In Conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene

Political cartoons in the contemporary have adapted from their nascent forms within the traditional columns of print journalism. Variants—from social media posts to protest signs—continue to endure in the contemporary context through the growing relevancy of social criticism as a means of accountability, especially from the public domain towards institutional and elected ones. By utilizing satire as a vehicle for political criticism, political cartoons serve as a critical aspect of the check-and-balancing system journalism foundationally embodies concerning state and social affairs.

In exploring the satirical works of Bevis Bawa, Aubrey Collette and Gihan de Chickera in ARTRA’s Comics & Caricatures Edition, we had the opportunity to converse with award-winning journalist Nalaka Gunawardene, as he insightfully delved into the significance of cartoons in the contemporary era, drawing parallels between the works of Collette and de Chickera, and expounded the perpetual necessity of political cartoons as an alternate form of journalism within state paradigms of censorship.

Q | What aspects do cartoon drawings capture poignantly, in comparison to other forms of expressions in journalism, in your opinion? What components make it work for potent critique?

Journalism’s role is to report, analyse and comment on unfolding events as well as underlying processes that shape such ‘news events’. In the wider sense, journalism is a quest for bearing witness, asking questions, and holding power to account – all done in the public interest. The outputs of journalism can be in textual, visual, audio-visual, or multimedia formats. Along with photojournalism and infographics, political or editorial cartoons are a part of visual journalism. Early cartoonists caricatured and lampooned public figures and sometimes institutions like Parliament and monarchy; issue-based cartooning that captures societal trends or disparities emerged later. While there are many and varied cartooning styles, they use common elements like parody, symbolism, exaggeration, labelling, analogy and irony to evoke humour or scepticism. Editorial cartoons are effective because they excel in their economy of words by saying so much with so little, sometimes with no words at all! The level of satire – in cartoons, standup comedy and satirical drama – tolerated in a society is also a good barometer of its free speech. Cartooning blurs the line between factual reporting and creative license to scorn and ridicule public figures and institutions including those regarded as ‘sacred cows’ (in Sri Lanka, these include the military and clergy).

As I have argued, in autocracies as well as immature democracies such as ours, critical journalists and editors face various acts of physical, legal and digital harassment for simply doing their work. When direct criticism becomes too hazardous, satire and parody become important – and sometimes the only – ways for journalists to get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads. Little wonder that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest socio-political commentary is found in editorial cartoons created by around two dozen cartoonists and in the works of a handful of satirical writers. Most others have adopted some level of self-censorship to safeguard themselves.

Q | In your opinion, what is the significance of the caricatures and drawings of Aubrey Collette in reflecting pre-independence & near post-independence Sri Lanka? Are his works still relevant in reflecting today’s predicament of Sri Lanka, in any way?

Aubrey Collette (1921-1992) was both an acclaimed artist and a leading editorial cartoonist just before and shortly after Ceylon’s independence. Although he was not the first cartoonist on the island, he was an early creator who soon became one of the most popular and formidable figures in that craft.

By the very nature of their work, cartoonists can become controversial, and Collete was no exception. Looking up his legacy decades after he worked and published in Ceylon, I find he had received both bouquets and brickbats.

As one description says, he had been “capable of cutting deeply but never maliciously. Collette had the rare and splendid gift of observation: to remember a foible, to swiftly size up a characteristic, and enjoy having summed up the hapless one who had fortuitously wandered into his sights”.

Other assessments focus on his lampooning of nascent Sinhala nationalism in the 1950s, faulting him for failing to appreciate the emergence of an indigenous cultural ethos after 450 years of colonialism. He clearly didn’t endear himself to Sinhala and Tamil politicians fanning the flames of populist, ethno-religious politics, which eventually forced him to leave Ceylon in 1961 and migrate to Britain and then Australia.

But looking at his cartoons in the public domain, I can see Collette was remarkably prescient in anticipating the deep polarisation in our society and the decades of self-destruction by divisive politics. I wonder…what if we were a more tolerant society that accommodated the likes of Aubrey Collette, and what if our leaders at the time had heeded his cautions?

Q | Please share your perspective on Gihan de Chickera’s work, and the role it plays in characterizing compelling political/social/economic critique of today.

Gihan de Chickera is one of the finest editorial cartoonists in Sri Lanka today. He says he was inspired by the works of the late W R Wijesoma (1925-2006) who drew editorial cartoons for over half a century starting in 1947. As a fan of both cartoonists, I can see parallels between the two, even though the socio-political milieu and media reality that Gihan works in is quite different.

If post-independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka was not as pluralistic as a democratic society should have been, post-war (2009 onward) Sri Lanka has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. Today’s threats to free expression come not only from our overbearing state but also from ultra-nationalist groups and religious zealots. Navigating this treacherous environment requires editorial cartoonists to be courageous, creative and artful. Gihan de Chickera rises well to this challenge as evidenced by his many bold and perceptive cartoons published in Daily Mirror over the past dozen or so years.

In an interview with Sanjana Hattotuwa in 2014, Gihan talked about how visual metaphors and innuendo, in the service of political cartoons, can help get a message across that in another form may be censored, or result in violent reprisals. Three years later, in January 2017, Gihan and I were able to explore this further during a panel discussion on cartooning and free expression organised by Alliance Française de Kotte in Colombo. I was curious to know whether there were any topics, groups or individuals who are ‘off-limits’ from satire or critique. The case in point was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as (unelected) secretary to the Ministry of Defence from 2005 to 2014 when his brother Mahinda was President.

Gihan acknowledged how every cartoonist had avoided drawing Gotabaya and added that post-2015 when freedom of expression was enjoying a resurgence under the yahapalana government, clergy was the main group that remained off-limits from satire. “The clergy are sometimes dangerous to touch, but…we can lampoon clergy who are directly involved in the public sphere and who are seen as politicians and leaders.”

While this shows how cartoonists rely on context and changing realities in society, they need not be captive to ephemeral politics or current affairs alone. Gihan overcomes this limitation by often focusing on structural inequalities in our society. As he said at the 2017 panel, “I try to draw cartoons from a rights perspective so that they would enhance or support the rights of a group whose rights are being denied.”

Some of Gihan’s most memorable cartoons in recent years have highlighted the denial or violation of human rights of ethnoreligious minorities; women and children; migrant workers; Malaiyaha Tamils working in the plantation sector; those unjustly incarcerated; and the poor. Some of these cartoons will remain relevant for years to come because, sadly, the disparities and inequalities are entrenched.

Q | With the advent of new media in the last couple of years, how have cartoon drawings and caricatures taken on new life or form, in your opinion – if at all? Do you find the core characteristics of caricatures and drawings influencing new forms of expression with the same premise in new media?

Editorial cartoons have long been an integral component of editorial commentary in newspapers and magazines in democratic societies. During the past quarter century, the proliferation of the internet and social media have enabled cartoonists to find new audiences as well as organise themselves in regional or global networks.

Meanwhile, digital and web tools help cartoonists in their creative process, enhancing the visual appeal and reducing some tedious aspects of their work. They also enable cartoonists to experiment with new mixed-media formats including short animations. While the core values of editorial cartooning remain the same, there are more ways of expressing and engaging today’s increasingly distracted audiences.

But the abundance of digital tools does not, in my view, lead to a surfeit of editorial cartoonists because this is a specialised art that combines drawing skills with the ability to satirise and a heightened sense of political sensibility.

Nalaka Gunawardene was an award-winning journalist in Sri Lanka for several years before turning to development communication at an Asian regional level. As a journalist, Nalaka has worked with English language national newspapers, as well as radio and TV, in a range of roles including news reporter, feature writer, science editor, TV/radio host and commissioning editor of documentaries on science and development. His op-eds on science communication have appeared in English newspapers and magazines across Asia.

In a curated collection of over 60 caricature and cartoon drawings from Aubrey Collette, Bevis Bawa and Gihan de Chickera, ARTRA Magazine’s latest Comics & Caricatures Edition consists of works published and exhibited from 1946 to September 2023. Each work was selected on its importance in addressing a critical question of the time in expert draughtsmanship and creative prowess, alongside exclusive literary articles by venerated writers dissecting the nuances and potency of these works, including The Potency of Satire in Comics and Caricatures, The Bawa of Brief, among others.


20th December, 2023 Visual Art | Paintings