Early life and education of K. Shankar Pillai
K. Shankar Pillai was born in the year1902 at Kayamkulam, Kerala. He attended schools in Kayamkulam and Mavelikkara and it was there that the sleeping posture of one of his teachers was drawn by him as the first cartoon. He drew the picture at his classroom which made his headmaster terribly angry. However he was encouraged by his uncle who had witnessed great potential in him as a cartoonist. After schooling, he studied painting at Ravi Verma School of Painting at Mavelikara.
Career of K. Shankar Pillai
In 1927, K. Shankar Pillai graduated from the Maharaja's College of Science in Thiruvananthapuram. At this juncture he left for the Law College in 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. K. Shankar Pillai'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 to New Delhi as a staff cartoonist and he continued there till 1946. Thus, he came to settle in Delhi 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 Wellington 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 to London and he spent fourteen months in various Art schools, studying advanced techniques in cartooning. He also took the time to visit major European cities like Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Geneva, and Paris. This must have planted the seed for the international nature of his later projects. When K. Shankar Pillai returned to India, the Indian Freedom struggle had reached its zenith.
Shankar from the beginning took keen interest in dramas, scouting and a flock of literary activities etc. He amazingly did good campaign for the collection of funds towards flood relief. This concern for the poor and the distressed people continued all through his life and reflected in his cartoons. After graduating from the Maharaja's College of Science (now University College), Trivandrum, in 1927, he left for Bombay (now Mumbai) for higher studies and joined join the Law College, but quit his law studies midway and started working.
Contribution of Shankar Pillai
He founded Shankar's Weekly, India's Punch in 1948, which also produced cartoonists like Abu Abraham, Ranga and Kutty, he closed down the magazine in 1975 due to the Emergency then on he focus exclusively on children's work. But the children of his times- are it in India or elsewhere in the world, see him as their uncle who did much to make them laugh and enjoy life. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 1976, India's second highest civilian honour given by the Govt. of India. Today he is most remembered for setting up Children's Book Trust established 1957 and Shankar's International Dolls Museum in 1965.
Myth has it that Malayalees are in general humorists and the special Malayalee humour is always present when a few get together to shoot the breeze. Malayalam Literature is gifted with several whose humour and wit have enlivened their literary outputs and refreshed our lives. The love of humour 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.
After Independence, the time was propitious for Shankar to realize his dream of a separate periodical. In 1948, the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru released Shankar's Weekly, edited by Shankar himself. Its sparkling wit and humour 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 in India 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 favourable 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 is 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 sceptical 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 the International Dolls Museum, the Dolls Designing and Production Centre, 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 collections 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, which 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 of India and every honour is well deserved. Shankar received the Indian honours of Padma Shri in 1956, Padma Bhushan in 1966, and Padma Vibhushan in 1976. The University of Delhi awarded 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, the Hamilton branch of the United Nations Association in Canada conferred 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 because 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 the literary pedestal the gift of laughter showing one and all 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.
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