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K Shankar Pillai, the cartoonist who taught a nation to laugh at itself

Meghaa Aggarwal | Updated on July 26, 2019 Published on July 26, 2019

Bygone era: Shankar presents a book of selected cartoons of Jawaharlal Nehru to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983. Nehru had famously told the cartoonist, “Don’t spare me, Shankar!”   -  PIB

A look back at his timeless legacy ahead of his birth anniversary on July 31

On August 31, 1975 — two months into the tense Emergency instated by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — K Shankar Pillar, fondly known as Shankar, wrote in the final edition of his magazine Shankar’s Weekly:

“...our function was to make our readers laugh — at the world, at pompous leaders, at humbug, at foibles, at ourselves. But, what are the people who have a developed sense of humour? It is a people with certain civilised norms of behaviour, where there is tolerance and a dash of compassion.”

The words corroborate what people remember the most about the man — his courage, humour and foresight. Most people recall Shankar for his tongue-in-cheek cartoons, which appeared in a number of leading newspapers as well as his weekly, which was launched in 1948.

Shankar had a penchant for taking on figures of authority through his cartoons, and they ranged from British Viceroys to members of their executive council. One of his most famous cartoons that appeared in the Hindustan Times in the early 1940s showed the British Viceroy Lord Linlithgow as Goddess Bhadrakali, standing over a burning body in a cremation ground.

Keeping his legacy alive: Shankar’s cartoons on postal stamps issued in 1991, three years after his death   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

For Bengaluru-based cartoonist VG Narendra, who was still in school at the time, the irreverent cartoons were much-anticipated comic relief. He couldn’t believe that drawing such cartoons could also be a job! So he promptly decided that he too would become a cartoonist. Narendra went on to work as a cartoonist at Shankar’s Weekly and is today the managing trustee of the Indian Institute of Cartoonists in Bengaluru, which works to promote cartooning. Fondly remembering the legacy of his idol, he says that Shankar taught him the ‘art’ of good-natured lampooning.

One of Shankar’s most special ‘victims’ was the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The relationship between them withstood 4,000 less-than-flattering cartoons — and yet Nehru is remembered for having told the cartoonist, “Don’t spare me, Shankar!”

Delhi-based editorial cartoonist Irfan Khan says, “Shankar was and remains the godfather of political cartooning in India. Unfortunately, you cannot have a Nehru-Shankar duo again because of the absence of politicians like Nehru who can take a cartoon as a cartoon and not as an offence. The way political culture has evolved in India has reduced political cartoonists to a dying breed.”

The significance of the Nehru-Shankar dynamic was that there was nothing ‘political’ in their ties. Nehru was a man who respected excellence and creativity and Shankar, who was gifted with these qualities, could never bow down to anyone. Their camaraderie was born out of mutual admiration.

One of the commonalities between the two men was their abiding love for children. According to his eponymous biography, published by the Children’s Book Trust (CBT) in 1984, Shankar once remarked, “...Why not leave the grown-ups to themselves for a while? Let me try to know children. Children are beautiful, unspoilt, lovable. They deserve the best of everything.” His urge to do something for children saw him establishing various avenues to discover and encourage their talent — such as children’s competitions in drawing and writing, special issues of the Shankar’s Weekly featuring their work, exhibitions of their art, competitions for dance, drama and music, and libraries housing a collection of children’s literature.

In 1957, his endeavours for children were brought under the banner of the CBT. In addition to everything else, CBT pioneered children’s publishing in India. Some of their most popular titles are Stories from Panchatantra, Life with Grandfather and Mother is Mother.

Independent publisher Arvind Kumar, former director at the National Book Trust, says, “Post-Independence children’s literature in India was rich in text, but not much attention was paid to illustrations and design. The market was flooded by highly subsidised, child-friendly colourful Soviet books. By establishing CBT, Shankar offered an attractive option to parents wanting well-illustrated books with Indian creative works, and stories from our history and mythology.”

Shivam, Sukumar, Shanta, Savitri, Hemlata, Thangam — back in the 1950s, there was such a dearth of children’s writers that Shankar wrote under various pen names to create an impression of variety! He also began an assiduous search for children’s writers through writing workshops and a competition inviting manuscripts for children’s books.

Inspired by the gift of a Hungarian doll, Shankar took up a new hobby in his 50s — collecting dolls. Navin Menon, who worked as an editor at CBT under Shankar, says, “There is something very inviting about the Hungarian doll — its face, its dress — that must have stirred him. After all, he was a cartoonist with a keen sense of observation.”

In the span of a few years, he collected hundreds of dolls and, in addition to everything else, began holding doll exhibitions across cities and even started a doll-making workshop.

In 1965, CBT and Shankar’s dolls found a home in ‘Nehru House’ on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi. Unfortunately, Nehru had died the previous year, prompting Shankar to remark, “What is success to me when the one person who would have been proud to share it with me is no more with us today?”

Shankar, who died in 1989, was a visionary who lived in the world of tomorrow. Indeed, as Menon recounts, “He was always in a hurry. If he gave you something to do, he expected it to be completed yesterday and done flawlessly.” Perhaps there was always too much to do and one lifetime didn’t seem enough.

Not child’s play: Shankar Pillai, who was a collector of dolls and founded the Dolls Museum, presents dolls to a foreign diginitary   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

Nehru House continues to stand. People continue to visit the Dolls Museum. CBT still holds competitions for children and children’s writers. In many ways, Shankar’s legacy plods on, but as Menon says, “the aura went with him”.

Meghaa Aggarwal works in children’s publishing and writes features on education and the environment

Published on July 26, 2019
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