In Conversation with E.P. Unny

In Conversation with E.P. Unny

in Interview
Published on: 15 November 2016

Shruti Ravi

Shruti is an academic assistant at IIJNM, Bangalore. She maintains an interest in graphic narratives, and her Masters dissertation looked at the use of the personal and political in Indian autobiographical comics. She is co-author of 'Transistor Can Be Bomb', published in the Yoda anthology of graphic non-fiction, 'First Hand'.

The interview was conducted By Shruti Ravi in Palakkad in 2016.

Shruti Ravi: Could you share some of your memories about Shankar’s Weekly and the atmosphere at the time?


E.P. Unny: My first cartoon was printed by Shankar. I mean it was ‘distance cartoon’, I was studying in a college in Palakkad, Shankar’s Weekly was in Delhi. Shankar was open to contributions, so many cartoonists would send their stuff. I also sent my stuff, and it got published. Then I started getting published fairly regularly. My first cartoon I think got published in 1972. It was on Vietnam. The Vietnam war was on, during that time, Vietnam was very close to the political kind of campus that we had in Kerala. Vietnam seemed next door, closer to Palakkad than Trichur. It was so in many campuses in Kerala at the time. So I was basically in a very political campus, I must have been fairly political. So this was the cartoon, and this cartoon got printed by Shankar. Then I started getting published off and on, more or less regularly. Then Shankar sent me a letter dictated to his editor Ramakrishnan who was running the weekly, in which he said, 'You seem to be regularly drawing so you please take note of a few things' which is, he said, you have to master the art of caricature, which you do by getting the rightness first, and then distorting, not straight away distorting the first time you see a face. Stuff like that, all sage advice, very professional advice. Sadly I lost that letter in the middle of many home-movings. It was a nice letter, and then I started getting published regularly, and also used to get paid. Shankar was very keen that you must get paid for what you’re doing. Whatever the amount was, it was paid nevertheless. It was nice. Then the Emergency came, and Shankar’s Weekly folded up. The Emergency was declared in June 1975, Shankar’s Weekly folded up in September. They departed with a souvenir, which I still have which is a slightly fat compilation of the best work.


Shankar's Weekly was very unique. It was, as I said, the homing ground of the second generation of Indian political cartoons. The whole of Shankar’s Weekly was full of editorial cartoons. One thing very, very unique about Shankar was that he allowed a variety of styles to function though he was considered a very powerful kind of leader, who had immense power, certainty of craft and so on. He trained himself. After his first seven years’stint in Hindustan Times, he went on a one-year sabbatical to London and trained at the best of places in London, London Polytechnical and places like that where he learned to draw, actually model drawing and stuff like that and also he interacted with people like Sir David Lowe, who was the first big model for Indian editorial cartooning. Shankar met the world’s best cartoonists in this period. So he came back with this kind of certainty of craft. He was a powerful person who was a good organiser, who could run the weekly, and a visionary too. A man of stature, like, you know, the first generation freedom fighters—the people who were associated with nation building. But he was extremely democratic to his 'disciples'. The he allowed them to draw whichever way he liked, though he would be free with comments—he would probably disapprove—he would let them do what they liked. So that is very evident, that is why you find a clear variety of styles in the second generation of Indian cartoons. Abu Abraham, O.V.  Vijayan—they had absolutely no visual correlation with Shankar. They were completely removed from Shankar’s style. Kutti followed Shankar, up to a point. Kutti was a prime disciple whom Shankar himself trained. Up to a point Kutti followed, but then he too departed from Shankar’s style. Kutti departed very crucially, I mean, in a very crucial manner he departed, in terms of detailing and form, he had a very different style of his own. I think he was the first Indian cartoonist to develop a very functional style of drawing, though his style was very structured, not a slap-dash kind of a style, a very structured style, but he completely departed from the carefully orchestrated kind of a Shankar cartoon. It (Shankar’s cartoon) was like a choreographed cartoon, everything was in the right place—like the old time film makers you know, the frames would be classical frames, everything in place—that kind of cartooning was what Shankar did, 20-30 faces in the cartoon, and everyone would be in the right place. You’d be able to make out about 30 fellows in the cartoon. And it was displayed generously in the Hindustan Times in sometimes four, five or six columns, sometimes deep half a page, in depth and all, but that style Kutti departed from, and the cartoons got shrunk a little—to two to three columns, and four columns; mostly three columns at that time in the 1960s. Kutti adapted to that, and he also developed a style of doing something very functionally. He started cropping the cartoons. The look and the feel of the cartoon changed. It was a variety of styles that flourished and he was very different from Disney for instance. Disney, when he ran the Walt Disney and Animation Studio—an organised set-up—everybody was asked to do more an assembly line kind of uniform work, which was necessary for animation. I’m not saying anything against Disney, nor taking away from his work. But the point is that Indian cartooning became, in terms of variety, much richer, despite the fact that all of them went to a gurukul like Shankar’s, if you want you could call it the Shankar gurukulam. That pedagogy is very interesting. It was something that seldom happened in arts.  



S.R.: And I know this is probably not very chronological, but I was wondering where does someone like Maya Kamath come in?


E.P.U: That happened much later. You’re asking about two generations, Shankar, Kutti, Laxman again, not part of the Shankar school but outside. Then comes Abu Abraham, O. V. Vijayan, Rajinder Puri in the chronological order. You can treat them as a band of editorial cartoonists who did excellent work. Then parallel to their work, there is Mario (Mario Miranda) who did a very different kind of cartooning, not political cartooning, and Sudheer Dhar. Maya Kamath comes after that. Maya Kamath is my generation. And she also probably started professional cartooning a little later, after me. I started in 1977, joined The Hindu in 1977. I don’t know if Maya did any professional, sustained professional cartooning at that time, I’ve not noticed, maybe in the early '80s she did. And then later, in early '90s, and the work she did for Asian Age when it started was very good.



S.R.: So we were talking about Shankar’s Weekly, and you mentioned how the style permitted everyone to do whatever they chose to, to work in their very specific styles.


E.P.U.: Permitted would be condescension, there was an atmosphere where, I mean the outcome is all we know. I don’t know how Shankar worked. I never met him. But if you look at the outcome, that weekly did curate a variety of styles. They didn’t have a common house style, they created a variety of personal styles, and cartooning truly evolved. It moved a lot from where Shankar left it off.



S.R.: So how did the rest of the industry react to Shankar’s Weekly? And how did it react after it folded up, as in what were the after-ripples of it?


E.P.U.: I don’t know because I must have been a late kind of reader, because Shankar’s Weekly was there from 1948 onwards, the year after Independence. It was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru, I must have started reading it from the 1960s, the late 1960s. Prior to that I don’t even think I’d have been able to make out anything in it, because it was all political cartoons. It had very good political writing, excellent writing. In fact looking back today, it had radio reviews, film reviews and excellent political articles. I also remember having read a brilliant piece on physics in Shankar’s Weekly, an extremely well-written piece. One good thing about Shankar’s Weekly is that much of the writing that was done was very good. It was refreshingly light. And sarcastic, very humorous sometimes, sometimes dead serious, but it was written very well. It did not have the heaviness in the prose that you normally saw in the newspapers and stuff like that because it sort of presented itself as a humorous magazine. It was not actually humorous, it was smart. It was very good smart writing, its profile of the personnel of the week was as good as the New Statesman profiles. Best in the world. And it had an editorial on the front page, I mean, on the first page inside, not the cover, called ‘Free Thinking’. It was for a long time written by the legendary journalist called M. Chellapati Rao (known as MC), later by C.P. Ramachandran, Idathatta Narayanan…some of the guys who wrote for it were some of the finest journalists from all kinds of genres. Vijayan (O.V. Vijayan) wrote. Shankar’s Weekly carried on many years and produced one of finest works of Vijayan on the cover on the Vietnam War. When Shankar wasn’t drawing the cover, mostly Vijayan did the cover. He produced some of the finest political cartoons I have ever seen on the cover of Shankar’s Weekly in the '70s. The whole cover, it was big, it looked very powerful, and then it had on the last page a cartoonist whom I can’t stop talking about, Jules Feiffer, it was that sequential cartoons. I mean it was beautiful, absolutely out of this world brilliant sequence of cartooning, master of the media, Jules Feiffer. He’s again another person who, in a certain sense anticipated the graphic movement. It was brilliant sequence narration and he also went on to be a dramatist, and wrote some plays. Like Manjula (Manjula Padmanabhan). Manjula is also a playwright.  



S.R.: And like Aravindan (G. Aravindan)

E.P.U.: He moved on to films. And also he did costumes for Kavalam’s (Kavalam Narayana Panikkar) stylised plays. He had also directed plays.



S.R.: This was around the same time when Cherium Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum ('Small Men, Big World', Aravindan’s acclaimed cartoon series) happened.  


E.P.U.: If you ask me personally, the biggest influence on me was Cheria Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum. To begin with, and even today, it is still the best influence on me. I marvel by that work and I’m happy that I was in an environment where I was able to grow up with it. Because it was a part of the Mathrubhumi weekly, it appeared in the last page of the weekly. Mathrubhumi weekly was a part of Malabar households. Any kind of Malabar home, even if it was barely literate, would subscribe to the Mathrubhumi weekly. At least it would be there in the neighbourhood. One or two five houses in the neighbourhood would have this weekly. And it showcased the best literary talents at that time in Malayalam. And if you had to become a writer of repute, you know break into literature, you had to get published in Mathrubhumi weekly. And it was a kind of like Desh in Bengali. Some kind of benchmark, that is, if you’re writing for Mathrubhumi you are a major writer. It used to carry Aravindan on the last page. It went on for 13 years—from 1961 to 1974. It’s a narrative comic which almost ended up as a graphic novel. It was not intended to be a graphic novel. It did not start with a plot, or a script. It was a weekly, you know, once-a-week reaction to the social events around; with one cast of characters, a set of characters. But Aravindan was so open-ended, you know his approach to entire art, which became clearer when he started making films—he was very fond of music he was himself a musician—it was like music. He was like an Indian musician who doesn’t follow a very fixed pattern, but achieves a lot of coherence by allowing music to happen. If you ask somebody to theoretically explain how somebody sustains a raga, it’ll be very difficult to explain. How can you explain how somebody cycles? Or somebody swims? Very difficult to theoretically explain. In the same way, a trained singer sustains a raga, doesn’t deviate from the raga at all, but there is a lot of improvisation, without any linear pattern. This is the same way Aravindan did that cartoon, I think. He left it open right from the beginning, he didn’t close it. He, I think, suppressed any temptation to close the cartoon at any point. He kept on opening it up and exploring, as far as possible. So the same set of characters evolved, they physically evolved. They don’t look the same, they grow up, as even we grow up. This is again a technique that is done in cartooning abroad, a little bit earlier, but more consistently again in Doonesbury. If you look at American cartoon history, they will say that Trudeau (Garry Trudeau) did it for the first time. Trudeau didn’t do it for the first time, even in American cartooning, somebody had done it before. It doesn’t matter, again takes nothing away from anybody. It is not an athletic record that we are talking about. But Aravindan did it without any fuss. We are not used to this in any language in India. Even today. Our comic characters stay the same. Laxman’s (R.K. Laxman) common man stays at the uncertain age of 50 or something, I have a common man who is a boy, who about six or seven, ten years, I think, and he stays the same always. But here is a cartoonist who did it without any fuss and nobody even thought about it. People just read it and accepted it. It was amazing.


S.R.: Do you think the possibilities were more because this is a sequential cartoon?


E.P.U.: Certainly it is a sequential thing. Only in a sequential thing you handle a set of characters. No, though strictly speaking there is no bar, even in a single cartoon, to make a character organically older as you go. It would hardly be noticed, it can be done. But in a sequential cartoon, everybody evolved, the entire setting evolved. Your setting evolved, your ambience evolved.



S.R.: So, how do, you for instance, make the choice that your lens, this boy is going to remain the same age, or how is he going to evolve?


E.P.U.: No, mine is a very restricted medium. It is not half as creative as what Aravindan did or any strip cartoonist or social cartoonist or internal cartoonists did. I am completely driven by news. I am paid to do news cartoons. That’s what I have been doing all my life. I am restricted by news. For me it is just a device, the functional; so I can’t do much with it. You know there is already the uncertainty of news in this country. News is getting broken by more than one medium, earlier it used to be a far more settled operation. Earlier, you get today’s papers and till tomorrow’s newspapers come, you would normally not be threatened by a news break. I mean, unless somebody dies or there is an election going on, the results come out in between, and you get to hear it on the radio. With television, news breaking has become a compulsive hourly, or half-hourly threat to a cartoonist. And there is a huge debate on what exactly constitutes news. Those are more and more uncertainties. So during the day I have to second guess what would be the top story tomorrow morning, and then think of my cartoon. My cartoon will have to be on that, so I don’t have much time to creatively shuffle with anything that I have. So I have settled for a very simple device, this character. I use it whenever it is proper to use it. So I keep it very simple and functional. So I can’t invest much more energy on that character itself. The character is as much tossed about by news as I am. It might have also acquired a character over a period of time because it has gone through a certain political process. 



S.R.: What are some of your signature stances that probably are smile-inducing for you too, because it is something that is located in nostalgia, or it is something that you grin about yourself when you see this replicated in real life, because you know that by now it is something that you are consciously employing in your work...?


E.P.U.: I don’t impose anything on a character. Rarely so. As you watch politicians or newsmakers in real life or on TV, their body language will give you suggestions. There is a certain way that they behave. My visual interpretation emanates from there. I don’t recall any instance of me imposing a certain grid on any person.



S.R.: Why do you think that there are so few women in political cartoons?


E.P.U.: I don’t know why. There is actually no explanation for this even abroad. By abroad, I mean, in the US or the UK. There have been very bright women cartoonists. Here we had Maya Kamath and Manjula Padmanabhan. Manjula dropped out after her interesting first work. Why? I don’t know. But I can tell you one thing: In graphic novels, the world over, it’s a very interesting demographic because significant readership of the graphic novels, a good chunk of readers are women. And some of the finest creators are lso women. For e.g. Satrapi (Marjane Satrapi, b.1969). Even here we have Amruta Patel. Even in the first generation and the second generation graphic novel tradition, there are significant women creators. So one has to figure out why. There can’t be any inherent aversion to the comic medium, then you wouldn’t be a graphic creator or graphic novelist. It is as comical as or even more comical than the daily’s cartoon.



S.R.: Have you felt a desire to move towards a sequential sort of strip?


E.P.U.: I have done quite a few stuff. After Aravindan, I am usually credited with short narratives, graphic narratives, not long. Short narratives, but with a plot, graphic stories. I have done quite a few graphic stories in my life, 15 pages, 20 pages I think. I am also working on a book on it, which would make me fairly unpopular in Palakkad. I have done a few, short stuff in English too. We have also done some very graphic potash in sequential graphic potash in The Indian Express. Something about the Maruti car, the Maruti 800 is phased out now. I did a full page on it.



S.R.: In fact, like speaking of comics journalism, someone named Nick Sousanis in Columbia University recently produced his PhD dissertation in entirely comics format, and in his proposal he spoke about how his grandmother would tell him stories and how the telling of the stories was always so non-linear because her memory was so ‘patchworky’ and she would remember things midway. So the best way he was able to interpret his grandmother’s stories was to present them in a comic’s format. Where just only words or only images wouldn’t do justice to the depth of a story, you need both.


E.P.U.: Text as well as image.



S.R.: Yeah, and I find that is what comics journalism is actually. I mean entire stories are happening instead of in long form.  


E.P.U.: You know even in comics there is a scope for longer form.



S.R.: How do you mean?


E.P.U.: I’ll tell you. If somebody were to ask me to go and spend the next six or seven weeks in Bihar and do something on elections, it’ll eventually become something in the context of elections or on Bihar, if I had the freedom to interpret it that way. I might go and keep on sketching, talking to people, walking around, driving around. And I might eventually come back with a book like a comics, a graphic novel. It is possible, not just with me, anybody. There are such possibilities. Joe Sacco who wrote Kushinagar.



S.R.: Yes, Kushinagar.  


E.P.U.: Someone else has done much work on Burma and also on Jerusalem.



S.R.: Burma Chronicles, is it?

E.P.U.: Guy Delisle. I’ve got the books here. And my master is sitting right between there, Will Eisner.



S.R.: I remember Will Eisner’s quote that goes something like 'If my comics are able to tell people that there is more that you can tell in comics than alien or a monster killing somebody, then I think I would have done my work in comics.'


E.P.U.: Yeah. He was able to do a whole range of emotions, not just humour or wit. His first graphic novel came out when he was 61 years old in 1978—My Contract with God and other Element Stories. Brilliant guy, absolute master. He is like Aravindan. He is a master. And I don’t think we have had another master like him, though according to me Spiegelman (Art Spiegelman) comes very close to him. Spiegelman is still pushing the envelope, pushing frontiers, very bright. His In the Shadow of No Towers is absolutely path-breaking. It should be taught in all journalism institutes if you ask me.



S.R.: Is there any playing with time in a single panel cartoon?


E.P.U.: By single panel you mean the one frame cartoon, right? No, it is almost instantaneous. Though you do take time scanning it, I mean ten or twenty seconds to look at it, but mostly it is like looking at a photograph or a frame. It’s a frame or a panel. Time doesn’t move.



S.R.: So the effect of it needs to be immediate. The punch line needs to hit you immediately.


E.P.U.: Yeah, the punch line needs to hit you, provoke you, confuse you or befuddle you. It has to create whatever it is meant to create. It has to set off a chain of thoughts or feelings in you. That has to happen fast.



S.R.: So I could call it the middle man within an already existing chain of events. It is going to affect me or influence my take on the news. 


E.P.U.: It is like any other comment. The same thing that the editorial does, or somebody’s comments on radio or television. Those comments will in some way frame your sense of that series of events definitely. If you have been influenced by the comment or if you don’t like the comment, again—you have a view on what is happening, you have a take on what is happening—then suddenly you hear this comment, maybe it simplifies the matter for you or provokes you or confuses you. So it sort of it changes the course, it resets the course. That is the most neutral way of putting it. Then the resetting could be zero.



S.R.: I remember sharing on social media this particular single panel cartoon strip that was prepared by a Sri Lankan cartoonist named Avant, I forget his second name, but it basically had the Kurdish child who passed away recently surrounded by crocodiles who were crying and each of the crocodiles were named UN, EU, USA. Normally when I share something with social media, people don’t read it, but because this was an image it elicited immediate reaction.  


E.P.U.: Image itself is a great attraction. This particular image made a difference. What do you feel when you look at the gutter?  



S.R.: I know that further actions have taken place in the sequence that began in the previous frame, so I kind of imagine as to what has happened that, it quickly flashes through my mind, and then I come to the next sequence.


E.P.U.: The next panel?



S.R.: Yes, the next panel.

E.P.U.: Okay, fine. See, there is the panel, the gutter and the page itself. When you look at the page itself the page is the architecture. Page is the architecture, which is what gives this narration an overall feeling of cohesion. You begin the graphic novel, start reading it, a comic story, the page is set in a certain way, page after page, you move from one page to the next, there has to be a sense of continuity and cohesion. That comes from the page, from the way the page is done. Within that, you can play around with sequences and so on. To create different senses of time, either if I want the reader to spend more time on it or if I want my reader to read slower, there is a certain way of doing the page. Then if I want the reader to get a sense of time, which is different from the sense of time that was there in the previous couple of pages, let us say, then there is another way of doing the page. The emphasis happens through the panels on the page. You can really play around with panels. You would have seen the second part of Maus. Spiegelman has just one frame. But this single image has been cut into several little, little panels. A single image is cut into little panels, where time flows from panel to panel. And the overall image on the page is a single image, which is actually fragmented. These are innovative ways of doing it, you get an extremely different sense of actually the time moving, and the phenomenal tension, angst and stillness of the character. That kind of feeling is visually created. There are many other ways of doing things. So the point is that the success of a graphic artist is how well, how swiftly the reader turns the page. And when you turn the page you also pause. Somewhere you have begun a movement if you can use a musical metaphor, and you’re brought to a closure. There is a kind of fade out or a closure or a cut, whatever you want to do you do, at the end of the page. Then you turn it to the next page. In the old comic books, it was all regular, because they hardly played around with the panels, size of the panel or even if you look at the old comic strips, the syndicated comic strips, all have four panels, where the action begins and ends, over. The same way with the Archies comics. They don’t do much in the panels. The story is told, but even there they will throw in something interesting for you to turn the page.


S.R.: How have things changed for you?


E.P.U.: They are still changing. I told you my primary influence was a man who was way ahead of his times. So I have just kept in pace with Aravindan. I keep running with Aravindan. He is still running with me. Balaramurali Krishna came there (in the Aravindan cartoon series), music, Pannalal Gosh, Hindustani music; Malayalis would have read these names for the first time in this series, I think, then all the existentialist writers, books like Greening of America (Charles Reich, 1970) were mentioned, and Aravindan even did an English word play, called 'Co-co-Colonisation' in the cartoon. He was way, way ahead. And the fact was that, that generation of Malayalis accepted it without any qualms. That kind of readership is equally interesting for me, it’s not just the creator who is interesting. Because my mother’s generation grew up on it, I mean they grew up, they were already old, they moved with it. And I would hear her cousins who were much younger, nieces and all, older to me, on their way to the temple in the morning they would peep in and ask my mother, ‘Has Ramu (the central character) got a job?’ On every Wednesday inevitably this question I would hear, because that is the day the Mathrubhumi weekly comes. They were all anxious to find out whether the protagonist had got a job. Because Ramu became a real person. Almost.



S.R.: Yeah, and then he grew up to be this slightly manipulative man.  


E.P.U.: I got in in the middle of the series. The strip started in 1961. I must have started reading it in 1967, or ’68. What appealed to me as a child was the comic part of it, the comicality. I am very fond of it, the bare comic, which is today is showed as emoticons. Then slowly you start reading it and catching up with it. At some point I went back and looked at the entire archives which an uncle of mine had collected. And then of course, from 1968 I was following it regularly, week after week. So some of it I saw in the book, and some of it I saw in the periodical.



S.R.: You mentioned earlier about the raw comic as emoji today?


E.P.U.: As emoticon? The raw comic is very simple, and if you draw a line like that (gestures) it’s a laughter and if you draw a line like this (gestures) it is a frown. If human emotions can be handled in such simplicity, I mean there is something about it, it has got something to do with the brain map I think. It’s probably closest to your raw emotions, the comic.



S.R.: Even though I have had friends complain that like the emoticons that are available on the phone tend to be very linear, and they find it very inadequate. And yet I find a lot of people expressing anger and grief.


E.P.U.: No, because it comes in with text, or in place of text, sometimes it is as a sound. So it’s interesting. It is part of the richer communication today. It’s not merely textual, it is not merely pause. It is a lot of visual, a lot of graphic.


S.R.: Yes, I sometimes find people using only emoticons to communicate.


E.P.U.: They use alphanumerical also. You write g, r, and then 8, to say great. It is actually an alphanumerical.



S.R.: How did you start your career? You worked for The Hindu.

E.P.U.: I started with The Hindu.


S.R.: How have things changed for you in the different political climates that we have had? Have you in any way pushed yourself or restrained yourself in terms of how you respond to the incumbent/previous governments?  


E.P.U.: Well, the last part of the question I will answer later. The first part is, many things have changed. It was a much more settled affair when I was with The Hindu, you know, you looked at today’s newspaper, and read more than one paper, listen to probably the radio at the most, then you fairly guessed what would be tomorrow’s subject for you to comment on, more or less so. After satellite television in India, breaking news has become an ongoing process, a 24-hour operation. So that has changed your work, your work’s style. Which in effect means you know, if you look at it dramatically, The Hindu and The Indian Express where I am working today—we are a very news-centric newspaper, The Indian Express—there is a cartoon on front page every day, so it just somehow seems very current, and go with the scheme of different things on different page, so I can’t comment on stale news or news that has been over, I have to be with the news. So half my effort today is to, generally keep following the news as it evolves, various streams of news, and then really find out at least, make some kind of estimate of what is likely to be the topic and story the next day. So it has become more arbitrary, less certain, more uncertain and hence more creative, more spontaneous. So your entire product had to become more of an instant craft and you can’t deliberate too much when you decide upon a story and, at the end of the day and at the end of a sudden newsreel at 10 o' clock or 11 o' clock at night and you have to change your cartoon, that’s another thing, you have to keep updating your work now. If something major happens it overtakes your cartoon. So your craft again has to become very simple, and very open to new technologies of transmission and scanning and so on. So it includes all your technological tools to, to process your work. Again, processing is done by the cartoonist himself today. Earlier he used to draw and give it out to the to the block maker. The Hindu had a block maker when I was working there. He was a great artist and would make an excellent block out of it, and eventually it would get printed. Now you scan your stuff and send. And if you just have a mobile camera, you take a good picture of it or you scan it with your mobile camera and you can send it off, email it. I mean you do your basic processing, and then you transmit it. The office receives the image today, not the original and the image is processed by the designers. They will clean it up and then print it on the first page. Basically the format and all remains the same, you can probably operate within the A4. You can’t draw it very big, because most of your scan is A4 size. That apart nothing much has changed. But the way you work has changed, and your craft has evolved into a slightly quicker, something that will lend itself to quicker execution. You can’t take too much time for drawing, today, which means that probably you have to stay in practice. We Indian cartoonists, unlike the American cartoonists, do some 60 to 70 faces in a year, because our polity is very varied and very wide and so on. So you have to stay in practice with your caricatures. So you have to stay in practice. Your craft, naturally would have changed, otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to cope with this pace. The pace of news has changed, it’s become faster, that has been the major change. Second change, the technology. Technology has changed vastly to make this possible. To be able to respond to this quick pace, technology is a big help. Then Photoshop, your digital software, all that helps.



S.R.: Could you explain your technique?


E.P.U.: My technique basically remains the same. I do a pencil drawing. And then ink it and rub out the pencil sketches. And then I process it. I have an original. But today I don’t fill in everything in the original. Like you know, you have a large black to be filled in, if there is no time or even if you have time, you don’t have to fill in the black. You can process it, get a scan, and then process it on the Photoshop, Adobe, you can fill all enclosed areas with, with the digital black which is available. Two advantages are there. One is that it is quicker, it is absolutely even and flat. The third advantage is that the memory of that black that you get, that large area of black, will be much, it takes much less memory than the process work of a hand brush, stroke or brush volume of the black that you create with the hand. Because it is a suggestion, so your file becomes lighter, so it gets transmitted quicker. So lots of such advantages. So for the large area to be filled up with black or any colour, you can use Photoshop to do that, instead of having to actually work with the hand. Unless you want to create a gradient, I mean, it doesn’t make a difference. You can do even a gradient with Photoshop, up to a point, but that would be mechanical.



S.R.: Something struck me when you mentioned that The Indian Express is a news-hungry paper, and so news and reaction to it has to be instantaneous. I remember speaking to two people who happen to be in Bombay, at the time of the 1992 and 1993 riots. And one was a photojournalist, and the other was a painter. And the photo journalist of course had to be on the scene all the time. And he told me that he had produced a large body of work at the time of the riots, and the painter had kind of let his responses and memories of it fester for a while, and eventually responded, or at least chose not to respond immediately, and responded after a while. And somehow the lifespan of those memories ended up kind of still ricocheting in different places for him, 20 years on. And I wanted to know what parts of your work you find staying with you, something that you seem to kind of inherently want to keep reaching back to, and what parts end up kind of skimming the surface because it is part of your work.


E.P.U.: That’s a difficult question but that’s a very good question. There’s a perfect parallel to what you mentioned about the painter and the photojournalist to the experience of Spiegelman. And they are regular editorial cartoons that we mentioned earlier when we chatted. Spiegelman had the leisure to reflect continuously on the disturbing images which he witnessed as the twin towers were collapsing (World Trade Centre, New York, 2011). He said his eyeballs was burning and the sensation wouldn’t go away and even music didn’t help. He took, I think, a couple of years to come out with this work. Daily cartoons don’t have such leisure. Mike Luckovich (b. 1960) and Chappatte (Patrick Chappatte, b.1967) and the rest of them were regularly producing work on the same subject. This (collapse of the twin towers) was the dominant news for several weeks. And it would also recur, along with other news, for the next several weeks and months and even years. So Chappatte was able to bring out the agony and find the right visual framework, creative framework to expose that agony. That the daily cartoonist doesn’t have the leisure to work like the photo journalist. He has to just capture the moment and carry on. If I look at my work, my output is already done.  Babri Masjid demolished—I am done with my cartoon, I cannot go back and do anything about the output, that is all archived.


But some of the issues related to such topics that have touched you deeply, such issues will remain without question. Otherwise, there is no difference between, you know, any news that had broken out, and other news that is breaking out. I have no control over that. And my reaction has to happen. I can’t go back and talk about it. Except as an allusion, that is where some of the finest editorial cartoons are out there. They will evoke these images. E.g. when John F. Kennedy died, Mauldin (Bill Mauldin, 1921–2003) came out with this tribute cartoon. There was no John F. Kennedy in it, it was just the Lincoln memorial drawn, Lincoln’s head in bowing, and (gestures) nothing else. So, from John F. K. to Lincoln, he was able to go back in memory, to allude, and connect, and evoke certain images from the past. That kind of thing is possible. In my work, I don’t know, I mean, Ayodhya is a major turning point, which would have probably shaped you shaped your view on politics for many years to come which still stays with me. But that cartoon doesn’t stay with me. Because I can’t do anything about the cartoon, that cartoon is already done. So in the sense in which suppose you’re a painter, you don’t have to paint immediately following the news, you can paint in reflection afterwards. If I were to do anything like that, I would probably do a graphic novel on that, which I might. The Emergency is another issue. The Emergency happened before I was a professional cartoonist. That political event always stays with me. Not my work, work is immaterial. Work is all gone, it is all part of the calendar, part of the archives. So these are what will probably stay with you, but you will not have the leisure to do this in the cartoon. Because that moment is determined by another set of events. Except as I said, to try to probably allude to this later.


News cartooning is an environmental art; it is only possible in a certain environment. I am able to do half the kind of work I am doing because I’m doing it for a paper like The Indian Express, because that news room has a culture, a culture of being with the news, being very sharp on the news, not being loud on the news. If you are completely loud on something, you don’t need a cartoon, according to me. If you are a completely loud newspaper, you don’t need a cartoon at all. I mean, you can have a screaming headline and be done with it. Cartooning is what prompts the reader to be more tentative and less judgmental about matters. It is not something that sort of gives you a cut or kick in the face, though it might do that once in a blue moon. So that’s what I am saying, the kind of work I am doing is partly because I am in this kind of a paper. In between The Hindu and The Indian Express, I had a very vital phase with The Economic Times. It was very fortuitous, because that was the time the economic reforms were happening in the country. And that’s again another important aspect that’ll stay with me. Thought it was not necessarily negative—the Emergency and Babri Masjid are negative—it was a far more complex situation, with a lot of positives and some negatives. When Narasimha Rao decided to break the economic bureaucracy, red tape, some freeing up of the economy happened, some entrepreneurship was unleashed and so on. It was a major thing. I was with The Economic Times, I was with the right paper at that time. And The Economic Times is also political, so I could see the politics of the reforms. I could follow it for the next three years, and since then I’ve been following it. So I had a head start over other cartoonists. Until then, in economic cartooning when the prices went up you would show the common man and say this is it, and they would use the same cartoon to say that if oil prices went up, your petrol prices went up, that this would create inflation, it would make your life miserable. When the oil pull deficit went up you would draw a similar cartoon, criticising the government, little realising that the first is a way of curtailing the whole deficit—complete semi-literate, economically semi-literate…



S.R.: Or the Sensex.


E.P.U.: Sensex was later. We became sensitive to the Sensex post reforms. Sensex came into cartoons post reforms. When ordinary people started investing in shares and so on. Till then nobody knew what the Sensex was. It was post reforms that economic cartooning in India became slightly more mature. We came to understand what is happening and you know, other issues like public sector vs. private sector, and not just price aspects but also other aspects of the economy, like cutting subsidies is important, even if the price is lower, things like gold, how gold works in the context of general context of currency, monetization etc. These things are being better and better appreciated now. I had a head start because I was with The Economic Times and The Economic Times was very cartoon friendly then. So I could use the cartoon to reflect on some of these issues. That also will stay with me, because whenever I do a cartoon on any of these topics, for instance, on urbanization—those 100 smart cities—I think I am able to do it because of my tenure with The Economic Times. Such issues are highly cartoonable. These are all issues that are not in-your-face political, though ultimately they are all political.