Of Collette and Wijesoma

Saturday, 5 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Recently I came across a copy of ‘Serada Mahinda’ – a year’s collection of cartoons in the newspapers featuring President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  It’s an annual publication by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information.

This year’s is the sixth in the series. Apparently every year, it is released around Independence Day.  Though the mailing list is not known, I am told that copies are sold at the Ministry stall at the ‘Deyata Kirula’ exhibition held to coincide with Independence Day.

The political cartoon is something that the readers look forward to in a newspaper. Way back in August 1948, Frank Moraes, Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Times of Ceylon’ commented that Aubrey Collette’s cartoons “constitute, by universal acclaim, this paper’s most popular feature.”  

He was writing a foreword to ‘Ceylon since Soulbury’ – Part 1 – the first in a series of Collette’s cartoon collections which appeared in ‘The Times’.  (I treasure the first publication which I had picked up at a book sale, now in a rather dilapidated state). Unlike today, that was the era when Collette was the only political cartoonist.

“Political cartoonists need more than the usual modicum of competent draftsmanship, and the gift of seeing politicians as their world, large or little, sees them, is not given to every caricaturist. It has been said that a good cartoonist can kill a political reputation with a drop of ink,” he wrote.

Referring to Collette, who by then had drawn cartoons for ‘The Times’ for over two years, he said: “Collette’s pointed darts are rarely barbed with malice, and if politicians sometimes squirm that more often share the public’s delight in seeing themselves so titillatingly pilloried.” He identified the one time Royal College art teacher as “a spry cartoonist.”

It was well known that Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela loved Collette’s cartoons and ‘demanded that he be sent the original drawings of some of the cartoons that featured him, for his personal collection. Collette later joined Lake House and drew cartoons for ‘The Observer’ in Editor Tarzie Vittachi era. (He made Australia his home in the early 1960s).

In recent years, time and again collections of cartoons by well known newspaper cartoonists have been published.

‘A Collection of Cartoons by Wijesoma’ appeared in October 1985. It was a selection of cartoons he drew for ‘The Island’ from October 1981. In an introduction, Mervyn de Silva wrote that only a cartoonist knows that his daily chore is like giving birth to a child each day.

“Having had the privilege of watching both Collette and Wijesoma at work, I, for one, understand the labour and the pains. But talent and dedication to the craft alone are not sufficient. What does the cartoonist, besides making us smile or laugh, have to say to us that provoke us into thinking afresh, of looking at a situation or a man or an issue in a new way, a different angle of vision? Given artistic skill, much would depend on the cartoonist’s own ideas, attitudes and personal value,” he said.

This is how Mervyn de Silva saw the two cartoonists. “For all his brilliance, Collette the political cartoonist was too easily dominated by his bosses, publisher and editor, and by the views of the narrow social circle in which he moved. As a social satirist, he was far freer and has produced finer. He belonged nevertheless to a class that was already dying.

“Wijesoma, more independent in his political outlook, and far closer to the much larger community he addresses each day, is therefore the fiercer fighter in attacking and ridiculing what he detests or dislikes, and indirectly in defending whatever deserves and needs to be preserved and protected. As colleague and editor, I watched him at work and admiring the professional and respecting the man.”  Wijesoma (W.R. were his initials which hardly anyone used), representing the common man as Punchi Singho, the popular cartoon character, put out a second volume in 1997. It was a selection of cartoons he drew for the ‘Divaina’ between 1981 and 1996 – a momentous period with killings, abductions and threats to life. “These affected my daily life as well,” he said, adding that the creations during this period would be a mirror of the political history of the time.

Sadly, both Collette and Wijesoma are no more.