Maya Kamath (b. 1951; d. 2001)
Known for her satirical cartoons on social and political themes, Maya Kamath was among the few recognised women cartoonists in India in the 1980s and 1990s. Her black-and-white cartoons, generally made with a brush pen, appeared in several Indian newspapers in the cartoon strip as well as the single-column pocket cartoon format. They addressed wide-ranging themes, from politics and current affairs to poverty, environmental issues and gender inequality, often through a domestic or familial lens.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1951, Kamath was raised largely in New Delhi. She was inclined to drawing from a young age, and was encouraged in this interest by her parents. Although she earned a master’s degree in English literature from Indraprastha College for Women, New Delhi, she began her career working as an illustrator for the Macmillan publishing house and teaching art at a school. The Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s popular strip on the life of a family, For Better or For Worse, is known to have inspired Kamath’s interest in cartooning. She spent most of her working life in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).
Her career as a professional cartoonist began in 1985 with a comic strip in the Evening Herald, a now-discontinued publication of the Deccan Herald group. Titled Gita, the strip centred around the eponymous female protagonist and explored themes of domestic and family life. She often gleaned ideas for her jokes from her own children, and is known to have rewarded them for good ideas with small gifts of money. In 1986, she began drawing pocket cartoons for The Indian Express and for the Bengaluru edition of The Times of India. In the 1990s, she contributed a cartoon called Framed to the Deccan Herald for five years, before she began contributing to The Asian Age in 1997, which gave her national visibility.
While a few women cartoonists of the time, such as Manjula Padmanabhan, Mita Roy, Samita Rathore and Nalini Reddy, attained recognition at a regional level or primarily through their work in other domains, Kamath occupied a unique position in the male-dominated field of cartooning, particularly that of political cartoons. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a relatively junior cartoonist whose work appeared alongside the political cartoons of the veteran RK Laxman in The Times of India, she was asked to restrict her cartoons to social themes. She often addressed current affairs and political themes through the lens of their impact and perception at the domestic level, especially as seen through the eyes of women. This was also a means to draw attention to larger issues in a lighthearted but direct way, outside of the grander public rhetoric surrounding them.
Motifs such as the newspaper and the television appear frequently in Kamath’s cartoons as the channels by which national and international news filter into the everyday lives of families, who are affected in unexpected ways. Her cartoons also satirise urban mismanagement, environmental issues, perceived development and a variety of other themes. In a 1993 cartoon from Deccan Herald, a labourer digging up a pipeline informs a woman that her home would no longer have water supply because an ancient Rama temple has been discovered beneath the pipes. In another, a scientist who has worked on a successful satellite is unable to share the news with his wife because the telephone line to their home is out of order.
Kamath’s cartoons frequently address gender inequalities and implicit discrimination embedded in society. A cartoon set in a maternity ward shows a new mother herself mourning the birth of a girl child while her husband consoles her. Some of her cartoons tackle political themes directly, referencing specific political leaders while portraying their positions and relationships through the metaphors of family. A 1999 cartoon from The Asian Age shows India’s then–prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the mother of a severely beaten child — symbolising democracy — refusing to confront her husband who has inflicted the injuries — pictured as then-leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thakeray.
Over the course of her career, she created nearly eight thousand cartoons. Committed to various civic causes and animal and child welfare, Kamath contributed her earnings as well as some of her cartoons to them. Kamath was awarded the Karnataka Cartoonists Association award in 1998.
Kamath died in Bengaluru in 2001. Following her death, her entire body of work was archived by the Sound and Picture Archives of Research on Women (SPARROW), a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation. SPARROW organised exhibitions of Kamath’s work in 2005 at Alliance Française, Bengaluru, Cymroza Gallery, Mumbai, and India International Centre, Delhi, and published a book of her cartoons titled The World of MAYA (2005). In 2008, her family, in partnership with the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Cartoonists (IIC), instituted the annual Maya Kamath Memorial Awards to recognise political cartoonists from India and around the world.
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Gairola Khanduri, Ritu. Caricaturing Culture in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Madhukar, Jayanthi. “In the World of Maya.” Bangalore Mirror, June 10, 2012. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/entertainment/lounge/in-the-world-of-maya/articleshow/21366178.cms.
“Maya Kamath.” Biographies.net, July 23, 2013. Accessed August 25, 2023. https://www.biographies.net/people/en/maya_kamath.
Rao, Bindu Gopal. “Bangalore Toons In.” India Today, February 09, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2023. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/supplement/story/20090209-bangalore-toons-in-738847-2009-01-28
SPARROW. “Project Maya Kamath.” Accessed May 16, 2023. https://www.sparrowonline.org/project-maya-kamath/.