New Delhi: Keshav Shankar Pillai, better known as just ‘Shankar’, was a pioneering figure in the world of cartoons. He began working as a cartoonist in 1933 and was an active illustrator well into the 1970s. Thus, Shankar lived through some of the most prominent events in Indian history including India’s independence, various wars as well as the Emergency.
A look at his life reveals the growth of political cartooning in India along with the birth and the subsequent development of a nation and its leaders.
When Shankar made Hindustan Times famous
Shankar was born in Kayamkulam in Kerala on 31 July 1902. He began cartooning as a hobby, but was soon discovered by Pothan Joseph, the then-editor of Hindustan Times, who hired him as a staff cartoonist.
According to Kutty, a popular Indian cartoonist and his protege, Shankar was a very poor cartoonist when he first started out. He undertook intense year-long training at the Slade School of Art in the UK to improve his drawings.
After completing his course, Shankar returned to Hindustan Times and went on to work for the newspaper until 1946. In her book Caricaturing Culture in India, Ritu Khanduri notes that “Shankar’s cartoons in Hindustan Times were both part of and marked the ethos of an emerging nation”.
During the time he was with the newspaper, Shankar caricatured everyone from British viceroys to Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Shankar was also quite fearless with his cartoons, something that invited trouble from many quarters.
In 1939, Mahatma Gandhi sent a postcard to Shankar criticising him for his cartoons on Jinnah and offered him advice on the ethics of cartooning. “Your cartoons are good as works of art. But if they do not speak accurately and cannot joke without offending, you will not rise high in your profession. Your study of events should show that you have an accurate knowledge of them. Above all you should never be vulgar. Your ridicule should never bite,” the postcard read.
In fact, it was this fearlessness and disregard of consequences that eventually led to his departure from Hindustan Times.
In 1946, Kutty said, Shankar began clashing with his editor Devdas Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s son, when, despite warnings, he continued lampooning Rajagopalachari, a prominent Congress leader and Devdas’ father-in-law.
In spite of this tension with his son, Mahatma Gandhi asked Shankar after he resigned from his job, “Did Hindustan Times make you famous or did you make Hindustan Times famous?” Shankar did not say anything at the time, but Kutty noted that “it was true that he made Hindustan Times famous”.
‘Don’t spare me, Shankar’
Shankar shared a much-celebrated friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. He featured Nehru in more than 4,000 cartoons. Even before the two of them knew each other, Nehru used to send snippets of Shankar’s cartoons to his daughter Indira along with the letters he wrote to her from prison.
Shankar lampooned Nehru mercilessly in some of his cartoons and yet, there was a sense of mutual admiration between them. Nehru even famously remarked “Don’t spare me Shankar”.
Nehru once said about the cartoons, “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. It is good to have the veil of our conceit torn occasionally.”
Shankar, on his part, described Nehru as a “great man, a truly great man”. He added that Nehru often thanked him “for helping him spot his inherent weaknesses. He liked to be reminded that he too was mortal. Perfection is not for any man, however powerful and highly placed he may be. Nehru had the wisdom to realise that.”
After his stint with Hindustan Times, Shankar set up his own magazine, Shankar’s Weekly in 1948, modelled on the popular British satirical magazine Punch. The weekly became the launch pad for many subsequent renowned cartoonists like R.K. Laxman, Narendra, Kevy, Bireshwar and many others. The magazine was launched by Nehru. Shankar described his weekly as “fundamentally anti-establishment, while never toeing any particular line in politics or in anything else.”
However, in 1975, two months into the Emergency, imposed by the daughter of his great friend and muse, the magazine had to fold. Many believe the weekly could not continue because of the Emergency, but Shankar denied this and instead said, “We could have taken the Emergency in our stride, but the burden of running a weekly magazine on a shoe-string was too much.”
Indira Gandhi even wrote to Shankar, saying “I learnt a few days ago about your decision to stop Shankar’s Weekly…. it takes a great deal of strength of mind to close down what one has built through years of care and labour. You are the best judge. As you say, it is too much for one man even when that man is an institution. We shall miss the journal…”
A children’s publication and a doll collector
After the magazine was discontinued, Shankar turned to other interests — children’s books and dolls. He founded a publishing company called the Children’s Book Trust in 1957, which is located on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi. He was extremely fond of children and said, “Why not leave the grown-ups to themselves for a while? Let me try to know children. Children are beautiful, unspoilt, lovable. They deserve the best of everything.”
When he established the Trust, there were very few writers who wrote children’s books, so Shankar wrote many books under different names to give the impression of variety.
Shankar also developed an interest in collecting dolls. Encouraged by Nehru, he built a doll museum in 1965, which he named Nehru House. Nehru had passed away a year earlier. Shankar had said then, “What is success to me when the one person who would have been proud to share it with me is no more with us today?”
Today, Shankar’s International Dolls Museum, in the same building as the Children’s Book Trust, has one of the largest collections of costume dolls in the world.
His illustrious and colourful life, full of politically incorrect cartoons, children’s books and dolls, came to an end on 26 December 1989. He was 87.