Today I’m finishing up my two week long, US State Department, speaking tour adventure in India. I just spent three days in beautiful Kerala, India’s tropical Southwest region which is known for its cartoonists. The cartoonists professional association here is the Kerala Cartoon Academy where I have a bunch of new, cartoonist friends. They are still adding to a collection of photos and newspaper articles from my visit.
Kerala is wet, steamy, tropical and charming, with an extensive network of estuaries called the “backwaters.” While I was here there was a big trade show going on, which brought India’s Prime Minister to town and was an excuse for me to do some cartooning speaking engagements. I had a lovely exhibition of my work here and I spent a sightseeing day with my new, Indian cartoonist buddies.
One highlight was meeting legendary Indian cartoonist “Toms,” who draws what I think Americans would describe as an Indian Dennis the Menace cartoon called Unnikkattan. Toms is the elder statesman of the cartoonists here, and we celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Unni.”
Special thanks to my new friend, Sudheer Nath, the cartoonist for the Thejas newspapers, in Kerala’s Malayalam language; also Prasannan Anikkad, the freelance cartoonist chairman of the Kerala Art Academy and Unnikrishnan, the cartoonist for the Mathnubhumi newspaper – they all showed me a great time touring Kerala’s historic sights, and introducing me to the fascinating food here, which is served on big banana leaves, eaten with much drama with gooey fingers mushing things all about.
Kerala has an outsized cartooning tradition, and the Kerala Cartoon Academy (KCA) is at its heart. The KCA doesn’t exist as a school, rather it is a cartoonist professional organization that organizes events, like my visit here and the tribute to Mr. Toms. They do “cartoon camps” for kids and publish books and magazines; I was very impressed with them.
I’m so rushed I haven’t had a chance to write about my visit to Hyderabad – that will come next.
Near the end of my visit we got the sad news of the murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, who was a career foreign service officer, and a friend and colleague of the State Department people who were hosting me here. It was a grim reminder that the world outside of Kerala can be an ugly place, putting things into some perspective. I’m impressed with the dedication of the State Department people I’ve met on my travels and I appreciate their service.
I spent yesterday in Delhi speaking to packed rooms of intense students at Amity University and at the International School of Media and Entertainment in Noida. Speaking to the college audiences here is great fun.
In the evening I met with about twenty Indian cartoonists at the American Center in Delhi; the handsome group in the photo below:
What was remarkable about the meeting is that all of the Indian cartoonists wanted to make the point to me that their careers are in peril. Cartoonists in India feel they are being squeezed out by timid editors who are afraid of the reactions of government officials and powerful patrons who fear negative reactions to strong opinions in editorial cartoons. The cartoonists told me about job losses and repeated stories about how the only work is for illustrations, at very low fees. They paint a grim picture.
They were all aware of a recent issue here where historical cartoons are being edited out of text books. They knew about Aseem Trivedi and other cartoonists who are facing prosecution, but they describe the problem more as self-censorship, and a fear of the adverse attention that cartoons draw. A number of them described the situation as the “death” of their profession.
Frankly, I was surprised by the tone, looking at the newspapers here it seems that there is a lively debate, and I see Prime Minister Singh savaged in cartoons every day. The newspapers are filled with stories of the current government coal scandal with wagging fingers pointed this way and that to blame for every social and economic problem.
That said, I had a great time with the cartoonists, I got to see much of their work, I was flattered that they all knew my work, and I was impressed at their professionalism and commitment to our art form. There is a lot of talent and promise in India for cartoonists, even though the mood is glum.