K. Shankara Pillai - Shankaracharya of Cartoons
Years back. In a classroom the class teacher gave an arithmetic problem to the students to solve and then he began his usual habit of sleeping in the classroom. He put his legs on the table and was sleeping comfortably and snoring. A mischievous student in the class made a sketch of his master with a fat tummy and bald head in his books using his imaginations in an interesting way. Once the teacher left the classroom, students enjoyed the interesting cartoon by passing it among the friends. Hearing the loud noise and laughs of the classroom teacher of the next class reached the class. He caught that mischievous student red handed along with his creativity and handed him to the head master.
Seeing the cartoon, head master became angry and asked him if he has drawn it. When he nodded yes, head master punished him. He asked the student not to enter the classroom for next two weeks. Same day evening, headmaster reached the punished student’s home with the picture in his hand. But his grandfather commented, “Is this picture drawn by my grandson? It looks excellent!” Do you know who this little kid is? He is none other than Shankara Pillai, known as ‘Shankaran’ at a younger age, who later became world famous cartoonist, Shankar who is often called as the ‘Father of Indian Cartoon’.
We have just celebrated 111th birthday of this great cartoonist on 31st July. So, through this article I would like to briefly explain his life history and contributions to the world of cartoons.
A cartoon that costs 3 rupees
Shankara Pillai alias Shankar was born in 1902 July 31 in Kayamkulam, Kerala. His full name is Illikulathu Kesava Pillai Shankara Pillai. He became an orphan at younger age. Due to personal indifferences with grandfather, Shankaran’s father left home. His mother married again, leaving Shankaran near his grandfather. Then onwards, grandfather became everything to Shankaran and he played a significant role in encouraging and nourishing the artistic talent of Shankaran.
Shankara Pillai completed his Bachelor of Arts degree from Maharajas College of Science, Thiruvananthapuram (now called as University College) at the age of 25. Then he reached Mumbai to study law. He worked as a freelancer cartoonist, along with his studies. He worked in railways as well. But he left the job in three weeks and his studies and joined as the secretary of Naritom Morarji, the founder of Sindhya group, at the salary of rupees 100 a month. He resided at the residence of Morarji as well. In 1929, Morarji died due to a car accident and later too, Shankara Pillai worked with the children of Naritom Morarji.
He tried to get a job in Archeological department, Pune and press at Mumbai and Kolkata. But he failed in every attempt. He married Thankam, a resident of Vanchiyur, Thiruvananthapuram at the age of 29 and returned back to Mumbai to give full concentration to drawing. As a cartoonist, his remuneration was just 3 rupees per cartoon. He died in 1989, December 26 at the age of 87. In 1991, Indian postal stamp released a stamp in honour of this cartoonist.
From Mumbai to Delhi
First published cartoons of Shankar appeared in newspapers like The Bombay Chronicle, The Free Press Journal and Weekly Herald. He had a lot of friends in Mumbai those days and one among those was a media person named Pothen Joseph. When Pothen joined Hindustan Times at Delhi as chief editor, he invited Shankar to join the team as cartoonist. Pothen was then attracted by Shankar’s cartoons those days.
In 1936 October, Shankar and his wife Thankam shifted from Mumbai to Delhi. Thus Shankar reached the capital city as the first staff cartoonist of India. He worked in Hindustan times for 14 years. Then he left Hindustan times and in association with a businessman named Dalmia, he started a newspaper – The news chronicle. After 11 months, he departed from ‘The news chronicle’ and started a magazine of his own in the year 1948. It was country’s first cartoon magazine – Shankar’s weekly!
Don’t spare me Shankar!
Once Shankar went to see Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji asked him, “Was it you who grow Hindustan times or did Hindustan times grow you?” On 1941, one day after Shivaratri Shankar’s cartoon ridiculing Viceroy came into notice of its editor Devdas Gandhi only after it got published. Shankar did the sketch of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow depicting him as Goddess Kali (Bhadrakali) standing over a burning body in the graveyard. At 11 am, Viceroy called Shankar and asked him to send in urgent its original copy with his signature.
Jawaharlal Nehru was very much interested in cartoons and on his 60th birthday, he presented his daughter Indira Gandhi a unique gift – An album of 20 Nehru cartoons drawn by Shankar. On the inauguration day of Shankar’s weekly, he made a popular remark to Shankar, “Don’t spare me Shankar!” It implied that, he should never be spared while criticizing the political and great leaders of India.
The real Kathakali of Republic Day Parade!
For the Republic Day parade through Rajpath on 1952, the float representing Kerala was designed by none other than Shankar. India became a republic nation in the year 1950 and 1951 celebrations were too simple. So it was decided that 1952 celebrations should be grant and the instruction was even made that it should carry floats representing each and every territory/state of India. Whole responsibility was given to defense ministry. Officials who were given the responsibility of Kerala approached Shankar. It was due to the friendly relationship between Shankar and the then Prime Minister of India – Jawaharlal Nehru.
Cartoonist Kutty, the disciple of Shankar was the secretary of Kerala Club. He along with his group made a sketch of the float and the whole discussions were held at Kerala Club. Kerala was given two floats. The group decided to make the first one a typical Kerala home and second one, to represent Kerala’s traditional art form, Kathakali. Shankar designed a great Kerala home with coconut leaf thatched roof, with cut outs of coconut trees. Whole group assisted Shankar to paint the home.
On 1952 Republic day celebrations, both those floats made a nice parade through the roads of Rajpath. Kerala float was made special with Kaikottikali of girls and Kolkali of boys. Children who participated as artists were the kids of Shankar and other members of Kerala club. Shankar too participated as ‘Karanavar’ (senior person of the family) as an observer sitting with a walking stick in hand. Cartoonist Kutty did the fancy dress of his wife, giving steps to girls. Kathakali dancers also performed well in the float during day time!
Kerala’s floats get a lot of positive responses and got quick attention too. They got published in magazines and newspapers too. But the news didn’t end with Kerala’s floats. Mahakavi Vallathol later told press that Kathakali was insulted by performing it in day light. Vallathol criticized Shankar and group mainly because they played Kathakali at day time. Vallathol’s criticisms caught the eyes of national newspapers too and got published. Later Prime Minister sent a letter to the great poet seeking apology. Mahakavi Vallathol is none other than the person who founded Kerala Kalamandalam, to revive Kathakali and other traditional art forms of Kerala. He was the person who loved Kathakali extremely and played key role in popularizing this art form worldwide.
Disciples of Shankar
Most of the disciples of Shankar later became great cartoonists of India. Shankar’s weekly was nothing short of a ‘Cartoon university’! Shankar followed the style of world famous cartoonist, David Law. He even instructed his disciples to follow that style. Abu Abhraham, O.V.Vijayan, Kutty, Samuvel and Kerala Varma belonged to his first phase of teaching. Rajinder Puri, Yesudasan, B.M. Gafoor, Mickey Patel, Ranga and Prakash Ghosh were his disciples later. Among all his disciples, it was cartoonist Kutty who stayed with him for a long time – 48 years! It was Samuvel who used to draw benches, tables and designs of costumes of cartoon figures drawn by Shankar. Those days, Shankar was very much attracted to the drawings of Shivsena leader Bal Thackery who was the cartoonist of Prepress Journal, Mumbai that time.
Editor discovered by Shankar
Shankar has discovered the talents of numerous cartoonists and has encouraged them too. Same way, he has discovered an editor too. He was K.Ramakrishnan, a person who now resides at Kozhicode. Ramakrishnan was the right hand of Shankar and was the first editor of children’s magazine started by Anand – Children’s world. He has also held the responsibility of Shankar’s magazine for a short period. K.Ramakrishnan may not be a familiar name to all readers. But anyone can recollect his name quickly of I mention his grandfather’s name. He is a very familiar person among Keralites. He was Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai of Neyyattinkara who fought against bad rule of Divans of Travancore with his pen and later got exiled from the state. Ramakrishnan is the grandson of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai (daughter's son).
Years back, when Ramakrishnan reached Delhi as a government servant, he was introduced to Shankar by great writer Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai and V.R.Narayanan Nair. But earlier itself, Shankar was an aquatint of Ramakrishnan’s father, Barrister A.K.Pillai, a freedom fighter.
Ramakrishnan was appointed as the book editor of Children’s Book Trust (CBT). In addition to it, he was also given the responsibility of Shankar’s weekly. During that time only, an idea of a children’s magazine came up and it led to the publishing of ‘Children’s world’. Shankar couldn’t find a better substitute of Ramakrishnan in the chief editor role. Very soon, he handed over the full responsibilities of CBT to K. Ramakrishnan.
Central Government imposed a lot of restrictions during Emergency of 1975 when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister. But without any fear of government or prime minister, Shankar criticized the government using his pen and paper – says Ramakrishnan. Shankar reaches office at 7 am. Then he used to read 5 or 6 newspapers and then starts drawing his first cartoon in the morning. Then he used to have a talk about current affairs with Ramakrishnan. Shankar’s magazine was closed during Emergency period and there on, he began to make kids laugh with his children’s magazine.
When a Keralite reaches Delhi, Shankar used to introduce Ramakrishnan to that person also. Thus Ramakrishnan was a familiar face among Keralites at Delhi. Shankar passed away in the year 1989. Yet Ramakrishnan resigned Children’s World only after two years. Later he worked as the editor of ‘Chanda mama’ and now he resides at Kozhicode along with his wife, Ananda Valli. Still he preserves many of the sweet moments he shared with the great cartoonist of India – Shankar.
Kerala House at New Delhi
As a cartoonist though he dwelled at North India, Shankar remained a Keralite till his end. He used to call everyone ‘Chettan’. If any Keralite visits Delhi, he never leaves without having meals at Shankar’s home. Shankar used to celebrate Onam and Vishu with his friends at Delhi. At holidays too, he used to have a group of friends for meals at noon. Kerala sadya with sambar and avial was the hot favourite of Shankar. His other favourites are banana and cashew nuts roasted in fire wood ash.
Shankar has played a significant role in popularizing Kathakali in National level. It was compulsory at Shankar’s home that everyone should speak Malayalam only. Shankar-Thankam couple has 5 children – Shantha, Sukumaran, Yamuna, Leela and Ravi. His youngest son Ravi married a Gujarati girl Alka and when he brought her home, only thing that Shankar asked her was to learn Malayalam in one month and talk to family members in this language. Thus Gujarati girl also began to talk in Malayalam in home.
A museum in his memory!
Cartoon museums are available all over the world. Yet none is available in India. Very soon, one such museum will be opened in Kayamkulam, the birth place of great cartoonist of India – Shankar. The museum is almost completed and is scheduled to open to public during Onam 2013.
The original cartoons of Shankar, photos, Shankar’s weekly, pencils used by Shankar for drawings, brush and everything related to his field will be placed in the museum. Not only that, in addition to Shankar’s cartoons, original drawings of famous Indian cartoonists will also be kept at the museum.
Shankar’s cartoons will be categorized into 4 and exhibited in the museum. Those sections will be – before Indian independence, soon after independence and during the rule of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Organizers are also arranging reading room and theatre, children’s library, a small replica of his International Dolls Museum started by Shankar and a cartoon ‘kalari’ (play house) for kids. Such cartoon kalaris will arrange competitions and cartoon teaching classes for kids and it will function as a part of the museum.
The museum is located in NH, near Krishnapuram Palace of Kayamkulam and it has been constructed in 5 blocks with a total surface area of 15000 square feet. So, let us wait till this coming Onam next month when India’s first cartoon museum will be opened to the whole world! It’s my humble tribute to the greatest cartoonist of India, Shankar whom we Keralites always love to call as Shankaran or Shankara Pillai.
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