Azara Jaleel

Aubrey Collette, 1987, Lionel Wendt, Taprobane Collection

"The powers of observation which go to the makings of these drawings are all the more remarkable in that they are done ‘off the cuff’ ”stated critic Jayanta Padmaha, in his review of Aubrey Collette’s exhibition ‘1954 Faces’ published in the Ceylon Observer on the 31st of October, 1954. Included in that exhibition were the drawings featured on this edition of ARTRA Magazine of Tarzie Vitachi on page 2, through which the famed journalist’s occupation and an insinuation of his intellectual prowess is portrayed by his concentrated engagement with the typewriter whilst W. M. Joseph popularly known as Sooty Banda, is illustrated with his characteristic long beard on page 8 for his humorous column of trilingual verse ‘Take is Easy’ and on page 6, Aubrey Weinman the naturalist who was the first director of the Colombo Zoological Gardens (1947-1962) who introduced people to more foreign and native species and created conservation programs during his service is depicted alongside a baby elephant while carrying his walking stick on his left. One may ask, of what importance are these particular caricatures to us today? A celebration of imminent personalities of Ceylon of which one was the youngest editor of the Ceylon Observer, the oldest newspaper in Sri Lanka or more so, a documentation of the lives of culturally important figures who brought a sense of social enrichment to society. Whilst these works of Collette are evidently void of malice and are indicative of exemplary personalities of the times, his drawings of the political figures are seeped in farcical skepticism and sheer mockery as reflected in the first few pages and thereafter.

Satire, certainly is the most potent tool through which Collette delivers his critique upon his figures of political importance. When observed closely, Collette’s caricatures are satirical in essence in an indirect form than those of his cartoon drawings which are more direct in delivery. On page 4, the caricature of former prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike with a disgruntled look on his face, bearing a sword in his hand can be read as the symbol that reflected the consequence of the Official Language Act (No.33 of 1956) that he implemented which is commonly referred to as the Sinhala Only Act that replaced English with Sinhala as the sole official language with the exclusion of Tamil. This act inadvertantly forced an exodus of the Burgher community away from Sri Lanka and spurred the beginnings of the racial tensions in the country. Whilst his critique through satire is in-direct in delivery in the caricature, his cartoon drawing on page 40 that includes himself at the end of the line with a distressed and disheartened facial expression portray powerfully his direct critique of the consequence of the Official Language Act.

Collette’s drawing of the seven former prime ministers since independence including D. S. Senanayake (1947 -1952), Dudley Senanayake (19521953), (1965-1970), Sir John Lionel Kotalawala (1953-1956), S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1956-1959) W. Dahanayake (1959-1960) Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1960-1965) & J.R Jayawardene which are featured across the first few spreads of this edition are stupendous renditions of their exaggerated personalities that dissect and distort at the same time. Collette’s works are exceptional for his portraits which are not only simple, but also satirical with an exceptional mixture of representing the quirks whilst also maintaining a distance from the subject to stay objective. Neville Weeraratne (1993) states “Some of Collette’s views may have seemed cruel at the time for all the self-importance and arrogance of politicians and bureaucrats, but in the end he saw them for what they were – thoroughly vulnerable in their humanity and not a little pathetic.” 

Collette’s cartoon drawings spread across the magazine provide an eagle-eyed truth about the corruptions of the government. Hardly subtle, many of his cartoon drawings critiqued matters pertaining to the education system, consequences of the free education policy implemented by C.W.W. Kannangara who was then the Minister of Education, rising cost of living coupled with the threat of increased taxes and land reforms to name a few. In Weeraratne’s essay Collette’s Cullings’ (1993) the writer states Collette told S. P. Amarasingham that while still a teacher “the Times of Ceylon saw fit to publish my cartoons, but this soon brought me into conflict with the then Minister of Education and the Public Service Regulations, and I was compelled to leave Royal College and join the staff of the Times as a fulltime cartoonist.” Signifying a form of censorship, it was evident that connections to government or business only vary by levels of explicitness. Collette later contributed his political drawings of the ‘Ceylon Observer’ and ‘Daily News’. In 1961, Collette was forced to leave the country due to snowballing resentment towards his political cartoons, after which he lived the rest of his life in Australia working as a cartoonist, and thereafter, died in 1992.

Aubrey Collette, Unknown, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Malaka Talwatte Collection

Around the same time as Collette, lived Bevis Bawa - who was a social satirist. Bevis’s satirical writing along with his caricatures also won the favor of Sri Lankan society through the 1980s. His sharp wit and authenticity captured the hearts and minds of his peers. Bawa’s humorous anecdotes expressed collective emotions of the nation during his time whilst Aubrey Collette’s works had a piercing eye towards the politicians of the day, leaving no confusion on his stance on the subject matter. Bawa’s satire was expressed both in the visual and written form holding a mirror to the foibles and vices of the colonial regiment and Victorian society. Bevis’s satirical works are farcical and good humored, provoking mirth in a candid and entertaining manner. He wrote “The British eat far less than we  do, but their eating is more selective and they know exactly what to drink with what they eat. They probably haven’t forgotten what’s best for one’s digestive organs because they haven’t had 2500 years in which to forget it”  to everyone’s delight, in one of his articles ‘A paper ball hit H. E in the Tummy’ published in the Ceylon Daily News, which was thereafter republished in the publication Briefly by Bevis (1985) that was compiled by Bawa himself and published by Sapumal Foundation. 

Bawa’s satire is also seeped in irony in his written work - if one looks closely, he brings attention to a circumstance or person while illuminating a characteristic to emphasize a humorous effect. In one of his articles republished in the aforementioned publication, Briefly by Bevis titled ‘Sir Andrew versus the Futility of Life’ he writes “One often runs into small gatherings of young people now-adays who call themselves ‘intellectuals’… They have a liberal contempt for money of which they have a liberal supply from ever loving Ma or Pa…They talk of the ‘futility of life’ though they have not suffered a single day’s of hardship other than a difficult day they brought about themselves…I can understand the many young lads, who having spent days, months, perhaps years in finding a job and having got one, leaving home at the crack of dawn to travel endless miles by rail or bus to return in the same monotonous way to a frugal dinner – thinking of the futility of life – but they don’t think of ‘futility’…I must stop this-it sounds far too like a sermon- this futility business makes my blood boil – FUTILITY MY FOOT!”.

Bawa’s writing is cleverly coupled with satirical slanders whilst also, censuring the vices and follies of society by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque and parody, which is translated in his caricatures as well. L.C Van Geyzel commenting on his exhibition of caricatures that took place in 1981 at the Sapumal Foundation, stated “Bevis Bawa is best known as a landscape gardener and the beautiful gardens at Brief that surround his charming house…Obscured by this, is a talent of a different sort; satirical, critically observant and rich with full blooded humour…, I can remember seeing this talent in operation only once. It was at a party in the old room at the Arts Centre Club when a very caricaturable person happened to also be there. Bevis, six foot seven perched rather unsteadily on a bar stool with the stump of a pencil produced from goodness knows where and working very fast on a small scrap of paper; in a couple of minutes the victims head was placed on a bar counter; a swift and painless execution, and very funny indeed”.

The caricatures of Bevis Bawa spread across this edition of the magazine are an amusing group of people of social importance, whom Bevis called ‘friends’. His caricature of Yvonne Gulamhusein on page 11 in which her neck is in a native African necklace that stretches her neck and extends her head to the size of a house is a rather grotesque representation of this glamourous socialite of the time, that is juxtaposed with Collette’s caricature of Gulamhusein for dramatic play, and of course for readers to compare and contrast depicted nuances with ease. Whilst Gulamhusein’s head resembled a mushroom in Bawa’s drawing, her protruding lips in Collette’s drawing satirically slander her own vanity. The caricature of Colonel C. P. Jayawardene on page 15 shows him standing sturdy as a bull in front of a scrawny soldier, who looks malnourished and about to faint whilst Sir John Kotalawela stands erect like Napolean in his formal regalia, which he takes a lot of pride in all grandeur. Whilst both Bawa’s and Collette’s caricatures and cartoon drawings belonged to the time frame of the larger portion of the mid-1900s of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Gihan de Chickera’s works are of today’s Sri Lanka. As Joseph Learoyd (2019) explains anthropomorphism is the ascription of human form or human traits to any nonhuman object; allowing for the viewers to identify with the characters in finding shared interest. Very often, anthropomorphism allows artists to explore dark subject matter in a lighter tone of which the cartoon drawings of Gihan de Chickera are seeped in anthropomorphic representation to express his socio-political views. He takes the anthropomorphic signifier that humans have attributed to specific species and uses them in his expression of satire, including a dangerous tiger or a timid mouse, if one looks closely at his cartoon drawings spread across this edition of the magazine.

Gihan de Chickera, 2018, Untitled [Cartoon]. Daily Mirror, 27 April

In fact, anthropomorphism gives a psychological distancing from the issue or the person portrayed, and therefore; removes the weighty impact that real characters would place on the viewers of the situation. There is less censorship to contend with due to this factor. In the paper ‘Animals as Character: Anthropomorphism as Personality in Animation’, Pippa Tshabalala (2013) states that “Animals in animation are used in a very decisive way, they are often either an image of satire than adults can interpret, or silly animals aimed at children, however, there is a history that has determined these factors, and rules of how to use these characters as created by the animators that have used them over the years”. Moreover, she states that in graphic storytelling, “there is little time or space for character development. The use of these animal-based stereotypes speeds the reader into the plot and gives the teller reader-acceptance for the action of his characters.” Unlike Aubrey Collette or Bevis Bawa whose caricatures are direct in delivery, de Chickera’s perspectives on political issues and politicos are more often embellished with innuendos and visual metaphors that evoke character recognition through anthropomorphism. The cartoon drawing of the leopard with targets instead of spots featured on page 49 evokes the tragedy of wildlife overkill whilst also referring to Tamil activists who are still under attack by the powers that rule the country.

Gihan’s cartoon drawings are characterized by aggression. The cartoon drawing featured on page 28 of a large politician sitting comfortably in his expensive-looking vehicle, while an ordinary, rather scrawny-looking layman runs as fast as possible to make the tires go round emphasizes dramatically the corrupt, and abusive behaviors of those in power to the civilians of this country who are struggling to make a living. Though there is no particular politician or working man being targeted, the point is taken by the viewer. Again, the cartoon of a female writer tipping the balance of Justice with the MeToo movement, while a giant politician looks down at her with contempt on page 27 highlights de Chickera’s use of posture and symbolism to imply injustice thereby avoiding censorship or any violent backlash very cleverly. In 2012, Gihan de Chickera won The Cartoonist of the Year Award for his works published in 2011 at the Journalism Awards for Excellence. Gihan won a Merit Award from the same in 2015.

Satire serves as a form of justice for all, by exposing the truth potently. For this many satirists have paid a high price, like Aubrey Collette who was forced to leave Sri Lanka or like many others, who have had to deal with violence. ‘Threats of attacks and actual incidents of physical violence in recent years led to a climate of fear and widespread self-censorship among journalists in Sri Lanka. This is slowly changing now, but old habits die hard’, states Nalaka Gunawardena (2016) renowned media professional, whose interview for  this edition of ARTRA Magazine’s ‘Comics and Caricatures’ explores the manner through which the advent of new media has influenced cartoon drawing and its core characteristics.

The principle attribute of the works of featured artists of this edition Gihan de Chickera, Bevis Bawa and Aubrey Collette is satire, wherein through inventive use of of innuendo, visual metaphors, anthropomorphism, pure wit and sarcasm, critique insufficiencies of human behavior and the societal issues which result from them, in such a way that they become ludicrous, even comical, whilst also reaching a wide audience. Although satire has the ability to protect its creator from liability for reproach, because it is implied rather than overtly stated; it becomes a powerful tool for artists in difficult or oppressive political and social periods. Thus, isn’t it safe to say that comics and caricatures are here to stay?

18th November, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings