In Conversation with Cartoonist Gokul Gopalakrishnan

In Conversation with Cartoonist Gokul Gopalakrishnan

in Interview
Published on: 15 November 2016
Gokul Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Shruti Ravi

Shruti Ravi: Could you tell me how your journey into comics began? I know Aravindan played a big part in it.


Gokul Gopalakrishnan: I read Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum ('Small Men, Big World', an acclaimed series of cartoons by Aravindan that appeared in Malayalam journal Mathrubhumi) in the collected form and not in the serial format. It was serialized in the early 1970s (1960s) even before I was born. So I knew Aravindan primarily as a filmmaker. I didn’t know that he was a cartoonist. In my growing-up years, though the older people knew that he was a cartoonist, most of the younger generation knew him only as the award-winning director.


S.R.: Did his films influence you?

G.G.: No, they didn’t. But I knew that he was a big name in filmmaking and that he was a noted director. When I started reading the book I took it as a novel. I didn’t know that it had come serialized as a weekly last page comic strip. Because it already had that structure. I was fascinated by that. But I was also reading a lot of cartoons in Malayalam newspapers. Cartoons are a big thing in Kerala. All newspapers carry cartoons and have cartoonists in their staff.



S.G.: Can you name some of the other cartoons? I am only aware of Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum and Bobbanum Molliyum.   


G.G.: They are comic strips. Editorial or political cartooning has a long and strong tradition in Malayalam newspapers. So my mother’s was a very political household. So whenever I went there I listened to political discussions. They discussed political cartoons as well. One of my uncles used to subscribe to the Illustrated Weekly of India. So the Illustrated Weekly of India used to carry a selection of the best cartoons of the week on a single page. So it was like without knowing all these people I was exposed to their cartoons. It was really interesting because I was already drawing by then, so the cartoons appealed to me. Aravindan was definitely the reason behind me getting into cartoons. But then as I said it was really difficult to find a living by being a comic artist. Because there was no industry as such. The publishers were not very aware of it. They all considered it as children’s literature rather than any serious work. It was sad that even when we already had Aravindan doing a very mature work, people would entertain the misplaced notion that comics were children’s literature. But then later, this was in 2004, I saw Sarnath Banerjee’s works. That was when I heard of the graphic novel for the first time. Internet was slowly arriving into our lives. So I started collecting files of comics and started reading on that. After my M.A. I thought of doing research on graphic novels.


S.R.: So during your M.A. you weren’t focused on comics, were you?

G.G.: M.A. was something that I did out of my passion. Because I had a job by then. I didn’t go to a college for my M.A. I did a correspondence course. After that my basic interest in comics began. That was when I started writing about Aravindan. When I read other graphic novels I realized that his work was already a graphic novel.  So my first essay about Aravindan was presented in a conference at Toronto University. It was my first academic conference. What I found interesting was that people were surprised to find that someone in 1960s was doing this kind of work. And they were talking about Doonesbury having the progressive narrative and I said we already had one like that in the 1960s. But they also had the Gasoline Alley strip.



S.R.: Did it (Aravindan’s Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum) follow the graphic novel structure?

G.G.: It was a comic strip with a three-four panels. It had characters evolving as they aged. So there was a next generation coming in. So the evolution of a plot—an overarching plot—is there. Usually like in a novel you don’t conceive an overarching plot when you start out. But it was very interesting that they were thinking that we could actually—rather than putting the characters in limbo—let them grow up. You yourself are also growing up with them. The changes that you are going through will also be reflected in them.



S.R.: Yes. A fairly substantial part of Aravindan’s analysis reveal how the political climate of the time is also reflected in his cartoons.


G.G.: I think the political climate inevitably gets into the societal relations as well. It was kind of Aravindan’s preoccupation in his films also, you know, the changing of values and systems and how you come to terms with that. This was the main theme of his first film. So in his comics it was already there. But I don’t know if he had pre-conceived these things. But then he knew this was happening and we could actually read in the comics the changes that the society was going through.



S.R.: I find that in Aravindan’s case it is a two-way change happening, with both the real world and the comic world reading into each other.  

G.G.: Yes, that was why I was talking about vision ethnography, putting forward this argument that it is actually a mission ethnographic document. People have this problem when you say that it is a vision ethnographic document because there is a conceived notion about ethnography that an ethnographer goes to a society, stays there with them, records everything and comes back. But this has been challenged anyway. A vision ethnographic document also talks about how a book or a film interacts with the society where it is produced. So it’s a two-way process as you said and not just kind of a faithful recording of the society. In normal ethnographic practices most of the time the ethnographers come from outside the society and they carry all the judgement along with them also. It is one of the main concerns in ethnographic practices—how to be free of any pre-judgement.



S.R.: In Aravindan’s case, it is definitely an embedded narrative. E.P. Unny said that at no point does he think that Aravindan closed himself to the experience of opening up. Aravindan never let the narrative get closed in any sense. It continued to evolve.

G.G.: Yes. Sometimes it’s also circular. It is circular but it is also elliptic-circular. It goes forward. The characters come in and then fade out. After five years they reappear and then their fortunes would have changed, you know. E.g., it’s like seeing your friend after five years and you suddenly find that he has gone into something else which you never thought he would do when you were in school. These kind of surprises are really normal in your life as well. Unny always quotes Aravindan as saying that you should always kill your favourite. Never be happy or comfortable with what you have. You should move beyond that. So the narrative is always refreshed. In a normal comic strip world, people don’t age or grow up because it’s a comfortable situation to handle.


It’s also a comfortable situation for the creator and often for the reader. It is an easy association that happens. But for a comic strip to talk to the society and take the feedback—I have also recorded the responses of the readers to the comic strip (Aravindan’s) from the letters to the editors. It is amazing. There were women who wrote that they prayed to the deity to make sure that Ramu (protagonist) got a job in a particular interview and if he needed a terylene shirt they could send it if he gave his address. The response swung to the other extreme too. Like, ‘You have completely changed, you are no longer the innocent young boy and I really don’t like the way you are now’. So the responses are extremely varied as well as very personal. There is a personal connection to the characters. I found it extremely interesting that majority of these letter-writers were women. That was a real eye-opener for me. You would say that women are not into comics and all. But Aravindan’s major readership comprised women.


They identified with the character. Not only just identified with but they found fault when he was deviating. But Aravindan still did it. And then he wasn't catering to a comfortable readership. He was always changing and pushing the limits. I find it an extremely beautiful narrative. It is the best thing that I have ever read. Even after reading many other graphic novels it is still my favorite.

Aavindan keeps giving you suggestions—it’s not as if he is asking you to read them—but the characters are talking about Thief’s Journal (Jean Genet [1910–1986]), then he talks about Hemingway, Tagore’s books, the movie Teen Kanya, (Satyajit) Ray’s films, the new cinema movements happening in Calcutta, so these are all strewn across the narrative. It was like a window to the larger world. The protagonist is trying to go past the small world that he lives in. He is always trying to get into a metro or a city. He always wants to merge himself into a bigger city. I have always felt that Aravindan does this to show the people that there is a bigger world outside that you need to explore. So his strip becomes a window to books, movies, music etc. What interests him, he puts it out there in his strip. It inspired many people to search for those books. He mentions Pannalal Ghosh’s music. That was in the '60s. I don’t think the people in Kerala were then aware of it. So when this strip that appears in a magazine with a wide circulation mentions his music, it helps.  


S.R.: Was the readership at that time also politically very receptive?

G.G.: Aravindan stays away from direct references to politics. But you can understand the political climate of the times. It is there in the background without him actually pointing it out.


S.R.: Was there a reason why the readership was especially receptive to the comic strip?


G.G.: Yes. The Mathrubhumi journal had a tradition of publishing novels translated from Bengali. It was started by a progressive editor N.V. Krishna Warrier (1916–1989). One of the staple things would be travelogues. If you look at Mathrubhumi weekly in those times you could see that there were lots of things happening. They were talking about Bengali novels, cinemas, travelling in Europe. The comic strip also coincided with the beginning of Malayali migration outside India for jobs.    


The other interesting aspect that I realized when I approached Aravindan as a researcher is that the medium of comics and political cartooning is visual ethnographic. It is a comment on what is happening around. So if you take a larger view of the definition of visual ethnography, I think this is also an important tool as photography is—photography is now accepted as a tool of visual ethnography—I think it is also time to include political cartooning and comic strips into this fold, because they are also a visual rendering of the things that you see unlike writing. In Aravindan’s strip—social forestry was a big thing back then—in the background you can see signs of social forestry movement being played out. He doesn’t directly comment on that. Social forestry is planting trees and that kind of stuff, where there are a lot of government-sponsored movements that are happening. When I read into it I could actually see the social movements happening in the '60s and '70s.


S.R.: I also find that the use of lens, like in your case (Small Talk), looking at the boy in different ages, makes it a social commentary, even political, because it comes from a lens of living, it comes out as autobiographical?

G.G.: If you bring a character into it—it is not your alter ego anyway, a certain amount of your own perspective goes into it. A good thing about a regular character, a Suthradhar kind of character is that it helps you to ask questions and leave them open-ended, rather than having an impact cartoon where you have a picture and an in-your-face comment. If you have a character you can make him ask questions which are open-ended. My idea of cartoons is always be kind of a middle ground where you can ask questions, it is not about taking the one position or the other but trying to create a ground where both the perspectives come into play and you present it before the public. Of course your preferences would be there in the comment but then it also leaves open-ended. That is my idea of cartooning. I am comfortable doing that.


S.R.: I was also inwardly smiling about how in Small Talk the characters though they are animated, in a lot of the strips we feel a deep level of connectedness to the animal sadness. And these are vultures in a desert. I find it very interesting that the feelings of an animal can resonate in the reader.

G.G.: Small Talk is minimalistic since it is set in a desert. There is no huge background setup of drawing.


S.R.: But there are these small signs, like I remember this crow wearing an Anna hat. 

G.G.: Yes, that was the time the Anna movement was happening and the crow—a very angry crow—that passed through wore an Anna hat. There is a bat hanging upside down.


S.R.: It is called Guruji.

G.G.: Yes. He says he has an amazing viewpoint of the world because he is hanging upside down. That is the most obvious thing that you can take away from the way the bats hang. So these are references that you take from the structure of the animal. It helps you to be a detached observer in a sense because you are using animals. In Small Talk it is completely some other place. You cannot locate it. It tends to talk about general rather than specific things. In Small Talk what happens is that after some time you get so comfortable with your comic strip that it generates ideas itself, you don’t need to think up something.     


S.R.: Earlier I thought characters in Small Talk talked about things that are topical. But they are also about life.

G.G.: Very true. Earlier I brought in everyday things that I have seen.


S.R.: That finds its place in the single panel.

G.G.: Yes. But now it has a pace of its own. The comic strip itself generates ideas rather than you thinking about something happening around you and putting it in. It is more manageable. Rather than thinking about it I can now let myself enjoy the act of drawing.


S.R.: Have you been drawing since you were very young?

G.G.: I think I started drawing cartoons in college. I used to paint but it was very amateurish. I started getting interested in cartooning when I was in high school. I tried to copy the masters’ lines. When you are interested in politics and if there is an atmosphere of politics all around you, you tend to pick up something from the air. So that helped in my cartooning. The Illustrated Weekly of India was a great help. It folded up in the 90’s. They carried a selection of the best cartoons of the week from other newspapers in a single page. So I just read that page and not the papers where they originally appeared. It was a great introduction to cartooning.


S.R.: How did you start pitching your drawings?

G.G.: I first got into academic research on cartoons and comics. So we had this study group in Thrissur. I proposed to them to arrange a conference on comics and cartoons. I thought that there would be other people across India who would be looking for a platform to talk about comics and cartoons. To my surprise we had 23 papers presented in two days’ time. I wrote to Dr Lent (John Lent) of International Journal of Comic Arts who has written a lot on Asian cartoons. He came all the way from the US to deliver the keynote address. I met a lot of people who were interested in cartoons and already doing a lot of research on them. That was a good group to start with. I met Bharath Murthy of The Vanished Path. He was into alternate comics and wanted to build a comic culture in India. After a few months he said he was thinking of a sort of book called Comixs India. I drew for the first and third issue. Many of the cartoonists that we know today drew for it. Many of us started with Comixs India—Piya, Vitul, Bharath, me, Kailash Iyer from Bombay—so a lot of present-day cartoonists started with Comixs India. I met them first in this collection. Then Manta Ray wanted me to draw for Small Picture that was appearing in Mint. I drew 13 stories for the Small Picture.  So when they were planning the Mix Tape they wanted me to draw for them. I did and that was how my career picked up. Then Dileep Cherian wanted to start an online kind of thing with Mint-Mint on Sundays called Big Picture.


S.R.: It doesn’t appear in print, does it?

G.G.: Unlike Small Picture that appeared in a full page in print, this appeared online every Sunday. It is basically a mobile platform, but is also available on a website. It is also interesting. I think it shows how it can move away from the print in future. Different things are happening now. It is really interesting times to be drawing cartoons in India. I also find it interesting that Harper (HarperCollins Publishers India) would publish Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land. They brought out a collection of that. You wouldn’t have imagined something like that—very different, alternate kind of comics—a few years back. That they brought out a book on it spells well for the Indian comic industry. Indian political cartoons have got a long tradition. Even the comic books have a tradition. It has got a tradition. Post 2004, graphic art has become a big thing in publishing. But the comic strip is languishing somewhere in between, even though we have had Suki by Manjula Padmanabhan. It is a beautiful comic strip. I have written about it. It is a very post-modernist comic strip. Manjula never went into political cartooning. She always stuck with comic strip. It is an amazing comic strip. For me it was just like when I saw Aravindan first. It was ahead of its times. Cathy was happening in the West. Cathy was the first woman-centric comic strip. It was drawn by Cathy Guisewite. Cathy is the protagonist of the comic strip. That is rare. A woman as the protagonist in a comic strip. It was unheard of in India. Scales (by E.P. Unny) happened in early 2000 in Financial Express. Unny was then working for them. They wanted a comic strip. I had written about it titled Tipping the Scales on my blog. It is about a snake-charmer and snake going around in India. It talks about an emerging economy, it talks about the new things that were happening like the mobile phones and how the old telephone cubicles were being phased out. You see, in 2000 the economy had already opened up, the economic papers were carrying more political news and other newspapers were carrying more financial news. It was a very interesting economic comic strip. Scales was amazing.


S.R.: I don’t think Google give out any information on Unny’s previous works. Only his works from The Indian Express is available now. So there is a wealth of information that is not available.  

G.G.: It is not there because there has been no archiving of comic arts. I found it extremely difficult to research on many things. For example I wanted to write about Abu’s comics Salt and Pepper. Very little of it remains. Abu had maintained a scrap book which his daughter donated to the Teen Murti library. I went there for three continuous years. It was not an easy task to go from Kerala to Delhi every year. I went there and requested them to let me see it because I wanted to read the whole book. I had only a vague remembrance of reading that strip that appeared translated into Malayalam.


S.R.: What is Salt and Pepper about?

G.G.: It is a funny animal comic strip. It is very interesting, simple and beautiful. I think it came out in Sunday Observer. I am not sure. But the translated strip came in Mathrubhumi. That is where I read it. So I went to the Teen Murti library. It was not there. They said it was sent for fumigation. I went there for three continuous years. They had no clue about it. That is how comics and comic art get treated in India. Only very recently have we seen researchers coming and writing about comics. Aswathy from Delhi University is writing about Bobban and Molly. She is doing research on it. Major researches on Indian comics have always been on Amar Chithra Katha. Even people who coming from Western universities always confine themselves to Amar Chitra Katha and not look at other stuff. Subhendu Dasgupta talks about Bengali political cartooning. It is very important to look at the regional comic art history as well rather than just confine to the English variety. Whatever we write we have to put it on the blog so that the people get to know that these are the things that are happening outside the normal visible space in India.


S.R.: I am so used to reading ACK narratives that sometimes I myself discount the tremendous amount of work that has been done.

G.G.: ACK is also just Hanuman in animation. Hanuman and Krishna take over everything in animation scene in India. People start and stop at ACK. It is not right. You have to move on and see what else is happening. A lot of it is not being recorded. The major strips have not been recorded. It is a very difficult process to research on comics. You don’t have anything as secondary material. Even the primary material is very difficult to find. There is no writing on comics and comic art. I met Unny when I was looking for someone who has written on Aravindan. Because in academics you always want to substantiate your claims with other people’s writings. So the only reference to Aravindan’s cartoons came from something Unny has written. The writings are too far and few in between to really say that normal research is happening in comic art in India. You can put it out for some time, then we can truthfully say that research is happening. It is just starting in India. You have to put up your writings.

It is difficult to research on comic art in India. You also realize when you do research that you can’t really—of course most of it we can adapt—but some things we can’t adapt from the western understanding of the art because our understanding is different. I think you have also written about the Indian sensibility that is different from the western. When you draw comics, you are drawing about your experiences. You are not drawing your experiences as a member of the western society. So your narrative is different, your technique is different, the things that you want to show are different. The images are different, the pace at which you tell a story is different.


S.R.: You know the kind of work Joe Sacco did in his Kushinagar pieces. He knew that he didn’t know enough about casteism.  

G.G.: I had a huge problem with that. I have read his Sarajevo and Palestine pieces. When I was reading them I didn’t realize that he had a foreigner’s eye. Only when he came here and drew about Kushinagar that I realized that there is the other guy in those cartoons. There was some kind ‘otherness’ in his cartoons on Kushinagar. There was some kind of barrier that he can’t cross.


S.R.: Rupture exists in the Kushinagar pieces.

G.G.: He accepts that. When we read Palastine without that rupture—because we are not familiar with Palastine—we don’t realize that it exists in it. Only a person who was born and brought up in Palastine would realize that rupture. I realized the rupture only when I was reading Kushinagar. I didn’t realize it when I was reading Palastine and Sarajevo. Only when you are looking at an Indian situation you realize that there are some things that are not joining and that there is something odd about it and that this is now you would see Kushinagar.


S.R.: Do you see potential for long-form comic journalism pieces or fusion comics? Do you see it happening here in India?

G.G.: We should be able to do that. It is not a journalistic tool but a narrative one. Because our experiences of life are so different and varied in Indian circumstances. It is not a uniform experience that we all have. It’s very different. So naturally comics can be used to address that.


S.R.: And also, for an Indian writer, lots of lens exist—of class, caste, etc.

G.G: Of course, there are a lot of ideologies that come in. I remember drawing a comic for the Small Picture series. I drew about my experiences when I went to Belgium. After a few weeks I got this great longing for my hometown. I don’t know why. It was so grey and I was standing in front of a bar with dim lights and this pebble path. You wanted to be there for a long time. You wanted to be in Europe for the experience of that. But at that moment I wanted to go home. It was just a passing feeling. The first frame shows a municipal building in a Belgium town. It is a beautiful, church look-like building in the town of Leuven. It is a university town. The building is the town hall. So I drew all the striking images that I saw in my travels and in the last frame I say that I want to go home. I have drawn Trissur. The centerpiece of Trissur is Vadunkkumnatha temple. The temple is on a hillock. The city surrounds it. It is 65 acres of land in the middle and a road with a circumference of 2.5 goes around it. This road is the heart of the city. I have never been a practising Hindu. But when I am in my hometown this temple is something that I see every day. So when I am thinking of home the image that comes to my mind is this temple and the hillock. But one of my friends found it very disturbing and called me pseudo-nationalistic, pseudo-Hindu, and also pseudo-secular. For everything foreign is the church and everything home is the temple. He is entitled to say that. He is an academic and he must have read that into it. But it was not a church, it was the town hall. But he thought it was a church. It was a Facebook comment. I said don’t look at that way. It was my experience of experiencing my hometown.

From a creative point of view you can’t use the same props that the Western cartoonists use. Whatever they use it comes naturally to them. We also should use whatever come naturally to us. Being a creative person I really shouldn’t say this. I shouldn’t be judgmental about other people’s works. We have been aping a lot of the Western style of story-telling.


S.R.: For instance, in terms of style?

G.G.: Not just in style, sometimes it feels so alien that you don’t feel that it happened around you. To borrow Unny’s words, it is how Ray changed the world of film-making in India. He didn’t adapt foreign sensibility to suit Indian circumstances and pulled it off. He had his own Indian story-telling style. Another example will be Aravindan’s characters. Sadanand Menon in one of his interviews speaks of Aravindan being a kathakar. He would tell a story, stop at some place, then take up some other story, move on thus and finally come back and take up from where he stopped the first one.  There are a lot of detours. It is typical Indian story-telling technique. Detours are accepted here. Kathakar does that. He starts from one story, weaves into another story, travels into another story, comes back to the old story at some point and moves on. It is very organic. Your experiences are very local which it is difficult to put in a global language. I experience it when I am drawing. How do you find a language in which to express your experiences? That has been the real fun and challenge as well in drawing comics.