EP Unny is an old friend. He happens to be a cartoonist blessed with gentle but mischievous wit. His penchant for the curving line and hence the arabesque bring alive his vision of the world; of people known and unknown, places one may ignore despite their innate but understated beauty. His prose writing too is worthwhile. In its laconic beauty, it can be compared, without any exaggeration, to that of RK Narayan, the poetic chronicler of the ordinary in Malgudi, an imagined, small town in South India.
Unny is, for all his gentleness, a deeply committed being socially and politically. He has been so since his college days when he studied physics conscientiously and also the thoughts of Hegel, Marx and Engels, as was the case with many students in the Left-inclined state of Kerala. It was in that state where the first elected government of the Communist Party of India came to power in 1957; it is another matter that the Congress party at the Centre pulled it down through its dark machinations.
Communists, in their new avatar as the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M), made a comeback, and continue to be the dominant force in Kerala politics to this day. Unny came out of the Left student movement in Kerala in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He always drew well and had a funny bone in him. The foibles of the people around him caught his eye. He published his first cartoon in Shankar’s Weekly of Delhi created by Shankar Pillai, India’s first major cartoonist, and a Keralite of Leftist persuasion.
Unny got his first job with The Hindu in Chennai and was there for a number of years. He came to Delhi in 1989 as the cartoonist of The Sunday Mail, which operated out of a house in Gulmohar Park. His studio was in the kitchen. My friend from school, Gopal Rao, also with The Hindu asked me to meet him. The kitchen-turned-studio at The Sunday Mail intrigued me. Unny, however, was at ease there. We soon became fast friends. He came to see my film on the veteran artist BC Sanyal and our friendship was sealed after he saw its cinematic qualities masked by deceptive simplicity.
Unny’s drawing took on a new fluency after he met Rajinder Puri (1935-2015) who told him that his real strength lay in his flowing lines and that he should avoid shading. Puri was the most powerful and acerbic political cartoonist in India
He continued to draw cartoons - against impossible deadlines - that made you think. He later joined The Economic Times (of the Time of India Group) and worked out of his tiny studio in the newspaper’s building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi.
Unny’s drawing took on a new fluency after he met Rajinder Puri (1935-2015) who told him that his real strength lay in his flowing lines and that he should avoid shading. Puri was the most powerful and acerbic political cartoonist in India. He knew a great deal about drawing cartoons. Unny understood he was on to a good thing and took Puri’s advice. It was thanks to him that I met Puri and continued to seek his friendly guidance till his demise.
It was in Delhi that Unny came up with a masterstroke. He created the graphic persona of an innocent looking, bespectacled newsboy, who, over time, came to represent the Indian every-man in the same manner that RK Laxman’s bald, middle-aged, dhoti-clad common man with glasses came to represent a certain section of the bewildered Indian middle-class in the 1960s and 70s. However, there is a major difference between EP Unny and RK Laxman. Unny, unlike Laxman, is a seriously committed political being. He is not a twice removed commentator on the machinations of Indian politicians playing with the lives of the economically helpless millions. Unny sticks close to the action and comments sensitively, stylishly and perceptively on everyday events.
The two major artistic influences on his development as a well-rounded human being and artiste were G Aravindan, the most poetic of all filmmakers not only in Kerala but also in India in the post Ray-Ghatak era, and the creator of Ramu, a character in a strip cartoon whose life is chronicled over many years, and, Rajinder Puri whose powerfully drawn cartoons and unflinching commitment to a truly free and democratic India could affect even the most cynical of beings.
Unny has an Aravindan-like sense of fun, poetic whimsy and a sure sense of the goings on in the world. Aravindan’s ability to retain his grasp of reality while investing it with humour and poignant poetry in his cartoon strip ‘Ramu’ and then in his films, particularly Esthapan, Kummati, Chidambaram, has left Unny deeply impressed.
Unny is ultimately his own man. Despite his demanding daily cartoons for The Indian Express where he is the Chief Political Cartoonist, he has managed to author a graphic novel in Malayalam; a travel book on Kerala, Spices and Souls; a doodler’s journey through Kerala; Santa and the Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi; and Business as Usual. He is a kind, deeply curious and gifted man.