Will the recognition of cartooning as a fine art by Kerala set a precedent and give the popular genre its due?
For over half a century, cartoons have occupied a special place in newspapers and put across powerful messages. They have evoked smiles, they have provoked discussions. And all along they grabbed attention.
The stalwarts are many: Shankar, PKS Kutty, Abu Abraham, R.K. Laxman, Mario Miranda and others. Not to forget the rich history of cartooning in regional language papers.
With a flourish of their pens, the cartoonists have often made profound statements. What the cliché says about a picture being better than a thousand words, the cartoonists proved through their black-and-white creations.
They signed in style after opening a world of laughter and thought. The readers became familiar with their scrawl, the slant of the pen and even the dots on the ‘i’. But down the line, cartooning has not got the recognition it deserves. Even as newspapers added bulk to their pages, cartoons disappeared from a few newspapers. In some cases they have been luckier: they have only lost their prized front-page position.
Most of these pocket-sized laughter buttons today lurk in a corner of daily papers.
“Many newspapers do not have cartoonists now,” points out cartoonist Irfaan Khan. “It is an art based purely on criticism.” Khan feels people are not as tolerant anymore. “We cannot laugh at ourselves.”
Says Sudhir Tailang, whose exhibitions have proved that cartoons can be a saleable art, “Cricket and movie stars take front page now. Cartoons are bound to offend someone, so it is not considered a good idea to have them.”
In India, the popularity of cartoons has rarely transcended to other genres like cartoon storybooks or movies. “No chronicling of cartoon history has taken place,” says cartoonist Unny. “There are no cartoon appreciation courses either,” he adds.
But that’s where the recent decision of the Kerala Lalit Kala Academy to make cartooning a fine art becomes a ray of hope.
“The recognition came on the 25th anniversary of the Kerala Cartoon Academy,” says cartoonist Sudheernath, secretary, KCA.
Optimistically he adds, “We have sent representations to the Central Lalit Kala Akademi to consider making it a fine art. Cartooning has been ignored for long.”
“It is a welcome decision. I would say it was overdue,” says Sudhir Tailang, adding, “But we are not hankering for recognition from any academies, as cartooning is a popular art.”
The Kerala Government’s initiative is a “symbolic positive step”, says Unny. The cartoonist explains, “In India, cartoons appear mostly in newspapers or magazines. If we had streams of cartooning outside journalism like cartoon books – “Manga” – or had animation become an industry, it would have given a lift. Very little cartooning happens outside journalism even today.”
Cartooning outside the sphere of journalism could have grown and competed for artistic space, but it never had institutional support.
Despite the scepticism, the recognition from Kerala, considered the home of cartooning, could well be a step towards making things better, at least for aspiring cartoonists.
“The recognition brings with it the much-needed institutional backing. It gives budding cartoonists a platform to exhibit their works,” says Sudheernath.
According to him, talks are on between the KCA and the Indira Gandhi Open University to begin a cartoon appreciation course.
Many cartoonists’ hope also lies in the budding animation sector. “Animation is a boost to cartooning,” says Sudheernath.
Banking on animation
“Parents want their children to be animators. Further, it extends the work area of a cartoonist.” Sudheernath also believes the media boom has helped cartooning. With channels continuously flashing pictures of leaders and celebrities, the cartoonist runs the risk of being rejected if the caricature does not resemble the original. But Sudheernath sees it differently.
“It gives us more characters to draw,” he says. “In the past one year, I have drawn 150 characters.” Unny too believes, within the sphere of journalism, there are avenues for cartooning to grow. “In the West, newspapers are bulkier and especially golf cartooning has grown rapidly there,” says Unny.
“Golf provides a lot of funny moments and golf cartooning has almost become a sub-genre,” he says.
Not only within journalism, one hopes these tiny positive steps would give back the laughter medicine its punch.