Abu Abraham (b. 1924; d. 2002)
A Indian cartoonist, journalist and writer, Attupurathu Mathew Abraham was acclaimed for his political cartoons in India as well as England. Popularly known by his pen name Abu, he was recognised for his work satirising politics and corruption throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, remaining active even during the restrictions of the Emergency in India (1975–77). Abraham worked chiefly in pen and ink, creating black-and-white images using simple, sparse lines. He was known among his peers for his ‘cerebral’ cartoons, which typically relied on their captions containing sharp wit and wordplay for the full impact of their humour. Like some of his peers, such as Unny and OV Vijayan, this placed him apart from other contemporaries such as RK Laxman, who were seen to emphasise draughtsmanship and the purely visual elements of their cartoons. While he held broadly Socialist views, Abraham did not affiliate himself with any particular party, either in India or the UK, becoming known and respected for his critical observations across the political spectrum and various regimes.
Born in Mavelikkara, Kerala in 1924, Abraham went on to study French, English and Mathematics at Travancore University, Kerala, graduating in 1945. Between 1946 and 1951, he worked in Bombay (now Mumbai) as a reporter for Bombay Chronicle and Bombay Sentinel, while contributing cartoons he drew in his free time to varied publications such as Blitz and Bharat. In 1951 he was invited by cartoonist K Shankar Pillai to join Shankar’s Weekly, the latter’s humour and satire magazine where many prominent cartoonists of the era began their careers, including RK Laxman, Bal Thackeray, Kutty and Bireshwar. After working there until 1953, Abraham travelled to England for what was intended to be a short trip. Here he began contributing cartoons to publications such as Punch, London Opinion and Daily Sketch, and stayed on, finding that he was able to support himself as a cartoonist.
In 1956, shortly after contributing a few cartoons to the political magazine Tribune, he was appointed as the first political cartoonist on staff at the British Sunday newspaper The Observer, where, in addition to political cartoons, he produced editorial illustrations. Abraham took on the pen name ‘Abu’ while at The Observer, after the newspaper’s editor David Astor remarked that his Jewish-sounding name could lead to an assumed bias around his cartoons on the Israel–Palestine conflict. During his ten-year career at The Observer, Abraham also travelled widely, making reportage drawings on his visits to various countries. In 1966 he moved to the daily newspaper The Guardian, where he worked for three years, simultaneously contributing cartoons to Tribune. He was a founder member, with several other cartoonists, of the British Cartoonists’ Association established in 1966.
Returning to India in 1969, Abraham began working with The Indian Express in New Delhi, creating cartoons on the war between India and Pakistan and the formation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971, as well as the political turmoil in South Asia in the 1970s. During this time, he also travelled to Tripura and Vietnam to report on the conflict in Bangladesh and the Vietnam War. Abraham also wrote humorous columns on the state of political affairs for The Indian Express and other publications such as Debonair and Sunday Standard.
In 1972, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian parliament, and remained a member until 1978. Like his peer Rajinder Puri, Abraham was politically active during this period while retaining a sharply critical eye and a vocal attitude expressed through his journalism and cartoons.
During the Emergency, a period of stringent restrictions on civil liberties, arrests of political opponents and censorship of the press in India, Abraham continued drawing cartoons satirising the political scenario: while some of these were censored, many found their way to publication. One of his most famous cartoons of this period depicted then-president of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing ordinances from his bathtub, and saying, ‘If there are any more ordinances, just ask them to wait.’ Many of his cartoons during the 1970s appeared in the pocket (single-column) series Private View.
After leaving his job at The Indian Express in 1981, Abraham worked freelance, syndicating his cartoons and columns to several newspapers, including the strip Salt and Pepper, which he started the same year. Featuring a crow and an elephant as its protagonists, the strip ran for two decades in various publications. Abraham’s writings and cartoons in the late 1980s and early 1990s criticised the increasing communal and sectarian violence in the country. He moved from Delhi to Kerala in 1988.
Abraham published three books compiling his cartoons under specific political themes — Abu on Bangladesh (1972) on the Bangladesh conflict, Games of Emergency (1977) on the Emergency, and Arrivals and Departures (1983) on the tenure of the Janata Party. While in England he edited Verdicts on Vietnam (1968), a compilation of cartoons on the subject of the Vietnam War by cartoonists from around the world, and later The Penguin Book of Indian Cartoons (1988). Abraham also drew and scripted the animated film titled No Arks (1969), a political allegory based on Noah’s Ark, which won a Special Award from the British Film Institute in 1970.
Abraham died in Thiruvananthapuram in 2002 at the age of 78.
Abraham, Abu. The Games of Emergency. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977.
“Abu in London.” Himal Southasian, December 1, 2008. Accessed August 22, 2023. https://www.himalmag.com/abu-in-london/.
Bryant, Mark. Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2000.
Khanduri, Ritu Gairola. Caricaturing Culture in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Krishnakumar, R. “A Saga of Courage.” Frontline, January 3, 2003. Accessed May 18, 2023. https://frontline.thehindu.com/other/obituary/article30214904.ece.
Ninan, Ajit. “Book Review: The Penguin Book Of Indian Cartoons.” India Today, April 30, 1988. Accessed May 18, 2023. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/society-and-the-arts/story/19880430-book-review-the-penguin-book-of-indian-cartoons-797177-1988-04-29.
Warrier, Shobha. “‘Cartoonists Should be Liberals and Radicals’.” Rediff, 2003. Accessed May 19, 2023. https://m.rediff.com/news/oct/31abu.htm.