Cartoonist with 15 patented characters



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The London educated Principal of St Mary’s, S. P. Selvaratnam, became the unwitting subject of this budding cartoonist. It was no secret that the principal liked to sneak a drink now and then, although never at school, and the little caricaturist portrayed him laid back, with a bottle and his feet on the table. But unlike some of the nitwitted educationists today, Selvaratnam did not reprimand the child. Instead, the principal said he must not show such work to others and if he pleases, could show him and also encouraged the child to improve his cartoons.


His first canvas was the walls of their house, he then graduated to the sands of Negombo beach. No one could have guessed that this were the humble beginnings of a cartoonist who conceived characters the likes of Siribiris, Gajaman, Tikka and Pato, Thepanis, Don Sethan, Magodisthuma and Sellam Sena; that is no one but his father. Camillus Perera's father was so proud of his drawings that he'd take them to nearby shops and boutiques and proclaim that his son would one day be world famous for his cartoons, which proved prophetic. The now 88-year old veteran cartoonist, Kala Keerthi Camillus Perera has drawn for almost all newspapers and as many as 15 characters that are exclusively owned by him.



The eldest in a family of three boys and two girls, Camillus went to three different schools during his primary education years, grade one and two were spent at St Sebastian mixed school, grade three at Maris Stella College and from four onwards at St. Mary's College, Negombo. He studied Sinhala and English literature and Math. In grade 8 he won the island-wide art competition conducted by the Royal College, London, at Ananda College.


This prodigy in the making didn't have an art teacher as such, but he distinctly remembers the art teacher of a nearby Tamil school who, on his way from a shot of toddy at a local tavern, would draw his famous elephant and parrot on the wall of the Perera house. If you ask Camillus who had influenced him this would be his earliest memory of being artistically influenced. As Camillus matured his influences became more sophisticated, the likes of Aubrey Collette. "Whenever I went to church they'd be talking about him. He inspired me to become a cartoonist." Cartoonists and artists such as Amitha Abeysinghe, G. S. Fernando, Bandula Harischandra, Sarath Madhu, Susil Premaratne and Bandula Padmakumara were among others who inspired him later on.


Other interests


His shortness of stature didn't stop him from taking on men twice his size. He captained Negombo Jupiters, of which now he is the chairman, and played against the Royal Air Force during the British Period. "These were 6.5 to seven footers," said Camillus. He remembered a time when he didn't have the money to buy boots and fondly reminisced when a Mr Saravanamuthu treated him to a lunch at the Park View Hotel in Colombo and thereafter bought him a pair of boots. "They were twenty two rupees!"



If there's anything he loved as much as sports it's perhaps film. "I watched Kadavunu Poronduwa about 50 times!" he exclaimed. He said films gave him an idea about various actions and how to weave stories. His own character Gajaman was adapted into a 3D animation film by the same name, directed by Chanaka Perera and co-produced by John Fonseka and Chamika Jinadasa for Studio 101.


An exhibition was held in 2002 to celebrate Gajaman’s 30th ‘birthday’, in 2004 another exhibition was sponsored by Alliance Francaise de Kandy. In 2015 an exhibition was organized to celebrate 50 years of Camillus cartoons at the BMICH. He was invited to join the advisory board of John Lent's Cartoon Journal in 2002 and was conferred the title 'Kala Keerthi' in 2016.


Government service


In 1960 he applied for the post of Tracer Draftsman in the Puttalam Kachcheri. There was only one vacancy, and his was one application among many thousands. A Public Works Department overseer, Dominic Savarimuthu trained him for the test. After weeks of preparation, Camillus froze during the test. He was so excited he could not draw anything and could only muster the strength to write his name on the blank paper.


"Hemasiri Premawardena, an Assistant Government Agent headed the interview board and the interviews ran into the third day," recounted Camillus. Seeing the blank answer paper, he was asked to wait for the last day. Luckily Camillus had his wits about him to take along a portrait he had done of a football player's father. "The man collapsed and died on the field due to excitement, upon watching his son play," said Camillus, but that's another story.


Meanwhile, he produced the portrait at the interview and proclaimed that he is prepared to draw anyone willing to sit for him. He was asked whether he was prepared to draw the interview board and Camillus confidently answered in the affirmative. He was yet again asked to wait outside the interview room. He never got the chance to draw the interview board, but received his letter of appointment six months later.


Three months after his appointment to Puttalam Kachcheri, he was reappointed to Colombo on request. He drew while working at the Kachcheri until retirement in 1990. "All the cartoons I did for the papers, I did while working at the Kachcheri. The GA at the time granted me special permission to draw cartoons as long as it didn't affect my duties." He commuted by train, the time which he utilized for drawing cartoons for various newspapers.


Cartooning


Camillus' cartoons were first published in the Lake House publication Sarsaviya, in 1964. He started drawing cartoons for Dawasa in 1965, thus Thepanis was conceived. Then Editor of Silumina, Piyasena Nissanka, introduced him to D.F Kariyakarawana who asked him to draw for Janata, the afternoon daily. This was how ‘Don Sethan’ came into being. In 1967 he created Siribiris for Silumina. Camillus informed that Siribiris' tall hat was not a hat at all. It's hair, envisioned decades before the 7up stick figure, which bears uncanny resemblance to Siribiris, took pop culture by storm. He drew Dekkoth Padmavati for Sarasaviya in 1968. Gajaman followed on its heels with the launch of Sathuta, Lake


House publication, in 1972. ‘Tikka’ was a children’s character he drew for the children’s paper ‘Mihira’ and Sellan Sena was a strip cartoon on sports for ‘Janatha’. He also drew the ‘Davase Tokka’ and ‘Sathiye Tokka’ for Rivira.


The Multipacks Group launched ‘Siththara’ in 1975, which further contributed to popularize cartoons such as Gajaman. Perhaps it was the 250,000 copies Siththara sold or perhaps the mild political humour, but Gajaman became an overnight sensation. However, at one point the Multipacks Group sought the copyrights to Camillus' characters and it lead to litigation. Camillus won and decided to start his own paper ‘Camilusge Gajaman samaga Sathsiri’. His cartoon characters are probably the only those patented this side of the hemisphere. "After the Intellectual Property Act came into force in 1978, when Lalith Athulathmudali was the Trade and Shipping Minister, I registered all my cartoon characters."


In 1984 Camillus produced a magazine devoted to his work, titled Camillusge Gajaman. Camillusge Samayan and Camillusge Gajaman #2 followed on its heels. With his cartoon characters fast becoming household names, he went on to found his own publishing company, Camillus Publications. Camillusge Gajaman Samaga Sathsiri and Camillusge Don Sethan Samaga Rasika were published under the Camillus Publications banner.


The dialogues in his cartoons are often rustic and rural. Camillus attributes this to a need to express himself sans innuendo or ambiguity. The female characters, particularly those in ‘Dekkoth Padmavati are sensual and seductive, which he believed was fitting for a strip cartoon intended for the youth. His cartoons kept him so preoccupied that it did not permit him to do caricatures. "Besides, my forte was humour."


Much like journalism, cartooning is not exactly a lucrative business, a popular belief that Camillus proved wrong. "When I was contributing to newspapers the cartoons were sold for five rupees each. But when I increased to two strips my payment was increased to fifteen rupees. It was hard work that got me here," said the veteran cartoonist, who used to draw up to eight cartoons on a good day. "I own five houses and they were all made with the money I made from drawing cartoons for various newspapers."


There were days when he sensed that his workstation smelled foul, only to find his forgotten lunch from the previous day left untouched. Such was his love for cartooning that he had not only forgotten to eat, but ironically forgotten that he had not had lunch the previous day. "You can earn if you are hard working and talented." But he drew cartoons not only because of the money, but because readers eagerly awaited his cartoons. "And without which most of them would have stopped buying the paper altogether."


"I think that ability to think up such characters is a gift from God," said Camillus. A gift he is more than glad to bestow on the younger generation of aspiring cartoonists, in the form of mentorship and advice.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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