SHANKAR (Keshava Shankar Pillai: Humorist and Friend to Children)

Malayalees are humorists and the special Malayalee humor is always present when a few get together to shoot the breeze.  Malayalam literature is gifted with several whose humor and wit have enlivened their literary outputs and refreshed our lives. The love of humor that is congenital to a Malayalee also leads to an appreciation of political and social satire, whether written or pictorial.  Satire is never far from a Malayalee psyche. It is no wonder that the creator of India’s Punch was a Malayalee.  He was none other than Keshav Shankar Pillai, the mastermind and artist behind the ever so memorable Shankar’s Weekly.  He was the most celebrated cartoonist of India, before and after the Independence.

 Even as a youngster, even before learning to read, I was fascinated by the large cartoons and caricatures on the cover page of the Shankar’s Weekly.  I did not understand politics or political humor then.  The name stayed with me and, I believe that it will not be an exaggeration to claim that my appreciation of wit, humor, and satire and my healthy irreverence to pompous politicians and pretentious social leaders stem from Shankar’s inimitable publication.   After the initiation to Shankar’s products, it is very hard not to read between the lines when they are spoken by a politician or a socialite or uttered in a commercial ad.  They encouraged in me a salubrious dose of cynicism at an early age.

K. Shankar Pillai, popularly known with the moniker SHANKAR,   was born on July 31, 1902, in Kayamkulam ( Kerala). His formal schooling started in Kayamkulam and Mavelikkara. His first cartoon that attracted public attention and the fury of the Headmaster was a depiction of his sleeping teacher. In spite of the uproar in the school, his uncle who saw his potential talent encouraged him.

In 1927, Shankar graduated from the Maharaja’s Collegeof Sciencein Thiruananthapuram.  He left for the LawCollegein Bombay(Mumbai) for higher studies but quit his law studies midway because even as a student, he took to cartooning as a hobby and his drawings of political personalities and the national events attracted the attention of  newspapers.  Shankar’s cartoons were published in the Free Press Journal and Bombay Chronicle. In 1932, he joined The Hindustan Times and  its editor, Pothen Joseph, took him toNew Delhi as a staff cartoonist and he continued there till 1946. Thus, he came to settle inDelhi with his family.  His family consisted of his wife, Thankom, and two sons and three daughters. During the formative and fermenting times of the Indian independence struggle, his contributions created a memorable phase in the history of Indian journalism.

Shankar’s cartoons attracted the attention of even Viceroys Lord Willington and Lord Linlithgow.  This was also a time of opportunity for Shankar to hone his skills as an artist.  He had a chance to go toLondonand he spent fourteen months in various Art schools, studying advanced techniques in cartooning.  He also took the time to visit major European cities likeBerlin,Rome,Vienna,Geneva, andParis.  This must have planted the seed for the international nature of his later projects.  When he returned toIndia, the Freedom struggle had reached its zenith.

After Independence, the time was propitious for Shankar to realize his dream of a separate periodical. In 1948, the then Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru released Shankar’s Weekly, edited by Shankar himself.  Its sparkling wit and humor did not let any prominent personality escape the brush of the cartoonist.  Shankar started his publication more or less on the lines of the British publication, Punch. Possibly, his is the only weekly inIndia totally devoted to cartoons and humorous satire.  Nehru, who was a twenty-hour a day worker, was enchanted by Shankar’s cartoon on his trip to Thekkady. The cartoon showed the Prime Minister lazing through the waters in a boat and the faces of the animals around representing the agitations and dilemmas facing him. Nehru was so pleased with it that he asked for the original and preserved it.

Many top Indian cartoonists and satirists had their start with Shankar before they moved on to more lucrative positions.  Kutty (Puthukkody Kottuthody Sankaran Kutty Nair), N. K. Ranga, Abu Abraham, J. Vasanthan, C. P. Ramachandran, and O. V. Vijayan are only some of the numerous artists and writers who were encouraged by Shankar.

Unfortunately, the Emergency rule of Mrs. Indhira Gandhi was not favorable to political satirists and cartoonists.  Many of the lampoonists and cartoonists in the weekly were under threat.  But, Shankar met with Mrs. Gandhi personally and agreed to close his publication by saving those who worked for him at the expense of his publication. The demise of Shankar’s Weekly happened in August, 1975.

Shankar gave no quarter to the grown-ups when it came to his cartoons and satire.  But he held a soft corner for the children and was always interested in promoting and fostering activities and organizations for them.  The offshoots of his interest took many forms. In 1949, under the auspices of the Shankar’s weekly, he had started the Shankar’s International Arts Competition for Children in Painting and Writing.  It was a spur of the moment decision.  One thousand children sent 3,000 entries at the first competition.  Seeing this response, Shankar held the competition in the following year and received 7,000 entries from 13 countries.  Today, 160,000 entries come from around 130 countries at this annual event. It is open to all children (under sixteen) around the world.  The entries are judged by an international jury.  Two thousand entries are chosen after the initial entries and the selections are exhibited publicly for three weeks (Shankar’s International Children’s Art Exhibition).  There are 800 prizes and they are awarded at a function in New Delhi.  The President, Vice-president, or the Prime Minister are the chief guests at this function.  The best painting receives the President of India Gold Medal and the best written entry receives Shankar’s Gold Medal.  Then, there are 24 Nehru Memorial Gold Medals followed by numerous Silver Medals. The prize-winning entries are published in Shankar’s Children’s Art Number.  As part of the competition, he also added Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952 as an answer to a skeptical comment about the authenticity of the entries.   Although the initial written entries had to be in English, a Hindi segment is included more recently.

In, 1957, Shankar founded the Children’s Book Trust (CBT) which became the pioneering publisher of children’s books in India. On November 30, 1965, it came to be housed in the Nehru House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in New Delhi and was inaugurated by the then President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.  The objective was to promote well-written, well-illustrated books for children.  It was also noted that these books had to be at prices affordable to the average Indian child.  CBT also encourages books that convey India’s culture and heritage to children.  After the folding of  Shankar’s Weekly, Shankar moved from brush to pen more and more.  He started to focus on developing the many facets of CBT. Its publications include the Indraprastha Press and the illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World.  Shankar created the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC) and held workshops.  He instituted the annual Competition of the Writers of Children’s books in 1978.

At the CBT, Shankar housed theInternationalDollsMuseum, the Dolls Designing andProductionCenter, Dr. B.C. Roy Memorial Children’s Library and Reading Room and Library.  Shankar’s International Doll’s Museum which is housed in the CBT building is one of the largest collection of costume dolls in the world.  It started when Shankar received a Hungarian costume doll to be given away at the Children’s Competition.  Shankar loved the doll and asked the Hungarian Ambassador’s permission to keep it himself.  From then on, he collected dolls from all the places he could visit as one of the journalists who accompanied Nehru.  Soon, he had collected 500 dolls and exhibited them with the paintings.  But the constant packing and unpacking damaged some dolls.  To prevent further damage, Mrs. Indira Gandhi suggested a permanent house and thus a portion of the CBT building was set aside for the International dolls Museum.  The name fits because, today,  it houses 6,500 dolls from around 84 countries.

Shankar took a keen interest in dramas, scouting, literary activities etc. He was a good campaigner for raising funds for disaster reliefs.  He was always concerned about the straits of the poor and the distressed while pointing out the fallibilities of the national leaders and others in power, who could alleviate some of the miseries.

Shankar, a valuable son of Kerala and the provider of so much laughter and moral vision, is probably one of the most decorated citizens ofIndia  and every honor is well deserved.  Shankar received the Indian honors of Padma Shri in 1956, Padma Bhushan in 1966, and  Padma Vibhushan in 1976. TheUniversityofDelhiawarded him the degree, D. Litt (honoris causa).  The recognitions came from abroad also.  The Polish children awarded him the Order of Smile in 1977. For his dedicated service to the children of the world, theHamiltonbranch of the United Nations Association inCanadaconferred a citation and a pin in 1979. His activities and contributions to children earned him the Hungarian Institute of Cultural Relations’ Commemorative Medal in 1980. The Federal Republic of Germany recognized his dedication to children’s cause by awarding the Order de Saint Fortunat, and  a gold medal came from the Government of Czechoslovakia for the promotion of Indo-Czech friendship.

Shankar passed away on December 26, 1989. The world will never the see the likes of him again, but his legacy lives on.  He gave us the gift of laughter.  He showed us a fine vision of democracy by his courage in the free portrayals of the foibles in our political leaders and national events. He encouraged creativity in the people he came across and nurtured the future in opening vistas for the budding talents.  He strove for universal friendship and became a global memory.


2 thoughts on “SHANKAR (Keshava Shankar Pillai: Humorist and Friend to Children)

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