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The other Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar, author of "The Tiger by the River" says he has retired from cartooning for all practical purposes and now defines himself as a writer and art director. ANJANA RAJAN speaks to the first-time novelist who reveals something about the decline of political cartooning, his book, and his beliefs... .

FOR LONG he has been distinguished from his namesake, Pandit Ravi Shankar, the famous doyen of sitar, by suffixing "the cartoonist" to his name. But now, says Ravi Shankar Etteth, author of "The Tiger by the River", released by Penguin Books in New Delhi recently, he has retired from cartooning for all practical purposes. Now he likes to think of himself as a writer and art director. Apart from being Deputy Editor of "India Today" he is also its art director and designs the entire magazine.

This is not merely a whimsical change of perception. Political cartooning in India, asserts Ravi Shankar, is an irrelevant art, since it is "editorial commentary and takes a political, social stand, which today's media does not have."

Saying there is no longer an audience for such cartooning - distinguishing in this context between genuine political satire and simply humorous caricaturing - he points out that in the 1980s there were giants like Abu, Laxman, Vijayan and others, but after that there has been no one new of stature. He explains that for four decades after Independence, what allowed Indian political cartooning - a concept introduced by the British - to flourish was a world living through the Cold War, and an atmosphere of leftist liberalism in which India leaned towards the former Soviet Union and the Americans were looked at with suspicion. With the dismantling of the Soviet Union and India's growing consumerist culture, these conditions no longer exist.

Accepting that India itself has changed - "The gentle idyllic India doesn't exist anymore" - he neither criticises the materialistic proclivities of the newly empowered middle class, pointing out that everyone likes their gadgets and comforts in life, nor lamentss the decline of the art of political cartooning. What is lacking in India is passion. Whether in arts or politics, "We don't feel passionately about anything. Political cartooning requires a tremendous passion - a feel for justice."

In life, he feels, whether the issue at stake is an art or a personal relationship, it is necessary to move on, to redefine oneself. "I do not believe in the social suffering of creativity, the righteousness of failure. I found I had no desire to be an archaeologist of my own career."

And while as an individual he does not wish to mount a futile crusade to revive the spirit of political cartooning, he hopes that as a writer he can inspire people with his ideas.

"The most powerful existence of man is in his imagination. I believe in the power of the idea, I believe in the power of suggestion," he states impressively, and then makes a surprising declaration for a journalist. "I believe that democracy has run its course and the kings should come back."

His argument is that the monarchical and feudal system at one time stood for generosity and protection of the weak by the strong. Coming from a feudal family of Malabar - his ancestral house stood on the banks of the river Papanasini, just like the palace of the protagonist in "The Tiger by the River" - Ravi Shankar recalls the beautiful side of that social system.

"There is nothing more beautiful than the love of a king for his subjects." From the people's point of view, he asks, "What is a human being without loyalty? Look at the negatives of democracy. Look at the incredible injustice towards women, the untouchables, look at the corruption. At least in a monarchy there is individual responsibility.

Here there is none." Referring to Mahatma Gandhi's exhortations to develop the country's villages he says, "I strongly believe that India's experiments with itself are not going to work. I'm not an activist writer. But I feel it's time we actually looked back at what is great about our country."

So while he has nothing against change, loves his cable TV, loves to taste the cuisines of the world and uses English with the facility of a mother tongue, "Why can't we also have king, man?"

Perhaps this is why his protagonist is a king, though his life is rimmed by tragedy - a tragedy he deals with through an "art of dreaming" and that catapults him between planes - from "the narrow aisle between wakefulness and sleeping" where "there was the sorcery of another attention" to the horrors of the Holocaust, from the bliss of a romantic vision to the murky tales of family legends.

"The Tiger by the River" is a fictional tale based on a real landscape. It flows in flawless English in the tradition of the Panchatantra, weaving stories within stories.

And as we figure out those tales with King Swati, Ravi Shankar is almost ready with his next book.

We have been witness to the transformation of a cartoonist, and to brazenly borrow from his style, the experience is one "in which the hero returns in the realms of imagination to his native Kerala, to a land where many of the old things no longer exist but in his mind... ."

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