'A cartoonist has failed if he puts cooperation between races in jeopardy'- K.W Janaranjana


His elegant handwriting was the first tell-tale signs of a cartoonist in the making. He could draw from an early age, a skill he probably inherited from his artistically inclined father, although the cartoonist of this week's Pen Pricks admits that his father never taught him how to draw. In fact, he never studied art formally, not even for the O/Levels until he took up painting under Chandraguptha Thenuwara later.

On the contrary, his father, along with his contemporary, Jayasiri Semage, studied art under the renowned Motagedara Wanigaratne. But his late father's role as an editorial cartoonist came as a surprise to the former Editor of Ravaya and present Editor of Anidda, K.W Janaranjana, who became privy to it only a week prior to this interview. "My father Indrasena Withanage worked for the 'Dawasa' published by Independent Newspapers Ltd of M. D. Gunasena and Company. It was the most popular paper at the time apart from the Lake House newspapers," said Janaranjana. His father has also contributed editorial cartoons for Siyarata and Vinivida.


Educated in St. John's College, Nugegoda and D. S. Senanayake College, Colombo, Janaranjana lived in the semi-urban area of Kalubowila, Dehiwala. After the demise of his father, Janaranjana inadvertently became the go-to person for banners, pandol and Vesak Jathaka story enactment stage artwork. This was when Gevindu Kumaratunga invited him to join, as a layout artist, the newly established paper Lakmina, funded by Pioneering member of the JHU Thilak Karunaratne, with Editors Sunil Madawa Premathilaka and Dr. Nalin de Silva at its helm.

"It was 1989, a politically volatile time at the height of JVP riots and when it's Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV) was most active." Janaranjana recounted how he had to painstakingly draw a full Sinhala alphabet for the lead story headline. Letters had to be put together one by one in those pre-Sinhala-typeset days. He was responsible for layout of all the articles, which were pasted on cardboard in preparation for print. He remembered with much interest how he illustrated for the serialised Sinhala translation of 'Cry Freedom' by John Briley on the true life story of South African anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko.

Unfortunately, a conflict between the two editors, resulted in the de Silva faction, inclusive of Janaranjana, pulling out. When asked whether he was politically inclined at such an early age, or whether the political line of the newspaper influenced his line of thinking, Janaranjana said that he joined the paper only because their political line of thinking aligned. "It was a UNP government and we were all anti-government," said Janaranjana.

Ravaya was first published in 1986 in the form of a magazine. In 1990, Janaranjana approached a friend of its layout department who introduced him to founder-Editor Victor Ivan. He was asked to join as a layout artist when Ravaya commenced printing as a tabloid in 1991. In addition, he was also asked to do a caricature for page 1, a style of cartoon new to Sri Lanka at the time. "Ivan showed me a bunch of caricatures from Indian papers. The new style was catching up in India, with magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India working to popularize the genre."


His Ravaya page one pocket cartoon, Ayubowan, came into being as a result this. His first victim was J.R Jayewardene. "He was retired and therefore safe," smirked Janaranjana. Ayubowan is the first and last time a caricature was published on page one of a Sri Lankan newspaper. Ivan then invited Janaranjana to do the editorial cartoon, a tradition he follows to date, now in Anidda.

In 1991, Janaranjana gained entrance to the Law College and was forced to resign as a layout artists. By then Ravaya had won the Best Layout Design in 2014,2016 and Merit in 2017, conferred by the Sri Lanka Press Institute and The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. This is specially significant as Ravaya is a black and white paper. He continued to contribute the editorial cartoon and caricature, part time. In 1995 Ravaya was printed in broadsheet. In 2000, Janaranjana was made the editor of the Balaya magazine of Ravaya and in 2008 Deputy Editor of Ravaya itself and in 2012 Victor Ivan relinquished his 30-year editorship to Janaranjana. He has been the Editor of Anidda since its establishment in April 2018. Each time he became an editor or deputy, Janaranjana passed a milestone. Before his promotion to the post of an editor a cartoonist becomingan editor was virtually unheard of.

Different genres

Most artists perfect one form of art, whether it be water colour, sketching or cartooning, but Janaranjana switched from genre to genre, from water colour, oil paint, pencil sketches, illustrations to masthead and letter design with the ease of a duck taking to water. In 1989 he held a joint painting exhibition with three other friends. He has done illustrations for articles and poetry, numbering in the thousands. The cover he designed for S.G Punchihewa's 'Purawesi Pethsama' received the State Literary Award for best book cover in 2013. His knack for letter designing allowed him to design the titles for Prasanna Vithanage's movies 'Purahanda Kaluwara' and 'Ira Mediyama'. When asked how he managed to perfect such diverse styles, Janaranjana said that it is as if he is possessed by the genre he is engaged with at the moment.

His Ayubowan, a signature caricature style marked by lines on the face is reminiscent of Ryan R Lurie. When asked whether he was ever influenced by such world renowned cartoonists, Janaranjana said that although he studies other cartoonists such as R.K Laxman, Surendra and Keshav, he never imitates them. "Caricature style is different for each cartoonist. Some use brush strokes and colours. I use lines drawn in pen." Also unique to Ayubowan was the caption that went with the caricature.

His editorial cartoons are completely different. His unique cartoon style rarely employs words. He said that his training in art, such as examination of facial features and figures came in handy in creating wordless, yet compelling cartoons. "If I can't convey my message through the image, then I have failed as a cartoonist, specially since I don't use words." He admitted that there are certain disadvantages to not using words, but pointed out the obvious advantage that anyone, even a non Sinhala speaker should be able to understand his cartoon. "Provided the reader is familiar with the political background. The Editorial cartoon is second in importance only to the editorial and Ravaya being a hardcore political paper the pressure on the cartoon to be ultra political and to the point, was high," explained Janaranjana.


Unlike most cartoonists, Janaranjana rarely aspires to entertain with sarcasm. Often completely avoiding subjects of social import, he religiously confines himself to politics. Janaranjana is political animal to the bone. A founder member and CEO of Rights Now Collective for Democracy during 2007 and 2008, having served as the assistant secretary and secretary for Free Media Movement, an executive committee member and an active member of Lawyers for Democracy and Citizens’ Rights, it's safe to say that he is probably the most politically vocal of the editorial cartoonists. Something most cartoonists shy away from.

When asked if political activism and cartooning is this mutually beneficial, Janaranjana said, "Rather it is my political activism that influences my cartoons. As a politically active person I meet a lot of politically active people, engage in discussions and a political ideology takes form. This helps with my cartoons. In fact, the cartoon has the same purpose, to deliver a political message." Janaranjana said that he never wished to be identified as a cartoonist. "It's just one of the things I do." This is why he doesn't have awards and accolades to attest for his cartoonistic prowess, because he never bothered to apply.

Having been a member of the X group, convener of Purawesi Balaya, a Director of NGO Rights New, when asked whether his political allegiances ever clouded his judgement as a cartoonist, Janaranjana said that he has been inspired by his political role and not unduly influenced. "There's no question about it, I am biased. I am biased towards democracy, power sharing with minorities and judicial independence."

But shouldn't a cartoonists steer clear of political activism to remain unbiased? "There's nothing such as unbiased in the newspaper industry and there are no unbiased cartoonists. We're all biased to some degree." Janaranjana explained that even if a cartoonist does not engage in political activism, but does so through his cartoons, this is political activism enough.

Being a lawyer and a law lecturer, his command of law has been imperative to understanding politics. "And therefore indirectly responsible for keeping me open to political points of view that may escape other cartoonists."

He has always held an ati-government stance, very vocal and unafraid in his criticism. When asked whether this was supported by the political liberalness of the alternative newspapers he worked for, he answered in the affirmative. "Neither my editor nor the management ever influenced me to draw or not to draw one thing or the other. Now with my own subordinates, I follow the same example."

Most cartoonists exercise self-restraint, specially when it comes to depicting sensitive subjects such as religion of clergy in politics. But even in portraying such controversial subjects, one might say that Janaranjana is quite candid. "I exercise no religious or racial restraint. Having said that, I know my ethics," said Janaranjana who had never been threatened, verbally or otherwise, for his vociferousness. "A cartoonist, as a journalist, has failed if he or she incites violence and puts the cooperation between races in jeopardy. A cartoonist should aspire to elevate the public rather than just provide entertainment."

He explained that the Hutchins Commission was formed during World War II, when publisher of Time Magazine, Henry Luce, asked Chicago University President, Robert Hutchins to form a commission to inquire into the function of media in a modern democracy. Its social-responsibility theory proposed that media take it upon themselves to elevate society's standards, providing citizens with the information they need to govern themselves. "This has been my motto as a journalist as well as a cartoonist."

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