Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cartooning: Maya Kamath ~ Lifelines of Laughter

(This article was written in 2001)

SHE CONQUERS with laughter ~ line by teasing line. Each imbued with a humane touch, each touched by topical tension, each innately reflective of the individual as a cartoonist. That’s been the essence of Bangalore-based Maya Kamath, 50, over the past 16 years. She was India’s only woman political cartoonist, unassumingly hurdling over milestones in mainstream journalism.

Regular readers of the Asian Age, whom Maya delighted daily since February 1997, woke up to her last cartoon on October 27, following her demise the previous day after a brief illness. Framed, the goddess Durga, sword in hand, sits behind a desk, while a flunkey announces: “It’s a new millenium, madam. New strains of demons for you to deal with…” What demons? The Towers Massacre! Anthrax! Signs of our times?

Whether tackling political excesses, communalism, casteism, or the murky bylanes of Indian politics, Maya spared no one, yet remained scrupulously fair to her subjects. Her 4,000-plus cartoons testify to her stance as a gender-sensitive humanist, rather than a feminist. Her cartoons range from the terror of September 11 to doublespeak on terrorism, from starvation deaths in Orissa to political anarchy in Bihar, from in-house family humour to burning issues like dowry or sati. Unlike her male counterparts, women were never stereotypical to her gaze. 

In a recent cartoon on Kashmir, her punch line reads: “Freedom for the people of Kashmir, except women.” Another renders a contestant on Mastermind 2000, who faces the query: “Which species has the most highly developed cerebral cortex?” Pat comes the reply, “Women.”

Politically aware, her master strokes were memorable ~ whether on the opportunism of the BJP-NDA alliance, the see-sawing of Congress stances, or the threat of burgeoning fundamentalism. Prime Minister Vajpayee recently evolved into a favourite target for her barbs. In one rendition, he is depicted as a pilot, announcing over the public address system: “Good morning, passengers. This time, it’s your very own pilot hijacking you to Ayodhya.” Right on cue?

Maya was born in Bombay on March 17, 1951, the youngest of three children of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer Pangal Ranganath Nayak and his wife Saraswati. Her speaking lines had their first say when her mother had a kitchen wall of their Delhi residence painted in wax-coated black, encouraging Maya to draw on it with chalk.

Schooled at Presentation Convent at Delhi, Maya completed an MA in English Literature from Indraprastha College, despite an initial desire to study art. Her first family-based cartoon strip ~ titled Gita ~ saw the light of print in the now defunct Evening Herald, published by the Deccan Herald group. Voiced in everyday speech, sharing vignettes of daily life, Maya touched base with thousands in her first foray into journalism. “These gags were lifted straight from our lives,” recalls her son Nandan, 24, currently a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. “She used to pay us Rs. 5 if we gave her ideas,” adds her daughter Deepa, 27, a mediaperson. “Nandan earned quite a bit, just by being himself.”

Later, Maya found a daily slot in the local Indian Express. Following this, her current affairs cartoons were carried by City Tab, The Pioneer, The Independent, Free Press Journal, Newsday, Mid-day, Economic Times, and the Times of India. Her take on city life, Framed, appeared on page three of Deccan Herald for five years till she opted for the Asian Age. Her environmental cartoons were featured in a German anthology titled ‘Third World.

What made Maya a keen cartoonist? “She was part of the second generation of Indian cartoonists, after R K Laxman” says Bangalore-based cartoonist Ponnappa, 53. “Maya had an excellent feel for Indian politics. She was courageous, often stepping across the borderline of risk. She was an original, never cliched. Her style was distinctive, her simple lines well-composed.”

Tushita Patel, former resident editor at Asian Age in Bangalore, now the managing editor at in Mumbai, adds, “Maya didn't bother about superficial things like her image, nor about political correctness. Her style was unique not just because she was a woman, but because she was also south Indian. For someone watching a BJP-led government at the Centre, this was lethal. She found the bigotry of the NDA's (mostly chauvinistic North Indian) men unbearable. She was at a vantage point, being completely contrary to what the NDA stood for.”

Maya’s husband Amarnath, a chartered accountant, recalls how she would mull over a cartoon for hours after she had fine-tuned its last lines. Tushita seconds that, especially in the context of religious or social satire, “Maya's greatest gift was that she was very aware of what wasn't funny, where to draw the line (in her case, where not to). Often, after sending her cartoon over to the office, she would call me to take a hard look at the cartoon to see whether she was hurting someone's sentiments. Or hold back an inappropriate one.”

Her freedom of expression grew by leaps and bounds, as did the confidence in her strokes, with the Asian Age experience of a national audience. Was her background in literature an asset? Her contemporary cartoons were threaded through with legends, myths and literary allusions. Writer Poile Sengupta, who once taught Maya at Indraprastha College, recalls, “Even at college, Maya had a questioning mind. In her cartoons, she questioned political situations without much regard for the consequences. Perhaps it provided a sense of detachment from the home-maker she essentially was.” Deepa adds, “She spent hours getting the caption right ~ the minimal words had to be correct. She saw cartooning as a religion of her own.”

Her commitment to her cartoons, and other causes she championed, was reflected in her daily life. Since March, when she was diagnosed with cancer, her courage proved heroic. Four days after surgery in April, she was back at work with her prized brush pen, despite the shooting pains. That’s a little-known aspect of her very private life.

 Maya, whose family lived in the thick of happy exchanges with their golden retrievers Tuffy and Penny, was passionate about animals. The dispossessed, the deprived, the downtrodden were at the top of her agenda for action. She worked for Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), initiating animal birth control programmes and constantly adopting stray dogs. A trained transactional analyst, she was vice-president of Parivartan, a counselling and training centre in Bangalore. Her cartoons aided the work of the Coimbatore-based Zoo Outreach organisation, child welfare in Karnakata, even the neighbourhood’s garbage collection programme. She bequeathed her earnings to animals and to children, Amarnath points out.

It was in October 1998 that the Karnataka Cartoonists’ Association conferred an award on Maya at their seventh conference. Their future plans include the institution of an award in her memory. And the publication of a book of her cartoons.

As her family sifts through her meticulously filed cartoons to assemble an exhibition to share with a grieving world at Bangalore’s Alliance Francaise from November 29 to December 1, Maya Kamath’s spirit lives on. Through her timeless lines, as through her pioneering work.

Will a new media generation follow in her footsteps? Their cartoon lifelines, etched in laughter, would be a fitting tribute to Maya Kamath.

(Women's Feature Service, 2001)

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