24 November 2016

Camillus: the compassionate and trenchant fellow-citizen

What does a cartoonist have in common with a soccer player?   Deftness, certainly.  An eye for line and space.  Innovation.  Not all soccer players can draw and not all artists can dribble a football.  Kurukulasuriya Eligious Camillus Perera could do both.  He’s long since hung up his boots, but his brushes are still fresh, as is his wit, political acumen and sense of humour.  

Camillus, as he is known to anyone who has been reading newspapers over the past 50 years, was born on December 1, 1939 in Negombo and was the eldest in a family of three boys and two girls.   His father, Kurukulasuriya Thomas Alfred Perera, who had got through the London Junior Matriculation exam, had been employed at Kolonnawa Govt Factory and Camillus remembers him going to work in tie, coat and hat:  “It was the British period!”  His mother, Kurukulasuriya Mabel Birdie Fernando, was a seamstress.  She had 5-6 machines and employed a few girls in the neighbourhood off and on, as and when she had orders.  Camillus remembers her as being very good at sewing.  That’s an art, one could say, and who knows, perhaps that’s where he got his artistic genes from.

He began his formal education at St Sebastians Roman Catholic Mixed School, located on Sea Street, Negombo.  After a couple of years, his father had got him enrolled at Maris Stella College, and had moved him once again when a couple of years after that.  From Grade 4 up to his SSC and HSC Camillus had attended St Mary’s College, Negombo.  He particularly remembers with gratitude the time he spent learning English and Sinhala literature:  “We read Shakespeare and Charles Dickens…familiarizing myself with literature has helped me a lot over the year.”

He was barely out of school when he applied for a job as a Tracer Draftsman in the Puttalam Kachcheri.  This was in 1960.  He had to draw plans giving detailed information of old lands to surveyors. 

It had been football that had consumed him during school and indeed for a considerable period after completing his studies.  He had been good at it, even at school, and had been Vice Captain of the team in 1958.  So it was natural that Camillus represented the Puttalam Public Service.  In fact he had helped his team win  Public Service Trophy in 1960.  He had played Right Full Back.  He also represented Jupiters in the Negombo League (which included Air Ceylon, Air Force and the Police).  He had led Jupiters to a league triumph in 1962 and remembered the UNP Member of Parliament for Negombo, T Quintin Fernando giving away the trophy. His preferred position had been Right Full Back.  Today, only Camillus and two others of that triumphant Jupiters team are alive. 

“I remember travelling to Jaffna to play the ‘Grasshoppers’.  We beat them 4-0.  Our goalkeeper, Anton Lawrence Savarimuttu, a businessman resident in Negombo, was from Jaffna. I remember that we were treated very well. Back then my life was all about playing football.    

Camillus claims that it was his height that denied him the opportunity to represent his country.  

His other interest of course was drawing and this is what made him want to come to Colombo.  His gift had been recognized when he was in school.  Caricature was his thing.  

“Once I drew the Principal of St Mary’s, Mr S. P. Selvaratnam.  The Principal was a very good teacher and well qualified too with a BA from London BA.  He smoked cigars.  It was known that drank, but of course not in school.  I drew him with his legs on the table and a bottle on the table.”

Mr Selvaratnam had got hold of this ‘piece of art’ and had spoken to him about it.  Camillus recalls what he said:  “You must not draw such things and show others.  But come and show me.  It’s a good drawing.  Think about improving your cartooning.  

“I was desperate to come to Colombo.  About three months after I started work, Hemasiri Premawardena, who was an Assistant Government Servant, helped me.  He told me that the Colombo Kachcheri desperately needed a Tracer Draftsman.  I found that there had been approximately 5,000 applicants.  I was the lucky one.”

Although he had wanted to be a cartoonist, Camillus at first hadn’t known what cartoons were nor how to become a cartoonist.  There hadn’t been anyone to advise him.  All he knew was that he could draw and that he was enamoured with the cartoons of Aubrey Collette. 

“Yes, I was attracted to his cartoons.  Everyone talked about them.  I thought this was something I would like to get into to, but I didn’t know how to think, how to get hold of an idea.  So I went to see Thalangama Premadasa, a translator attached to CTB,  who I was told was a good writer. I wanted ideas.  He helped me.  Later I learned that he had taken jokes from the Illustrated Weekly of India.  I wanted to improve my imagination and develop my own ideas, but as I said there weren’t many people who could guide me.  So I went to British Council, the American Centre and the Indian libraries and went through magazines.  I did this almost daily.  I collected ideas.  That’s how I started.” 

It was the Lake House publication, “Sarsaviya” that first published Camillus.  This was in 1964.  “I was asked to illustrate Andare’s poem about the toddy tapper.  I remember walking from Dam Street to Lake House.  They published two or three, but that was all.  Then I got some advice from a photographer.  He said ‘Sonna, ‘Sonna, if you want to come to Lake House, you have to shine in some other newspaper’.  A friend who worked with me at the Colombo Kachcheri took me to “Dawasa".  So I started drawing cartoons for Dawasa in 1965.  The Chief Sub, Nandasiri De Alwis, introduced me to the Editor.  I was tasked to draw a daily cartoon.  That was the beginning. Thepanis was the first cartoon character that I developed.”

When the UNP was returned to power in 1965, Patrick Wickramasinghe, brother of Joe Wickramasinghe (Principal, S Peter’s College), a senior officer in the Colombo Kachchery and a very strong UNPer from Pamunugama, had taken him to Paris Perera (MP Neomal’s father).  Perera had asked Camillus to come to Lake House.  

“I went.  He met me and took me to Mr Ranjith Wijewardena.  I drew some sketches of some ministers.  He said ‘we will inform you’ but nothing happened.  Maybe they were not up to standard.”

And so he continued to draw for Dawasa.  “I was an amateur and so I didn’t get paid, although I expected a small payment.  A friend from the Kachcheri friend took me to Ganemulla one day to see Piyasena Nissanka, veteran Editor of Silumina.  He too asked me to come to Lake House.  I went.  He introduced me to DF Kariyakarawana who gave me the opportunity to draw cartoons for Janatha, the afternoon daily.  That was how ‘Don Sethan’ came into being.  This was in 1966.  Don Sethan had a family; his wife Simona, daughter Meraya and younger brother Lapaya.  The daughter’s boyfriend was Goddin Aiya.    It became a popular family cartoon.  In fact DF’s family named themselves after those character’s name!  The following year I created ‘Siribiris’ for the ‘Silumina’.” 

He had somehow managed to juggle effectively his work at the Kachcheri and his cartoons, often completing the day’s work while traveling to Colombo from Negombo.  The success of Don Sethan brought him more work.  Wimalasiri Perera, Editor, Sarasavi, had asked him to contribute. That’s how he started the ‘Dekkoth Padmavati’ series in 1968.  In the same year, he drew a strip cartoon called ‘Mister Loveris’ for the Sunday Observer.  The Daily Observer had also invited him to draw.  

“Denzil Peiris was the editor at the time.  I had to submit to Eustace Rulach, who was the Deputy.  Eustace guided me.  The first assignment was to draw P.B. Alwis Perera.  They wanted me to draw a picture story.  I wasn’t very enthusiastic about this.  I was more interested in humour.  In fact humour is my forte, but I did draw the Dutugemunu story.  It took me several weeks.   

Camillus recounts a particularly tense situation where he was caught in the middle of an interest conflict.  This was in 1968.

“This was during the time I was drawing for the ‘Janatha’.  Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was then the Deputy Minister of Information wanted to meet me, someone in the Kachcheri told me.  So I went.  I walked from Dam Street to the Ministry, which was adjoining the CWE in the Fort. He asked me whether I could draw some cartoons for him.  I said ok.  He wanted me to draw for Desathiya, on the vagaa vyaapaaraya (Agriculture Drive).  Not too long afterwards, he had instructed  his Secretary, GVP Samarasinghe, to get me to the Ministry as a cartoonist by creating a special post.  I agreed.  

In1968 there was a general strike by government servants.  By this time Mr Premadasa had different portfolio, he was the Deputy Minister of Local Government.  He wanted me to draw something about the strike.  This put me in a very difficult spot.  I was the president of my union which had 24 members.  All the leaders of all the trade unions worked in my branch.  I was friendly with all of them.  In fact I think all of them believed that I belonged to their parties.  So in the end, although I said I would do it, I did not.  Neither did I go back to Mr Premadasa.”

Camillus was an integral part of the island’s first ever cartoon paper, Sathuta, launched in August 1972.  He introduced the inimitable character Gajaman to audiences all over the country through Sathuta.

“Mahinda Samarasinghe, attached to Lake House and doing the Cinema Section in the Janatha was the one who came up with the idea.  It was a Lake House publication.  Nalini Wickremesinghe, Ranil’s mother, was in charge.  I created Gajaman for Sathuta.  It was called Camillus ge Gajaman (Camillus’ Gajaman).  The name was inspired by Walt Disney.  It was not just ‘Mickey Mouse,’ the title was ‘Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse’.  This was in addition to the work I did for other newspapers.  ‘Tikka’ was a children’s character I drew for the children’s paper ‘Mihira’ and Tikka came with his parrot, ‘Pato’.  I also did a strip cartoon on sports for ‘Janatha’.  It was called ‘Sellan Sena’ and I touched on all sports through it.”

There were down days, obviously.  He had been asked to do a special cartoon to mark the Sinhala New Year and he had drawn Gajaman running after a pig brandishing a knife during the punyakaalaya.  “Wimalasiri Perera had some isue with Samarasinghe and got the cartoon stopped.”  

“It was, in a way, a blessing.  Chinthana Jayasena, who passed away recently, came to the Kachcheri looking for me.  He said that he along with a few others was thinking of starting a newspaper for Anura Bandaranaike and wanted me to come aboard.  The name of the newspaper was ‘Ada’.  I think Dasa Mudalali funded it. Chinthana was the editor.  I remember what I drew.  I knew Anura was fond of Siribiris.  So I had Siribiris garland Anura with a necklace made of miniature alcohol bottles.  Anura loved it!”

The popularity of Sathuta took a downward turn in 1975 when the Multipacks Group launched ‘Siththara’ in October that year.  

“Haris Hulugalle was a director, and Chinthana was the editor.  We quickly surpassed ‘Sathuta’.  I remember doing a ‘Gajaman Special’ for the New Year.  This was in 1976.  We had record sales — more than 200,000 copies were sold islandwide within a few days.  It was the humor.  I used all the avurudu chaarithra, including the contest for the biggest liar and the avurudu kumara-kumaari contest.”

Multipacks also launched a cinema paper called Sithsara and after Chinthana moved out, Camillus had been appointed had became editor of Siththara and Arthur U Amarasena (husband of the actress Sriyani Amarasena) was brought over from Times to be editor of Sithsara.  Camillus recalls that the paper Ranketi was done by Chandraratne Mapitigama (who was writing for Siththara while working for the CTB.  He said that he  had to pay artists, cameramen and other from a lump sum that he had been given.

Camillus’ characters were wholesome.  They were real.  People saw themselves and each other in these characters, their antics and their words.  At one point the Company had sought to obtain copyrights to the characters.  It had led to litigation.  Camillus had prevailed. In 1982, he decided to launch his own paper.  It was called ‘Camilusge Gajaman Samaga Sathsiri’.  The Catholic Press had given him a line of credit for a month so he could launch ‘Sathsiri’.  

“The Catholic Press building became my office.  But there were rent issues and eventually I bought a property in Dematagoda and later a press as well.  After Sathsiri I started an educational paper for children called ‘Hapana’ which was published until around 1996.  I continued to draw for the Catholic papers: ‘Thiththa Aththa’ for the Gnanaartha Pradeepaya, ‘Sunday Punch’ for the English publication and ‘Ummai Ureikkum’ for the Tamil paper.  I returned to cartoons in 2006 when ‘Rivira’ was launched.  I’ve drawn ‘Davase Tokka’ and ‘Sathiye Tokka’ for Rivira for more than 10 years now.”

Looking back, Camillus speaks with gratitude about the Colombo Kachcheri until 1990: “I never had too much work.  Of course I had to get permission from the Land Commissioner’s Department to draw cartoons but this was never a problem.  I worked and I drew until I retired in 1990.  

Apart from Siribiris, Gajaman, Tikka and Pato, Thepanis, Don Sethan and his family and Sellam Sena, there was also ‘Magodisthuma’ the politician we encounter everyday and everywhere and who makes us hold our noses.  As he says, he was not a political cartoonist, but neither was he not.  He drew the politics of the day because it was as a part of our everyday as was other things, the householder, the sportsperson and the celebrity.  

Camillus held an exhibition in 2002 to celebrate Gajaman’s 30th ‘birthday’.  On that occasion Ajith Samaranayake wrote what could be called the best short-capture of Camillus Perera.

“For 36 years Camillus Perera has been one of the most lovable institutions in Sinhala journalism.  There is practically no newspaper he has not graced with his cartoons apart from a while crop of small publications some of which he now controls.  These cartoons have offered a wryly witty commentary of not only politicians (who are anyway easy to caricature) but also ordinary people both as the individual as well as the mass.”

That, according to Ajith, was Camillus’ special strength: “The man who likes to call himself a comic cartoonist takes a compassionate but trenchant look at Sri Lanka’s middle and lower middle classes who have over time evolved almost into a special sub-class.  Taken for granted by the politicians at election time and forgotten thereafter, described as the petit bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariate by the Marxist ideologues, this class has supplied the grist to Camillus’ mill.”

He spoke to people from all walks of life, all communities and brought them altogether by reminding everyone of the commonality of their humanity as well as their foibles.  He made it possible for his fellow citizens to laugh at themselves.  He made long roads short, dark days bearable and good days worthy of celebration. 

Half a century is a long time to engage in one particular activity. The years can dull the nib of a pen, can wear out the brush.  But Camillus’ best instruments, his mind, his sense of humour and, as Ajith puts it, his compassion and sharpness, have retained freshness or rather have been refreshed as and when necessary.  

His cartoons are now 50 years old.  Gajaman is now 42 years old.  Camillus will be 77 soon.  They are as young (or old) as anyone who encounters them, on a piece of paper or on the street.  That’s something worthy of celebration.