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India: ’Cartoonists should be liberals and radicals’ - Interview with Abu Abraham

26 November 2004

print version of this article print version - October 31, 1997

The Rediff Interview / Abu Abraham

’Cartoonists should be liberals and radicals’

"Gin or beer?"

Abu Abraham The legendary Abu Abraham, 73, was playing the perfect host to Rediff On The NeT’s Shobha Warrier at his Trivandrum home. Matters, especially matters of art, he told her, were best spoken over gin or a glass of beer. So which shall it be?

Unfortunately, our lady was a teetotaller, with a pronounced weakness for tea. So could a cup of the stuff be procured?

"What!" the cartoonist feigned surprise, "Tea at noon?"

But finally, it was tea that saw the interview through. Seated in his magnificent and much-talked about bungalow (designed by the celebrated Laurie Baker), Shobha consumed cup after cup of superbly-made tea as Abraham, who started his career as a reporter for The Bombay Chronicle in 1946 before switching to cartoons (with stints at The Observer and The Guardian), spoke frankly and poignantly — yes, like a cartoonist! — about his art and himself.

Before we move to the interview, a little more about Abraham: Besides his drawings, he has several books — Abu on Bangladesh, Private View, Games of the Emergency and Arrivals and Departures — to his credit as well. He was given a special award by the British Film Institute in 1970 for his animated cartoon film No Arks. Two years later, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Now read on...

The last time we met was a few months after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. I remember you were so affected by the tragedy that you could not draw cartoons anymore.

Abu’s Cartoon It affected me very badly. If this is the kind of politics we have, what is the point in drawing cartoons? Cartoons are supposed to create tolerance, some kind of moderation. Humour always softens the atmosphere. Of course, there are vicious cartoons also. But generally a touch of humour is supposed to give a sense of proportion to politics.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was a shock to me not because he was a great friend of mine. That way, I was closer to Indira. I knew him only a little. But just the idea that this could happen was a rude shock to me. Anyway, when one gets to my age, it is not easy to produce even sustained weekly cartoons. It takes a lot to draw cartoons... a great deal of mental effort. It can be very exhausting.

These days, I write. And that works out quite well. Since 1981, I do a syndicated column for The Hindustan Times and various other papers. That gives me enough satisfaction as I can express my views.

Did Indira Gandhi’s assassination also affect you the same way? After all, you were closer to her.

That was also a shock. But I knew she would die. I had said so to my friends. Even to my wife, I said, ’She will be assassinated.’

Why? Because of Operation Blue Star?

Not only that. She developed hostility from both within and out. Especially from the Americans. Even Rajiv was not in the CIA’s good books. Remember the assassination of (Patrice) Lumumba? Now it has come out that CIA chief Allen Dulles approved his ’removal’. But the advantage the CIA has always had was that things become public only 10 or 20 years later. So they get away with it. People just say it is part of history and forget it.

What about your stint with the Indian Express during the Emergency. A cartoonist needs a lot of freedom, so the Emergency must have been a difficult time for you...

Only in the beginning. There was pre-censorship for the first three months. In those days, I did a kind of whimsical drawing. Sometimes it had hidden meaning. In fact, I have published a book of over hundred such drawings. It is called Games of the Emergency It has my unpublished Emergency cartoons too.

Once the pre-censorship was over, I acted as though there was no restriction. (C V) Narasimhan (the then Indian Express editor) also wrote freely and we got on very well. That was when I drew the cartoon of the President in the bath which has become quite famous now. When there was a challenge like that, I tend to draw better. It was appreciated by the general public because there was so much tension those days. So, whenever they saw a good cartoon, they just laughed loudly for a release.

What is the essential quality of a cartoonist? A fearless mind?

(Laughs) Fearlessness, yes. In the sense that you express only what you believe in. Cowardly behaviour is when you try to please your editor or the proprietor or anybody else and draw cartoons on subjects that you yourself don’t believe in. That happens sometimes when cartoonists go from one paper to another.

If you are honest to yourself, you feel a sense of freedom and what you call, fearlessness. Cartoonists are privileged people as there are very few of them functioning at a time. A newspaper can’t afford to lose a staff cartoonist. But if you start fearing, you don’t take any risks.

You said cartoonists are privileged people. In what way? How different are they from journalists?

Traditionally, the cartoonist has got away with a lot of liberties. It was people like Domier and David Low who established this tradition of freedom. Without freedom, a cartoonist won’t be able to really function. You will only produce second-rate work.

Abu Abraham Cartoonists have to think with a certain amount of passion, have to respond and react to world and local events whether it is poverty or corruption or dowry or sati. But if a cartoonist goes and accepts dowry, then he can’t draw cartoons on that. In other words, cartoonists should be liberals and radicals. All good cartoonists are like that. You will seldom find a rightwing cartoonist. The middle group, yes. For example Laxman, he is so liberal centre. He is not leftwing. People like Vijayan are leftwing. Shankar was leftwing. It is difficult to place them right and left. Generally, you have to have some radical thinking. But if you are for the status quo, what is the point in drawing?

You once said your best cartoons were drawn during the Vietnam and Bangladesh wars. Was it because you were so disturbed by the cruelty of it all?

Yes. Both were actually monstrous wars. The Americans were going to ’take Vietnam back to the stone ages’ — that was the expression they used. In Bangladesh, it was pure massacre. I went to Tripura and saw what was happening there. I wrote an article in The Guardian saying it was actually cowardice not to intervene in the situation which had created 10 million refugees.

In Delhi, there was a controversy. It was Indira Gandhi’s leadership and those who were against her were against the Bangladesh war. Then, people were being taken for a ride by the Western embassies. I know journalists who used to come to the Delhi Press Club and say it was all false propaganda, that there weren’t any 10 million refugees. I said, I was there, that there was no doubt about it. It is a kind of scotch-stuff policy that the Pakistanis were pursuing. There was a racist element in it. The Pakistani Punjabis believed they were the true Muslims and not the black Bengalis. It is the other way round. They are one of the oldest community of Muslims in the world. Conversion started in eastern India soon after Islam was established.

Did you always go to places where the action was?

I have done that. Actually I was a major in the American army during the Vietnam war. I was there in Saigon and they took me in their planes to various places. I did a number of articles for the Indian Express. I was made a major because it gave me protection. And if anything happened to me, my relatives would be informed soon. I must have been the only major in the US army in kurta pyjamas (laughs).

Did you see a lot of action?

I didn’t see any action on the ground. I went on a Red Cross ship to see an exchange of prisoners. All along the coast you could see flares dropping and bombs exploding. That was going on. But outside Saigon, you could see all these peasant girls harvesting rice while bombing was on at a distance. But the girls were not bothered.

One could see a lot of poverty and little girls begging. But they are such a dignified nation. There was so much pride in even the children who were selling flowers.

Was it why they could drive away the Americans?

They are extremely tough. They have this analogy about bamboos: The bamboo bends, but doesn’t break. And they use bamboo for everything, for utensils, bridges... The bamboo culture was perfectly suited to the war.

The Americans used to spent tonnes of bombs to destroy bridges. But the next day, the bridges would reappear. They fought on a handful of rice and dry fish while the Americans had these air rations, sea rations, medical attention and all that. They fought because it was their country. They are fiercely nationalist. It was an amazing phenomenon. Like in Cuba. I always wondered how Cuba survived all these years. They tried umpteen ways to kill (Fidel) Castro.

Did you see fierce patriotism in the Cubans also?

I would say so except there is one section which Castro used to call the Cuzanos — meaning worms — who were so pro-American and couldn’t stand Communism. But Castro allowed them to go to America — and a lot of them went. So, there wasn’t much of a fifth column in Cuba. Also, that man’s leadership is charismatic. People just scream at the sight of him.

When did you visit Cuba?

In 1962. I went back again.

You seem to admire him a lot. You have only his portraits here in your drawing room!

Sure, as a person. I am attracted to his charm and fearlessness.

Shall we go back to your school days? I have heard you started caricaturing your teachers when you were in school. Did they ever see those drawings?

No. I didn’t show them. (Laughs). Once I did one on a black board but they didn’t know who had drawn it. So I got scot-free!

In those days, did you ever think of becoming a cartoonist?

I was totally absorbed in drawing. But I didn’t know how to become a professional cartoonist. Besides, I had all the discouragement I needed from my parents and elders (laughs).

Was that why you decided to be a journalist?

I had to find a job. So when I went to Bombay, I tried to get into a newspaper. But I had no idea how a paper functioned, how reporting was done. I used to think reporters were sent out in the morning to wander around and find news! (Laughs) Everything was so baffling to me initially. I was an apprentice for six months till I learnt where to find news and how to write it.

How did you find reporting? More interesting than cartoons?

I don’t know. Because, during my spare time I did cartoons for The Bombay Chronicle.

You joined the Shankar’s Weekly as a cartoonist later on. How did you get the job?

Shankar saw some of my works in The Bombay Chronicle and wrote to me. I was with a paper called Bharat started by Vallabhbhai Patel and his son. By the end of 1951, I joined Shankar’s Weekly.

Why did you leave for England? And you stayed for a long time there — nearly 13 years.

I thought I was getting a bit stuck with Shankar’s Weekly. Actually, I went on a visit to England just to get the feel of London. I wanted to see Paris also. In fact, I wanted to go to Paris more because I knew French and was interested in their culture.

Was it a personal visit?

Yes. I organised some money. In those days, a passage by sea cost only 53 pounds — just Rs 650! You got four meals a day for 20 days.

Why did you decide to stay back? Were you so attracted to London?

Abu’s Cartoon I thought my money would last for about three months. But it ran out in three weeks! But, fortunately, I found I could sell my work. In the first week, I sold five cartoons, four to a tabloid called The Sketch. The one they rejected went into Punch. In those days, one could live on five pounds a week.

I continued as a freelancer for two-and-a-half years. There was a magazine called The Eastern World for which I used to do a bit of writing and also cartoons. But that was only once a month.

Then I met Michael Foot (later the Labour Party leader) who was editing The Tribune and showed him my work. He said, start on Monday. I did two cartoons in The Tribune. In the beginning of the third week, I got a letter from the The Observer editor saying he was interested in my work, so would I meet him? Till then, The Observer had never had a regular political cartoonist in its whole history of 150 years.

What about the other newspapers? Did they have regular cartoonists?

They had. The Observer was a very conservative paper. The editor told me he was looking for a cartoonist for three years. He said, ’Your drawings are attractive, you are not vicious, you are gentle etc.’ He didn’t even know where I came from when he wrote to me! I used to sign ’Abraham’. He thought I was a central European emigrate, a Jew. That was in 1956, the time the Suez operations took place. He said it wouldn’t be a good idea if I signed my cartoons ’Abraham’ because I would be misunderstood. People would assume I was Jewish. He offered me the job after 15 minutes. He asked me to sign a contract. So, I stopped working with The Tribune. I was with The Observer for 10 years.

’People like Maneka Gandhi are fanatics — they are worse than Khomeini’

In those days, was it very difficult for an Indian to establish himself in England?

Abu Abraham Yes. It was sheer hard work that saw me through. It was a great strain to produce something every Friday. Sometimes, on Friday morning, when you have finally come up with an idea, you find somebody has already done it!

And you had to maintain a certain standard. The editor didn’t mind if my opinions differed from his, but he wanted a certain quality. That helped me a lot. When I joined The Guardian later, I could draw much faster. I had to, as it was a daily paper.

Do you consider yourself lucky?

Lucky? Hmm... but I achieved the standard I did through sheer hard work.

Does that mean you can establish yourself anywhere in the world if you are talented and hard working?

Yes. You asked me whether I was lucky. I was lucky in the sense that throughout my career, I didn’t have to apply for a job except the first time. All others were offered to me.

The main thing about cartooning is that it is not the quantity that matters, but the quality of your ideas. You can’t think up something and make news and events. You can have your opinions but it should be based on reality.

Can a cartoonist be impartial?

There is nothing like impartiality in cartoons. I was never impartial. I always expressed a point of view. There was a lot of objection from people, even my own colleagues. It was the time of decolonisation in Africa and Asia. And then there was Cyprus and Algeria. I did some sharp cartoons on those. So the conservatives began saying I was not fair.

Because you were an Asian?

Not really. Of course there were some nut-cases who used to write saying ’go back to where you came from’ and that kind of thing. But soon, they too got used to my work.

We have heard a lot about the British sense of humour. How different is it from the Indian version?

There are different variations, actually. There was the type practiced by Harry Sickom and two others. They used to take off on Indian pronunciation. Then there is this very dry variety... usually, a remark which you make with a straight face without laughing.

My humour was very close to the English one. After all, English had been my main language. I had read a tremendous lot. From the day I arrived in England, I didn’t waste time. I listened to all radio programmes including Women’s Hour and Children’s Hour just to educate myself. When you are in a foreign country, there is a lot of work that you have to do. By the time I got the job at The Observer, I knew the country, its socio-political history and the idioms well. That is very important.

In most of your works, it is the politicians who are at the receiving end. Were there any protests from them?

No. They knew they would be making fools of themselves if they protested. But when the cartoons indirectly flattered them, they used to ask for the original drawing. When it was sharply critical, they would just keep quiet.

There is a framed cartoon of yours in former President R Venkataraman’s office room.

Is there? In Delhi?

No, in Madras.

About the Budget?

Yes, Venkataraman with the finance minister’s briefcase in his hand, lots of lipstick marks on his face, and a housewife kissing him on the cheek.

Yes, yes. Because of that he once introduced me to somebody saying, ’He nearly caused my divorce!’

Which politicians did you find the easiest to caricature?

There was Raj Narain... But, in reality, no good caricature is easy. For instance, to do a good caricature of Indira Gandhi was extremely difficult because she had a very, very sensitive face. Of course, you could draw a long nose and some grey hair and call it Indira Gandhi. I have never done that.

Recently, a British cartoonist on BBC said he would highlight Tony Blair’s smile, teeth and big ears. Do you also concentrate on prominent features of a personality? Abu’s Cartoon

A good cartoon is not different from a portrait, except the emphasis is more on certain features. In both cases, the idea is to get the character of a face. To draw somebody always in the same way, like showing Tony Blair’s teeth, becomes a boring cliche. That’s the easy way. But it will become boring.

That is, there is something more to a person’s personality than his features?

Yes. The exaggeration should be for the purpose of bringing out the character. There are not many good caricaturists today. No one of the stature of David Low or Shankar. Shankar was a good caricaturist. He used to study the face before drawing it.

You left Kerala when you were 20. Why did you decide to come back after so many years?

Nostalgia, what else? I wanted to spend the rest of my life here. It proved to be wise decision. Had I continued in Delhi, I might have been dead by now. The city is so polluted, the intellectual life even more so.

And Trivandrum?

Here I get a lot of affection and love. The sea and all these things, I missed in Delhi.

And sea food too, I bet! Especially sardines, right?

Yes, that’s right. Then of course, I wanted to change the pace, I wanted to slow down a bit. So I decided to work from home.

But you are away from the place of all political action.

In some ways, it is an advantage because you can analyse it more objectively from a distance. But I go to Delhi once or twice a year.

Do you feel satisfied with the intellectual interactions here in Trivandrum?

I don’t get much interaction. But I can find people if I want to consult... Like Madhavan Kutty of The Indian Express. I discuss local and national politics with him. In Delhi, it is only an illusion that you can have intellectual interaction. That is one place where gossip is very unreliable.

The Kerala you left behind years ago must have been a very different one from today’s Kerala. Over the years, people say, it has changed for the worse. What do think?

Abu Abraham How can anybody say it has changed for the worse? Half the students in my primary school came without anything above their waist. Some of them used to walk 3 to 5 miles to get to school. They didn’t have umbrellas. They would come holding banana leaves over their heads, come totally drenched. That sort of things do not happen now.

Then why is it that cultural personalities and environmentalists always cry hoarse that Kerala is going from bad to worse, especially its environment?

Rubbish. Kerala is four times as green now than in my school days. Everybody is growing trees here. What do these environmentalists want? They stop dams, they do not want any power or atomic energy plants... Nothing! They talk only about trees. No trees should be cut, so no new roads, no canals, no nothing!

Sugatha Kumari tells me there should be no more dams. But what I say is there should be a thousand more of dams and canals in the next 10 years. That is the way to a green state. These people live in a kind of seclusion. When you go to Delhi by train, you realise how much arid land there is which can be converted. If water is brought there, you can grow trees and it can be cultivated.

It has become a very negative movement, this environmentalism. Their favourite sentence is, we don’t want consumerism. Some law students came here and they wanted me to sign some statement against atomic energy. I said I am for atomic energy. But I am against atomic bombs. Shouldn’t mix up the two, I told them. Then they said, we are against consumerism. I asked what consumerism? When 80 per cent of the people in this country don’t have a decent standard of living, they are talking about consumerism!

Here there is no energy, no power, no factories, nothing... People are anti-science, anti-technology. Even this Sastra Sahitya Prishad which is doing very good work educating people, has joined this bandwagon.

In such a situation, then, what do you see for the state in the next few years?

I don’t know. These people have no sympathy for science or technology. I don’t think any of them studied science. They all took economics, history or law.

People like Maneka Gandhi are fanatics — they are worse than Khomeini. She is propagating vegetarianism. She has no business to do that. Let her put all your cows in the gosalas! Let the cows take over! This nonsense has been going on for sometime. The government has to be firm. Now anybody can go to court and stop anything. They can stop prawn cultivation, they can stop anything now. But I am sure soon there will be a reaction to that.

I think you love nature and animals a lot. You have ducks, dogs, fish and parrots here...

Abu’s Cartoon I have got two goats too. Maneka Gandhi curses goats. According to her, one goat can create thousands of acres of desert. That’s all myth. Goats survive in deserts on thorns and other things. So when you see a herd of goats grazing in an arid area, you think the goats created it. That’s like saying camels created the Sahara desert!

All these NGOs, they get a lot of money from abroad. I am really suspicious about their activities. I get these people coming from London or France who are onto this racket of environmentalism. I took a person from London to Vellanad, and on the way I showed him the Karamana dam and told him we get water from this dam. He immediately asked do you think it is a good thing? You just can’t argue with them. They do not want us to progress. They want to create a global village where white man will be landlords and the browns and blacks their peasants.

Atomic energy is good for all white countries — it is good for France, England, America, Israel, but it is not good for us! This is new colonialism!

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh


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