Ethnic issue: Terrorism or Democracy

Island

War was not an ethnic issue, it was a conflict between terrorism and democracy’ 

Ammaipillai Yogamoorthy

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At the risk of sounding cliché, he started showing artistic talent at an early age, like most cartoonists featured in Pen Pricks. Although his childhood ambition was to become a doctor, his first comics were published in Veerakesari and the Indian newspaper, Swadesamitran when he was in year 9 at school.

He had his primary education in Sithivinayagar Vidyalayam, Point Pedro and secondary education at Puloly Boys’ School, Jaffna. He had an uncanny knack for cartoonizing his teachers and school mates, which was encouraged by his teachers. He learned Sinhala under Sumanananda Thera at Jaffna Naga Vihara. “My main source of income is translations and my Sinhala lessons at Naga Vihara was influential,” said the veteran.

Thinakkural political cartoonist Ammaipillai Yogamoorthy, Moorthy for short, is one of the longest standing political cartoonists of the country. He joined Thinakkural in 1997 and has done some 5,000 daily political cartoons to date. He won gold medals from Sri Lanka Asian Media Foundation in 2008 and 2010; Tamil Media Alliance, Best Cartoonist award in 2004 and runner-up in Tamil medium Best Cartoonist of the Year award in 2004, conferred by the Sri Lanka Press Institute and The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. Moorthy was a member of the London Political cartoon society from 2004 to 2010.

He tried his hand at professional cartoons when he joined the fortnightly Tamil satirical magazine, Siritharan, back in the 60’s. The magazine’s founding Editor, R. Sundaralingam became Moorthy’s mentor, influential in him later deciding to follow in Sundar’s footsteps. “Sundar insisted I continue to cartoon even after he dies,” said Moorthy, reminiscing his mentors words.

Moorthy joined the government clerical service in 1966, stationed in Chavakachcheri, Jaffna. In 1984, he started his own agribusiness, while freelancing for Tamil papers. After his business collapsed he joined Thinakkural in 1997 and has never looked back since. He pioneered Tamil political cartoons, a medium not featured in Tamil newspapers until then. He still works at Thinakkural as a political cartoonist and translator.

However, he by no means restricts himself to political cartoons. “Rural Tamil community believes that retired clerks get around a lot, therefore are erudite,” Moorthy explained the basis of Clerk Kandasami, his social criticism cartoon. Clerk Kandasami, is a social reformer, who discusses social phenomena that have an immediate impact on Tamil culture. “For example most Tamils work abroad and send money to their parents in Sri Lankan. The parents waste their children’s hard earned money to maintain their bad habits such as alcoholism.”

His common man, unlike Camillus’ Silibibiris, Thalangama Jayasinghe’s A-Thuma, Hapuwalana’s Suwaris or Saradam and Wijesoma’s Punchi Sinno or Citizen Silva, is nameless.

Moorthy has an inherent Tamil cartoon style, that is unique in that it is flat and two dimensional. His characters are crude, yet readily identifiable and the facial expressions vivid. Although his earlier cartoons were rife with text he has reduced it to a minimum, keeping in step with the times.

When asked how the industry climate has changed in the two decades, Moorthy said that unlike the old days, cartoons and graphics can be computer generated. “But what’s important is not the method of drawing, but the message, specifically the political message a cartoon attempts to convey.” Moorthy observed that most of today’s cartoons are superficial. “They have substituted cheap humour for serious political message.”

When asked about the level of political influence exercised today as compared to the 90’s, Moorthy said that he is hardly intimidated by political influence and only reacts to the existing political situation in the country, in his cartoons. Moorthy plays no favourites but has a soft spot for Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he says had a good rapport with artists. Moorthy has drawn over 1,000 cartoons of MR.

“Cartoons are illustrated comments,” said Moorthy, when asked why cartoons are important. He pointed out that the significance of cartoons is never more evident than in the daily cartoon readings of newspaper reading TV shows. “Irrespective of social stature or cast, everybody’s interested in politics and the public, in general, is well-informed. And the message in any cartoon can be easily grasped at a glance by even the least educated person.”

He reiterated that a cartoonist must not be politically influenced or driven. “A cartoon must reflect the country’s real political situation. A cartoonist must mediate political issues in a neutral manner.”

When asked whether there is there freedom of expression, specially for a Tamil cartoonist, in Sri Lanka, Moorthy pointed out that Cartoons in itself is a result of freedom of expression. “Not even my Editor interferes with my cartoons.”

When asked how he deals with racism and religion, being a Tamil cartoonist, Moorthy said, “For any conflict, ethnic or otherwise, the spiritual approach is more effective than the political.” Moorthy considers himself a spiritual man than a political animal. Extremist ideals have no place in his cartoons.

When asked whether Sinhala and Tamil cartoons differ, Moorthy said, “Not much. They deal with the same politics. Cartoons differ according to the cartoonist’s political ideologies rather than his race or religion.” He pointed out that even war has been blown out of proportion. “It’s not an ethnic problem, it’s not even a political problem. The war was a conflict between terrorism and democracy.” He pointed out that the exact nature of the conflict has been ignored by Sri Lankan cartoons, giving it a satirical spin.