The first time I ask Awantha Artigala for an interview, he laughs and says no. This is partly because we communicate in staccato, he in English (my first language) and me in Sinhala (his first language), each of us struggling to frame sentences. So the second time I ask, I decide to go through a friend whom I am hoping will also be an informal referee for me and eventually a translator. Artigala agrees but we don’t manage to meet on the day. His phone is off and none of our mutual acquaintances have heard from him. It is also the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka and everyone, even a newspaper cartoonist, must be allowed to enjoy this long holiday.
When Awantha Artigala pokes his head around the door of an office in central Colombo – where we are to make our second attempt at meeting – my relief is immediate. I almost do not recognise him – the only picture I have seen is from last year, where he stands holding his Cartoonist of the Year trophy at the Editor’s Guild Awards in Sri Lanka. We shake hands nervously – he, because this is the first interview he has agreed to give after declining several other requests, and me because I am going into this cold. Despite the almost ubiquitous popularity of his cartoons in Sri Lanka there is practically no biographical information about Awantha Artigala that I can find anywhere online.
This is odder then you might think at first glance. Artigala is a singular talent. For someone relatively new to game – he published his first piece in 2006 – he has gone further, and faster, than anyone else in his generation. He has won Cartoonist of the Year three times, and today produces an estimated 22 to 25 sketches and illustrations a week for two prominent national newspapers – the Daily Mirror and Ada. (At least 8 to 10 of these are destined to be stand-alone cartoons.) Kesara Abeywardena, his editor at the Daily Mirror, tells me he’s impressed how prolific, yet consistent, Artigala has proved to be, sometimes producing several equally good cartoons at one sitting.
“He thinks in a way that others don’t,” says Abeywardena crediting the cartoonist with generating almost all of his own material. “I think he could match any of the senior cartoonists. He is already one of the best, but he is still quite young. He may even be able to do better.”
Artigala is 34 years old and has a reputation for being intelligent yet self-effacing. I am advised, more than once, to ease him into the interview and so we start with his home: a remote village adjoining the Salgala jungle reserve in the island’s Kegalle district, with a population of some 1500 people.
For much of his childhood, they had no electricity, but Artigala was educated in the local village school. His father worked in the maintenance department of the national railways and his mother kept their home.
The youngest of three children, Artigala remembers the family house was filled with books, newspapers and magazines. It was in these that he first encountered the work of the now iconic Sri Lankan cartoonist Wijerupage Wijesoma; a man who would become, along with cartoonists Collette, Darshana Karunathilaka and Winnie Hettigoda, Artigala’s first guides.
Artigala was nine years old when he drew his first real cartoon. It was the late 1980s, and Sri Lanka was in tumult. A violent insurrection marked by murders, raids and attacks on military and civilian targets by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party and its offshoots was on its way to being brutally crushed by J.R. Jayawardene’s government.
Having absorbed all the conversations around him, Artigala drew a cartoon where a JVP man held a gun to the head of a villager. Brought to his knees, the villager was defiantly exhorting his captor to shoot him, but the latter’s gun was fake – made of wood. (Many insurgents didn’t own weapons in the early years). Artigala’s parents were so frightened of the consequences, if someone from the JVP were to find the drawings, that they burned them. It would be Artigala’s first experience of censorship.
When Artigala first came to work at the Wijeya Newspapers, he had already spent 6 months at home on a break from university, by this point utterly frustrated and disengaged from his studies. The publishing group, one of the biggest and most prominent on the island, was his first choice of employer. To be here, he had left behind a scholarship and a science degree that he was very close to completing.
Although his elder sister and brother had grades good enough to qualify them for university entrance, they had not been able to take up the opportunity, needing to work sooner, to earn money for the family. The youngest, Awantha, was allowed a privilege of higher education that had not been available to his siblings. Knowing this context, I suspect the choice abruptly to deviate from a respectable and probably more lucrative career path had to come from a forceful compulsion.
Gihan de Chickera, a senior cartoonist on the Daily Mirror desk, remembers seeing a selection of Artigala’s earliest drawings. His supervisor, designer Nalin Balasuriya had brought them over. They were simple sketches but showed clear potential – the cross-hatching was particularly skilled. Initially hired to do layout and design, Artigala had of late been putting together small illustrations for the paper. His first break came when he was commissioned to do a sketch for a regular columnist.
Awantha Artigala says he was also at the time experiencing what felt like a rapid, dramatic expansion in his worldview. Staying in the home of a relative in Dehiwala, in the inner Colombo suburbs, he was reading at an enormous rate. (As a young person, he had an unusually earnest taste in books, enjoying the work of Nehru, Gandhi and Dickens; as an adult he nurtures an unabashed love for the films of Charlie Chaplin.) Now, it was a pleasure to follow the advice of his editors on the paper when they recommended he immerse himself in politics and current events. Working on an English language paper although not fluent in English, he could read well enough to come up with ideas for cartoons for the paper.
He also began to develop a visual language that would allow him to communicate complex ideas in a single panel. Artigala relies heavily on the use of symbolism and idiom to voice his largely wordless critique of government. For instance, a red scarf, worn over white national dress, is shorthand for members of the Rajapaksa family and lions and tigers are symbols that stand in for different ethno-religious groups. The shift of power and influence is seen through depictions of nations’ flags which have their colours reversed or their parts scavenged – always by politicians themselves – to indicate shifting allegiances.
The politicians often don sunglasses, look well-fed and smug, while their constituents stand deprived and quivering – they never know everything that’s going on, but they know enough to be afraid.
Many of his techniques are not new, Artigala is simply learning from the best in his field. From Wijesoma, for instance, he learned the art of conveying estimations of power through scale – so while current Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is depicted as physically bigger than former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, both men are overshadowed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gihan de Chickera says this last technique is something he and Artigala have often discussed. In fact, they are part of a team of cartoonists who share a long desk, two computers and three chairs at the Daily Mirror office. The space is a magnet for the journalists around, who love to stop by for a good argument or two.
The cartoons Artigala has produced in the midst of all this reading and debate are distinctively liberal and progressive. In them, he champions the causes of underpaid plantation workers; speaks to the toll of ‘city beautification’ drives on the urban poor; underlines the exploitation of the taxpayer in the service of bigger profits for government cronies and skewers with precision the various hypocrisies of local politicians.
One of his pet peeves is astrology (which is prevalent enough in Sri Lanka to determine the schedules of Presidential elections) and it is in discussing this that he articulates the philosophy that undergirds his work. Not for cartoonists, he says, is the middle path or the objectivity of journalists. Instead, he sees cartoonists in the roles of activists and as shapers of public opinion.
He tells me, with conviction, he believes we can make the world a better place. He is an optimist at heart, and wants nothing more than to make his readers think. Perhaps laugh a bit first, but definitely think. Nowhere does he get more confirmation that he is succeeding than on his Facebook page where he has over 55,000 fans. Every new post is shared widely and greeted with a long chain of comments and arguments. Artigala says he relishes the prospect not only to change minds but have his own changed in return.
Awantha Artigala’s popularity on social media has allowed him to circumvent, to a small degree, the pervasive censorship long experienced by the Sri Lankan media. (The island nation was listed number 4 on 2014’s Impunity Index Rating by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, just behind Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines.) He tells me he suspects that journalists impose too much censorship on themselves but that there is nevertheless a very narrow space within which one can operate.
Last year Awantha Artigala married; his wife Roshima is to be an English teacher. Artigala, who knows his chosen profession is one unlikely ever to pay well, says they intend to live a simple life. He cannot imagine doing anything else for a living. Back home in his village, however, his neighbours haven’t quite reconciled themselves to his profession – on this last visit, one told him gently, “son, its time you get a real job.”
Artigala is hard to offend and genuinely amused by this. He is the first to admit that he has much left to master and is somewhat saddened he cannot pursue a degree in his chosen field in Sri Lanka. His colleagues though, feel he doesn’t need it. De Chickera says he thinks Artigala “is perfectly in the zone.” The former predicted this would be the case five years ago. “I told him he’s going to be the next great cartoonist. We had Collette’s era, we had Wijesoma’s era, but now we are in Artigala’s era.”