A cartoonist’s ode to Panditji

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Photo courtesy : Children’s book trust
Photo courtesy : Children’s book trust

A frosty morning in New Delhi. The sun is still behind dark foggy clouds. But the sulking weather is evidently not a deterrent for the long queue of kids waiting listlessly outside Shankar’s International Dolls Museum. As they stare and gape at the colourful murals decorating the wall of the building, their teachers try desperately to get them in a single file.


sreehari150Rakesh Konni, IT Professional, Kochi

Nehru was a true democrat who was ahead of his times. We should be thankful to him for his stern position to have universal suffrage in place. I think that’s his major contribution to the republic.

 


Nothing unusual about the commotion; streams of tiny visitors have been walking through its doors for years. The excitement is palpable as the children walk up the stairs and are greeted by a magnificent collection of dolls from across the world. There are dolls of various nationalities, sizes and shapes encased within glass cases — flamingo dancers, little princesses, Kabuki Japanese dancers, eskimos, astronauts — waiting to entice and draw out their smiles.

H.U.N.G.R.Y. spells out a six-year-old. “It is spelt Hungary, not hungry,” says his teacher gently. Little does he know that the Magyar doll from Hungary that has caught his eye stands transfixed in time as witness to a legendary friendship.

Keshav Shankar Pillai, known as the patriarch of cartooning in India, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, shared a strong bond of trust and companionship. “There was no formality in their friendship,” recollects Shanti Srinivasan, the cartoonist’s daughter. “Panditji considered father to be such a close friend that he would drop by our house whenever he was free.” The visits would be sudden, but there was always a seat reserved for Nehru at Shankar’s residence.

PG Koshy, a former associate of Shankar, once told a journalist that there was not a single week when Shankar did not have breakfast with Nehru, either at his own 9, Purana Quila Road house, or at the prime minister’s official residence, Teen Murti Bhavan.

In 1932, Shankar moved to Delhi from Bombay (now Mumbai) to join Hindustan Times as a staff cartoonist. His cartoons on the big political figures of the time earned him many fans. British viceroys, Lord Willingdon, Lord Linlithgow and Lord Wavell often found themselves in the firing line of his lampooning, but received it with great humour.

An incident that Shankar was fond of narrating over and again was that of receiving summons from Viceroy Willingdon’s office. Worried that the viceroy had taken offence at his front-page cartoon, he reached Willingdon’s residence with great trepidation. To his surprise, the viceroy came rushing toward him, exclaiming that he was pleased with his work and encouraged him to keep at it.

Shankar’s cartoons became a fixed section in the newspaper and gained popularity with each passing year. His talent with the brush and witty observations gained him many admirers and friends, including Nehru. The prime minister regularly featured in Shankar’s pieces and was particularly fond of them. His admiration of Shankar’s work can be seen in the foreword written by him for Shankar’s Cartoons in 1937. “For a true cartoonist,” wrote Nehru, “is not just a maker of fun, but one who sees the inner significance of an event and by a few master strokes impresses it on others. Shankar has that rare gift, rarer in India than elsewhere, and without the least bit of malice or ill-will he points out, with an artist’s skill, the weaknesses and foibles of those who display themselves on the public stage… That is a service to all of us, for which we should be grateful. For we are apt to grow pompous and self-centred, and it is good to have the veil of our conceit torn occasionally.”

Shankar’s take on the framing of the Constitution showed BR Ambedkar and Nehru whipping a snail named Constitution. That, too, was received publicly without any consternation. Political figures represented in the sketch recognised that Shankar was merely highlighting the long years taken to frame the Constitution and was possibly questioning the need for it. There were no reports of any objections against the cartoon.

Did Nehru ever interfere with his friend’s work? “Nehru never had any issues with how father portrayed him,” Srinivasan tells Tehelka. “In fact, when he inaugurated my father’s magazine Shankar’s Weekly, he famously told him, ‘Don’t spare me Shankar’.” These words left a lasting impact on Shankar and later became the title of his bestselling book, a compilation of 400 cartoons on Nehru.