Teacher-cartoonist on the wordless language of cartoons

Jayarathna Wickrama


He has worked for the Divaina, The Island, both Sunday and Daily, Vidusara and Nawaliya. He is most famous for 'Fake Book' his Divaina pocket cartoon which exposes political gimmickry. But the sub-genre Jayarathna Wickrama has internationally made a mark with his is in environmental cartoons, with Bularian, Polish, South Korean and Chines magazines appreciating his environmental cartoons.

But he wasn't always a cartoonist. He was a teacher at Malasna Devaraja P.V., Kurunegala his alma mater; eventually a principal at the Pokunugala P.V., Attanakadawala and later a Deputy Principal at President's College, Maharagama. Wickrama showed artistic talent at an early age. His drawings were highly praised by teachers. "Even as a teacher I was famous as the teacher who could draw." He was a highly sought-after for every pandol and Pirith Mandapa in his home town. Even the paintings on the shrine room ceiling of Malasna Devaraja P.V. was done by him.

"I took a liking to cartoons because it doesn't require words to convey a message," said Wickrama. He harboured a great admiration for the field of media from an early age. "I would often go to Colombo to see cartoon exhibitions, most of them by The Island cartoonist, W.R. Wijesoma." In fact, Wickrama was motivated to seriously take up cartooning when he won the second place in an environmental cartoon contest organized by the Central Environmental Authority in 1988. The first place was won by W.R. Wijesoma. For Wickrama, Wijesoma was a larger-than-life inspiration. "By studying his cartoons I learned various techniques, such as how to utilize paper." He also studied art at Kala Bhavana for three years.

He started freelancing for the Lankadeepa as early as 1996, while still working as a teacher. But in 2001 he received his appointment as principal and cartooning had to take back stage. After retirement Wickrama was introduced to Upali Newspapers by Norman Palihawadana of The Island. Wickrama kicked off his cartooning career at the science weekly, Vidusara, in 2012. It's difficult to make a name for oneself in the media industry, specially if one takes it up after retirement. "I felt a little out of place. But I guess that's a given." The Vidusara Editor, Rajendra Kulasinghe made the ride a little smoother, said Wickrama. In 2013 he started doing illustrations and cartoons for Nawaliya and in 2015 to Divaina, under the editorship of Jayantha Chandrasiri and The Island with Prabath Sahabandu at the helm. "Jayantha Chandrasiri and Prabath Sahabandu got me to draw a lot, which really helped me to improve my cartoons."

For a teacher and specially a principal, being well-read comes with the territory. A cartoonist needs to keep up to date with current affairs and most cartoonists dwell into subjects such as sociology and economics other than political science. When asked whether the reading habit which he no doubt inculcated as a teacher, and eventually a principal, helped him to become a better political cartoonist, Wickrama answered in the affirmative. "I made it a practice to read newspapers and books. A good grasp on politics is imperative for a political cartoonist." Wickrama also wrote on occasion to Nawaliya and dabbled in sports cartoon as well.

But Wickrama is probably more famous for his environmental cartoons.

His environmental cartoons and posters won many local as well as international accolades. The award of excellence in the all-island poster competition organised by the National Water supply and Health Ministry in 2010,

first place in the cartoon competition organised by the National Trade Union Centre in both 2016 and 2017 and first place in the poster competition organised by the National Trade Union Centre in 2017 and first place in the all-island poster competition organised by the Labour Ministry in 2017, are only a few from the many local awards he has bagged. Wickrama has also won the honorary award at the China REDMAN Cartoon competition in 2016 and honorary merit award at the SICACO Cartoon Contest, South Korea for three consecutive years from 2014 to 2016.

Other than cartoons and posters, he also does pencil sketches and portraits. He held his first art exhibition, Thung Mansala in 2009 and his paintings he sells every year at Kala Pola have made their way to distant lands like France. He also teaches art to kids on the side.

On a more serious note, when asked his opinion of SL cartoons, Wickrama said, "Wijesoma's cartoons had depth. There are cartoonists who still produce cartoons of that calibre, but most lack depth. "This is probably because cartoonists try to cater to the general public who fail to accurately read a political cartoon of depth," said Wickrama, who observed a general decline in art appreciation. "The same thing is happening to art in general. When we try to sell art with depth nobody's willing to buy them."

When asked why cartoons important, Wickrama opined that, despite the level of education, everybody enjoys cartoons. "It's the easiest, most accessible method of conveying a message. And now since it's read on TV it has become accessible to even those who don't read newspapers."

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