved to Mumbai in 1927 to initially study law and then to work in a company. In Mumbai, he began contributing cartoons to newspapers like The Free Press Journal and The Bombay Chronicle. Pothan Joseph, the legendary editor of the Hindustan Times, discovered him and brought him to Delhi in 1932 as a staff cartoonist. Bold and fearless, Shankar lampooned the Viceroys of the time as well as leaders of the nationalist movement, including Mahatma Gandhi.
The book is a treasure trove of little-known vignettes regarding the life of Shankar. It describes how it was Shankar’s cartoons which first depicted Nehru with a rose in his jacket. The first such cartoon published on March 9, 1952, showed Nehru standing in the middle of a rose bush with fire and smoke coming out of his mouth and a beautiful rose pinned to his lapel. It had Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt rushing with water to douse the fire. It was after seeing this that Nehru decided to make the rose a permanent part of his attire.
This book deserves to be made available to a larger audience through translation into English and other languages.