Abu Abraham (1924-2002): A saga of courage

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

ABU ABRAHAM often used to recount how David Astor, the legendary Editor of The Observer, London, hired him to be the first regular political cartoonist of the Sunday newspaper in 1956.

Early Years

The Observer was then at the height of its influence and prestige in Britain and Abraham, then 32, was an up-and-coming Indian cartoonist in London “in search of fame and fortune”. His work in Britain until then had included drawings for Punch and a couple of caustic political cartoons for the socialist weekly The Tribune, which was then edited by Michael Foot. In March that year, soon after his second drawing appeared in The Tribune, Astor personally wrote to Abraham expressing admiration for his work and offering him a permanent job and exposure to a larger audience in The Observer.

Abraham was astonished by the letter. Never in its long history had The Observer had a regular political cartoon and he could not imagine that it wanted him to be its cartoonist. The newspaper had a long list of distinguished intellectuals on its staff, for whom Astor was a father figure. As Astor had proposed in his letter, Abraham went to see him in his office.

In a remembrance article later he wrote about Astor, Abraham recalled their meeting thus: “He didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw an Indian walking in. He pulled out a chair for me, brought his own chair from behind his desk and sat on it back to front, leaning on its back with his arms. This put me at ease. After a little preliminary chat, he came to the point. He said: “I want to buy you out of Tribune.” He told me the terms and said he could give me a letter of appointment the next day.”

Sheer talent was Abraham’s fortune. Few Indians, least of all political cartoonists, could hope to get such a prized job at that time in the British capital. The Observer is Britain’s oldest newspaper and is also the first successful Sunday newspaper in that country.

After Abu Abraham died in Thiruvananthapuram on December 1, Michael Foot wrote in The Guardian (December 7, 2002) about how he felt in 1956, when Abraham left his newspaper after only a couple of cartoons. “We understood at once how rare and valuable was Abu’s talent and how lucky we were that he had come to us on The Tribune first. Within a week or two of his first appearance on our pages, I heard a famous voice familiar to me offering Abu another job. It was David Astor, the Editor of The Observer in its greatest days, promising Abu a much wider audience and more lucrative reward than anything we could match. My wife Jill, overhearing our conversation, was quite surprised at the sharp tone of my exchange with David. Normally we were the best of friends. And soon, too, Abu did have the chance of reaching a wider audience.”

Journey to England

Abraham had a modest career at the time he was first noticed in India. He was born in a middle-class household in Mavelikkara in south Kerala and began drawing caricatures and cartoons when he was a boy. He graduated in mathematics from the University College in Thiruvananthapuram in 1945 and joined The Bombay Chronicle as a reporter and also contributed cartoons for the newspaper. He also worked as a freelancer for Blitz weekly and another newspaper, Bharat. In 1951 he joined the Shankar’s Weekly, the widely read journal which was considered then to be a springboard for budding journalists and writers, as its staff cartoonist. His work in Shankar’s Weekly was widely appreciated and it gave, perhaps, him the inspiration to accept the invitation of visiting journalist and cartoonist Fred Jose, who suggested that he try his luck in London.

As he recalled in an interview later, soon after being in London he sold a few of his cartoons to a tabloid, The Sketch. Abu then began contributing cartoons and drawings to Punch and The Eastern World, before Astor invited him to join The Observer. He mainly contributed political cartoons and illustrations that accompanied political articles. Abraham worked as The Observer’s regular political cartoonist for nearly 10 years. After that, he worked for three years at The Guardian of London, a place where, he said, he “learned to draw fast”.

Abraham soon came to be widely recognised and was known simply as Abu, a signature as economical as his drawings. Astor played a part in the choice of this pen name. Soon after he joined The Observer, Astor revealed to Abraham that he had thought, from his name, that he was a central European Jewish emigre. When Abraham presented his first cartoon, Astor explained that with the name Abraham, his cartoons on the Middle East (West Asia), for example, would unnecessarily seem to have a bias. It was a time when the Arab-Israeli struggle was at its height and Abraham therefore suggested he could sign as `Abu’. Astor was happy and commented that his pen name was “suitably mysterious”. Most people would come to know Abraham Mathew only by the name Abu.

abu 2.jfif

It is a reflection of Abu’s standing among Britain’s cartoonists that one of his cartoons for The Observer was high on the list of “Great Election Cartoons”, a selection of vintage cartoons by great cartoonists including Vicky (Victor Weisz), Wally Fawkes and Cummings, published recently by The Guardian. That particular cartoon of Abu was published in The Observer of September 13, 1959. It makes fun of the huge Conservative party advertising campaign that featured a series of posters with images of prosperity and the claim “Life is better with the Conservatives, Don’t let Labour ruin it.” In Abu’s 1959 cartoon, billposters Hailsham and Charles Hill are pasting a banner on a London street claiming that even the glorious summer weather of 1959 was the handiwork of the Conservatives and asking voters not to let “Labour ruin it”.

In an obituary article, The Guardian (December 7, 2002) recalled: “His style of drawing was astonishing and singular. It was utterly contemporary but as lithe as the decorative linearity of the 16th and 17th century Mughal courts of Akbar and Jehangir, hinting without excess at arabesque and curlicue, and as expressive as the hand movements of a classical Indian dancer... He was quiet and modest, qualities not especially noticeable around newspaper offices, but he liked people and was a party-going animal. He would dearly have loved to have become the main political cartoonist on The Guardian, but openings were few and editors at the time preferred the more robust style of cartoonists in the mode of David Low or Vicky. Maybe readers preferred that too, but it seemed a missed opportunity when Abu returned to India in 1969.”

Return to India and beginning of ‘Private View’

According to Michael Foot, Abu was persuaded to return to India over an argument about the “worldwide racist disease”. Foot wrote in The Guardian after Abu’s death: “A cartoon he did for us on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been denounced by some of our readers as racist. Never was the slander more ill-judged. Like his friend and mentor Vicky, he was always a true internationalist to the fingertips. Their knowledge and inspiration on that supreme question never failed.”

Abu came back to India in 1969, when his reputation was at its peak, and he joined Indian Express in New Delhi. He later became one of the most vicious critics of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency regime. His pocket cartoon `Private View’, featuring two Congress netas, one short and fat and the other lean and tall, was a commentary on the serious flipside of Indian politics for over 12 years and was eagerly received by millions of readers. Despite the sparse lines, the directness of expression and the stinging, satirical captions, his cartoons had caught the imagination of a generation of newspaper readers in India.

Emergency years

Abu was unsparing in his criticism and often earned much-admired disfavour for his commentaries on Indian politics, its leaders and society. During the Emergency, Abu remained one of the shining examples of professionalism and courage, and his cartoons of that period have a heroic status in the history of Indian journalism. Despite his initial personal acquaintance with Indira Gandhi, he became an unsparing critic of her authoritarian and ambitious streak and daring the censors presented her and her courtiers in proper light. At a time when the press was censored, critics were being jailed and journalists were falling silent, Abu’s cartoons came to be referred to as “single-line editorials”.

The publication of one of Abu’s most memorable cartoons during the Emergency was blocked by the censors. Dated July 14, 1975, it showed the two Congressmen in `Private View’ holding up a placard saying `THE END IS NEAR’ and a note underneath which proclaimed: “WE’RE OPTIMISTS.” The reader was typically left to smile and wonder what the optimism was all about. Another showed President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing ordinances even in his bathtub.

Perhaps his reputation protected him; he was not jailed for being so fearless. As Abu recalled in a recent interview, Indira Gandhi had told him once during the Emergency, when he criticised the mugging of press freedom, that “what was being implemented was not her idea of censorship at all”. But her Information and Broadcasting Minister V.C. Shukla, while justifying the Emergency to journalists, had said that censorship was needed “to stop the spread of rumour”. Abu’s historic retort, which most newspapers published the next day, was: “But why do you want to stop the spread of humour?” A few days later, the Prime Minister’s office announced that cartoons need not be submitted any longer to the censors. Abu’s cartoons during that period has been collected into a popular volume called The Games of Emergency.

Abu once said in an interview that he was surprised one day when, despite being an unsparing critic of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she sent a messenger to his residence in 1972 to announce that he was being nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He was a Rajya Sabha member until 1978.

The abiding themes of his cartoons and in his newspaper columns in later years were the argument for a secular India and disapproval of the increasing division of Indian society on communal and sectarian lines and of the Hindutva brigade that came to power in the country. Abu considered the introduction of the Sanskrit news bulletin in All India Radio as his contribution as a Rajya Sabha member. In early 2001, when the BJP government proposed to introduce Sanskrit in schools and universities as a compulsory subject, Abu turned a virulent critic of the move.

In his incisive style, Abu wrote in one of his columns: “If anything can kill Sanskrit, it is the type of misguided enthusiasm that Murli Manohar Joshi has been exhibiting lately... In Murli Manohar Joshi’s hands, Sanskrit, along with Vedic astrology, is likely to become a tool with which to promote a type of education that fits with the philosophy of the RSS. In the search for our glorious cultural past, and our `spirituality’, we will be promoting obscurantism. Far from uniting Indian society, which Sanskrit can do, it will divide it along the lines of Hindutva and Brahmin hegemony.”

Cartoons on World Affairs

A great strength of Abu’s cartoons and writings was their enduring impact. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Abu’s cartoon was a plaque on the White House wall that read: “Richard M. Nixon lied here 1964-1972.” In 1974, during the caste-driven elections in Uttar Pradesh, Abu’s pocket cartoon had its two characters before a polling box, which was kept under the banner “Vote your caste here”. Any Indian newspaper could have run the cartoon again today, with as much impact, on the eve of the elections in Gujarat. A recent column, criticising US President George Bush for being “recklessly unconnected to Middle Eastern reality” was titled `Ignorance is Bush’.

Abu made an animated film No Arks, which won a British Film Institute special award in 1970. He has published three books titled Bangladesh (1972), The Games of Emergency (1977) and Arrivals and Departures (1983).

Abu was a quiet, contemplative person and in the early 1990s returned to his native Kerala because he said that everywhere else, he missed “the temple bells, festivals and the scent of jasmine, all the senses and tastes”.

He was sick of the environmental and political pollution in Delhi but continued to syndicate cartoons and columns to various newspapers from his Laurie Baker-built house `Saranam’, in Thiruvananthapuram. To an interviewer who asked him recently if he could in any way relate his work to his elegant home, Abu replied: “Like my writings and drawings, my home too has a lot of space and light.”

He died at a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on December 1, at the age of 78, following a brief illness. Abu is survived by his British-born wife Psyche whom he married after his divorce from Sarojini, who hailed from Tamil Nadu. He has two daughters Aysha, an artist in Bangalore, and Janaki, a student at Delhi University.

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