Sunday, November 2, 2003

Cartoonist who provokes you to think
Humra Quraishi

Abu’s cartoons are blessed with simple, no-fuss lines
Abu’s cartoons are blessed with simple, no-fuss lines 

AFTER viewing Abu Abraham's cartoons at the India Habitat Centre's Palm Court, I went towards the auditorium which was screening two films, one film made by Abu himself and the other one made on him by Sudhir Tailang. And this screening was followed by Tailang inviting Abu's second wife Psyche and daughters Ayisha and Janaki ( born from his first marriage) to the stage. Perhaps, they were expected to give those elaborate speeches or not-so-elaborate ones but all that Psyche could so very gently say was just this one-liner: "Abu was such a wonderful person to live with..." With that her voice got laden with emotion and tears rolled out With those words Abu Abraham rose, spread out much beyond being just a cartoonist. For a man to be described a wonderful man in the actual sense is rare in today's times.

While talking to Psyche for this interview, one almost feels envious of her relationship with Abu. For, from whatever she spoke it seemed one of those blissful relationships: "For me, it was the third marriage and for him the second but we had been friends for a long span. I met him on New Delhi's social circuit when I was working here as secretary to various Arab ambassadors and he was working as a cartoonist. It was around 1980 that we decided to marry. What was special about him was that he always had time for me, no matter how very busy he was. He was never pompous, he never raised his voice and was extremely gentle and loving, he had a great sense of humour. Maybe our intellectual levels didn't really match but he never made me feel so. On the contrary, he took so much of interest in every little thing I did and took me to far-flung places which he had visited before our marriage and was keen that I see them. It was so wonderful, all those years with him . ."

Perhaps, to fill that void after Abu died rather too suddenly, last December ( December 1, 2002), Psyche took to arranging this exhibition/travelling retrospective, as she says: "Both Abu and I didn't believe in religion, we were atheists, so instead of holding religious ceremonies, I thought its best to arrange this exhibition which will travel from here to Kerala and open there on December1, the day Abu passed away ." In fact, helping her put up this impressive exhibition are Abu's daughters from his first marriage, to Sarojini, who was also to be spotted in the audience, coming all the way from Bangalore. When I asked Sarojini why did she travel down all the way from Bangalore all that she quietly said was "I'm here for the sake of my daughters. I don't want to comment further."

Remembering Abu

That evening there were others who wanted to comment. Tailang, of course, who went down nostalgia lane and recounted his 25-year-long association with Abu. "The first time I'd met him was when I was in college in Bikaner and then later visited his office at the Indian Express. In fact, when I visited his office he wasn't there so after waiting for several minutes, I left a note for him together with some of my drawings and returned to Bikaner. Much to my surprise, after few days I received a letter from him and in it he had written that I should see him, together with that a footnote complimenting me on my writing." Needless to add that the relationship grew between the two and Tailang's deep admiration and respect for Abu was more than writ large in this film.Titled Abu,The Philosopher—it revolves around the twists and turns in Abu Abraham's life.

He started off as Abraham and its only later that the word /name "Abu" got added. As he writes in his reminiscences: "In April 1956, something happened which changed my life radically. Michael Foot had published two of my political cartoons in his weekly journal, Tribune ( founded by Aneurin Bevan ). Two days after the second cartoon appeared, I had a letter from David Astor, editor of the Observer, which simply said: "I am very much interested in the work you have been doing and I would like to know if you could care to do some drawings for the Observer." As suggested in the letter, I phoned Astor's secretary and went to see him two days later. To my astonishment, I found that Astor had made up his mind to take me on his staff...My first cartoon was produced in the first week of April,1956. I had signed it Abraham as I had done for about ten years. .. David Astor, after approving the cartoon said: Can't you find a pseudonym? He explained, saying that any Abraham in Europe would be taken as a Jew and all my cartoons would take on a slant for no reason, and I wasn't even Jewish. What was more, the Middle-East was beginning to boil at that time with Nasser dominating the scene. I thought up the pseudonym, Abu "Perfect," Astor said, suitably mysterious. Thus was I re-christened on that morning, Friday, April 6, 1956." In fact, going through his reminiscences what strikes one is Abu's straight and direct attitude. He writes as though he was conversing with you: "An interesting and challenging period in my more than fifty-year career span in journalism was the fifteen and a half years I spent in London. After two years, as a cartoonist and occasional writer with Shankar's Weekly, the itch to go abroad became over-powering. It would be marvellous, I thought, if I could get together enough money to visit the major cities of Europe and see the galleries and meet artists and cartoonists. Some time in January or February of 1953, a British cartoonist Fred Joss who was on the staff of the Star, a London evening paper belonging to the News Chronicle group, was on a sketching trip to India and he happened to drop in at Shankar's Weekly to see Shankar. As he was about to leave he passed by the room where Kutty, Samuel, Prakash and I worked and came in to meet us. A lively and informal extrovert,Joss, an Austrian Jew by origin, took a keen interest in what we were doing. He looked at some of our work and then seeing a drawing of mine that had appeared in the latest issue of Shankar's Weekly remarked, this stuff would sell in London and sounded as though he meant it. That was enough for me. When Joss got back to London he wrote to me a two-line letter, simply asking: When are you coming? In the last week of July 1953, I set sail for England .." In fact , I must add here that Abu Abraham is perhaps the only Indian cartoonist who has had the distinction of working for The Observer for 10 years ( 1956-66) and thereafter with The Guardian for three years ( 1966- 69) .The epilogue to his reminiscences lies fitted with more details: "By then British politics had begun to bore him and he thought of returning to India. He was offered a job as political cartoonist with The Indian Express in Delhi and he returned with his wife Sarojini, whom he had married in 1962, and their two daughters, Ayisha and Janaki. Abu was nominated as member of the Rajya Sabha ( 1972-78 ). In 1981, he left The Express and began to syndicate his work to half a dozen newspapers. That year he also started his strip cartoon, Salt and Pepper, which ran for nearly 20 years in various publications. Abu authored several books. He also edited a collection of cartoons from all over the world on the Vietnam war and a collection of cartoons by Indian cartoonists—the Penguin Book of Indian cartoons. He was given a special award by the British Film Institute for his animated cartoon film , No Arks ...Abu returned to his home state Kerala, in 1988 with his second wife Psyche, where he continued to draw and write until his death on December 1, 2002 " In fact, Tailang's film captures the different aspects of Abu's life with a lot of footage on the last few years—the years Abu and his second wife Psyche spent in their home, "Saranam", in Trivandum.

All through this documentary, Abu speaks as though from his heart, on the various aspects but one particular line from him hits: "You have to assert your freedom, nobody gives it on a platter!" And interspersed, lie captured shots and sentences of some eminent men like Khushwant Singh, Mario Miranda, Shanto Dutta—giving their views on Abu Abraham the cartoonist and the man.

Like his cartoons, Abu too comes across as uncomplicated and direct. A man perhaps possessed with simple thinking and that probably explains why his cartoons are blessed with simple no-fuss lines, with a subtle sense of humour and provocation. Another aspect about his cartoons is that they seem ageless—the ones he drew during the Emergency hold out and hit you even now. So whilst he 's been laid to rest, his cartoons are there to go on go on provoking you to think on.