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Gendered laugh lines


`Maya even converts pathos into satire. She is able to look at life, take it as it is, then give it a twist,' says C.S. Lakshmi of Maya Kamath's cartoons, which she has compiled into a book.

SHARP, WITTY AND SATIRICAL: One of Maya's cartoons.

IF C. S. Lakshmi hadn't set up the Mumbai-based Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), she would still hold centre stage for other reasons. Such as her original fiction under her Tamil pen name, Ambai. Or perhaps her short-lived foray into Bharatanatyam.

Following the launch of The World of Maya, a 348-page SPARROW book in tribute to India's only woman political cartoonist, the late Maya Kamath, feminist scholar-activist Lakshmi explores the dearth of Indian women in this field during a recent tete-a-tete in Bangalore.

"We used Maya's cartoons for our first brochures, though we didn't know her personally. When we heard about her death in October 2001, we thought it important to archive her work — over 5,000 cartoons done over 16 years," explains Lakshmi, as founder trustee/director of 1988-born SPARROW. "It's shocking that she has received so little recognition. I feel she was as sharp, as witty, as satirical, as R.K. Laxman, perhaps better in some ways."


Maya's work, couched as a gender-sensitive humanist, first appeared as an Evening Herald family strip. Her current affairs cartoons next took a bow in publications including the Times of India, Economic Times, and Free Press Journal, preceding her sharp civic takes in Deccan Herald.

How did the book on Maya come to life? "We'd been collecting Maya's cartoons since her work first appeared in the Asian Age in 1997. Later, I came to Bangalore to meet her daughter, Deepa," recalls Lakshmi. "As Deepa sent us Maya's cartoons in batches, we scanned them. Originally, all the cartoons were not to be kept at SPARROW. We arrived at that understanding later," she stresses. "We had initially budgeted for about 250 pages with 200 cartoons, an enlarged version of a brochure. But eventually, I chose about 1,000 cartoons. Otherwise, you really can't grasp Maya's work."

SELF-PORTRAIT: Maya deserved more recognition.

In Lakshmi's book, Maya's strengths were her minimal lines, her dry sense of humour, often self-reflexive: "Her initial `Gita' family strip was brilliant. So was her cartoon on Clinton, which said, tongue-in-cheek, `I promise not to use my weapon any more.' That was fantastic! Maya even converts pathos into satire. She is able to look at life, take it as it is, then give it a twist. I don't believe Maya's perspective came because she was a woman."

During the Maya project, Lakshmi persuaded Deepa to pen an intense, moving introduction to the book. "There's something special about a daughter writing about her mother. It worked when one of SPARROW's trustees, Dr. Roshan Shahani, wrote a book about her mother, one of the early Parsi teachers. What's wrong if Deepa writes about Maya from the perspective of a 29-year-old?" says Lakshmi of the archival approach. "I asked Deepa to just write it from her heart. The way she would want to, not the way SPARROW would want her to."

Continuing relevance

Lakshmi refers to the innovative SPARROW installation of selected Maya cartoons in the atrium of Bangalore's Alliance Francaise (April 16-23), overprinted on portable, appropriately-shaped balloons, following shows in Mumbai and New Delhi. She states, "I was sure the exhibition should not be just framed cartoons. We made current day newspapers the background, while superimposing Maya's work to prove its continuing relevance."

Why did Maya not receive her due? "I feel lots of work by women is ignored, even though they may be brilliant. Maya was a cartoonist, who happened to be a woman. That's how I look at writers, too, through a literary lens," explains Lakshmi, sifting through manmade mysteries. "When a woman creates space for expression, that is of historical importance to me."

Is gender, then, a stumbling block? "To be a regular cartoonist, you must be accepted. That is difficult. The work is very rigorous. Even among men, there are not so many cartoonists," observes Lakshmi. "Cartooning is a rather lonely way of working. Maya didn't need a separate space to work in. She often cleared the Kamath dining table to draw her cartoons there."

What distinguishes Manjula Padmanabhan, the only other Indian woman to make a mark in cartooning? "She's not a political cartoonist. But I liked her Suki strip (in The Pioneer). Manjula's cartoons don't tell one story to the end. She doesn't foreclose any idea," stresses Lakshmi. "Yet, she got very nasty letters, asking: why is Suki not beautiful or well-endowed? People didn't understand that Suki was totally original."

As women globally struggle to make permanent imprints in the cartoon world, Lakshmi gears up to document their journey in India. For, to her, such creative expression is a statement of courage.

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