'Newspaper is like the main meal, cartoon the dessert'- Piyal Udaya Samaraweera


Mal Maama’s only folly was to smell a flower. He inadvertently inhaled a seed and soon enough a flower sprouted from his nose. The doctor he went to, prescribed him a mountain of meds. On his way home with it, Mal Maama had the misfortune to bump into a farmer carrying a load of fertilizer. In the hullabaloo that ensued the meds and the fertilizer changed hands. Unawares, Mal Maama applied fertilizer to the flower on his nose. Such is the now 37-year-old icon's origin story and as his signature flower grew ever stronger so did his popularity.

Today's interview on Pen Pricks is with Mal Maama's renowned creator, Piyal Udaya Samaraweera. Much like the cartoons he draws, Samaraweera himself seemed a kid friendly, jolly old man. Working for Wijeya Newspaper in the capacity of a consultant, Samaraweera is also a formidable political cartoonist.

Young Piyal

His school mates at Rahula College, Matara were the subject of his earliest doodles. "While some were amused others were quite annoyed," chuckled Samaraweera. Although Samaraweera was a reputed artist among his friends he soon has to bid farewell to art when he picked the science stream in the eighth grade. "That was in the late 60's, when those who got the highest marks were automatically selected for science."

But this did not dampen Samaraweera's enthusiasm for art. "During O/L and A/L class years I sent cartoons to children's papers such as Mihira." "We didn't have TV back then." Samaraweera remembered, how, during O/L classes he created a projector by oiling a paper on which he had drawn cartoons and projecting the images on to a wall with the help of a candle. He would draw the whole day during school holidays and have a full-fledged story, which his friends gathered to his house to see.

He did a short stint at an advertising agency in Colombo, before joining the Wijeya Children's magazine in 1980, with the establishment of Wijeya Newspapers. It was here that Mal Maama was conceived along with that other famous cartoon Kele Kathawa. In the 1980's Samaraweera also drew for the Sathuta tabloid and later Lankadeepa. He was appointed the Editor of Wijeya Children's magazine in 1994. "But I actually prefer to draw," said Samaraweera, for whom there no better satisfaction than drawing.


When asked what transformation the work environment and the newspaper industry as a whole, has undergone since then, Samaraweera noted that technology is the major difference. "There was no internet back then and if I couldn't make it to work I had to send my cartoon with a friend by bus from Matara." Luckily Samaraweera had been boarded in Colombo on and off since 1983. "Since we didn't have phones back then, I wouldn't know what was going on at home till I got back."

"We had no computers back then and had to draw and colour our cartoons by hand." Samaraweera pointed out that over reliance on technology can be detrimental to art. He explained that although technology has developed considerably, creativity has not improved in parallel. "Technology blunts creativity. Besides, there's a certain kick to toiling over something," chuckled the veteran.

Samaraweera said that getting used to the technology that never seems to stand still is one of the hardest things he had to do. "People of my breed will always prefer hand drawing to digital." In fact, Samaraweera draws three times as fast as any cartoonist could generate a cartoon on a digital platform. He was done with his sketch of his celebrated Lankonis in the sweeping strokes of a thick tipped marker before the photographer could snap a photo of the veteran in the act. It was as if Samaraweera was merely tracing an image already etched in his mind.

Speaking of Lankonis, his political wit is not the only thing that makes him unique. The name itself is symbolic, revealed Samaraweera. It stands for the Sri Lankan common man.


His cartoons, even those conveying heady political messages, are innately child-like and empathetic. The panic stricken look of the depreciating rupee, falling into a bottomless pit, certainly induces empathy even in an adult. His political cartoons, although by no means vague in their message, are not derogatory or crass. This is probably because of his penchant for children's cartoons.

But one should not underestimate the power of children's cartoons. "Cartoons have great potential as an education tool. If cartoons can convey strong political messages extremely effectively, why not something educational?" Samaraweera said that he takes a special interest in early childhood education because he feels that children could easily relate to his cartoons.

Samaraweera pointed out that the technology is not used for educational purposes to its full potential. "With the available technology text books can be attractively laid out. But priority is still being given to text. It's like drawing a car with the use of a bullock cart," said Samaraweera, who attempted to cartoonise the plight of the education sector.


Unfortunately the current generation does not seem to take to cartoons like Mal Maama, who was embraced by previous generations due to the curiosity it aroused. "Today kids are hooked on electronic devises," said Samaraweera, who fondly reminisced how he enjoyed with wide-eyed wonder, 'Bili Poojawa' in Irida Lankadeepa, when it was published by Times of Ceylon Limited in the 60's. "I was so young I couldn't even read. But I still remember how I strove to make sense of it." Samaraweera said that he was also inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and Tin Tin. But he assured that Mal Maama's uncanny resemblance to Tin Tin is by no means an attempt at cheap imitation of the famous French cartoon. Mal Maama is an icon in its own right.

Other works

Apart from being a cartoonist, he is a writer and a producer of animations. When asked whether these diverse talents are mutually complementary, Samaraweera opined that if one can draw, the rest just falls into place without much effort. "If you think out of the box you can get really unique cartoon ideas." Ali Udawwa, Palangetiyai Koombichchai, Poos Ralata Hembirisawa, Boru Wale Peralee and Sudu Kolayaka Kalu Gala are some of the animations his son helped him with. His animations are available on YouTube under the Siyasa banner.

Samaraweera has so far published 15 children's books, with many more in the pipeline. Kelayata Aluthen Sapaththu Kadayak, Koombichchai Palangetiyai, Bella Mage Hari Agei, Honda Lamaya and Ali Udawwa are some of his notable works along with a number of colouring and workbooks. He has also illustrated many other books. He won the State Literary Award for best Children's Book in 2010 for Parana Thoppiya.

Future of cartoons

He observed a general lack of appreciation for cartoonists in Sri Lanka compared to other countries. However, Samaraweera doubts that, although newspaper is a dying industry, cartoons will become obsolete. "The only thing that will be lost is the actual physical paper that it's published on. As long as there is internet, cartoons will survive," perhaps in the form of animation.

When asked why children's cartoons are so rare, Samaraweera observed that most cartoonists are interested in political cartoons. "Few are interested in doing children's cartoons. But cartoons should be like dessert. It provides the same nutrients as the main meal. If you are offered a main meal twice over, of course you'd turn it down, but if you are offered a dessert after meal you wouldn't refuse it," said Samaraweera, drawing a parallel between the main paper and the cartoon. "If you offer the same thing that the main paper offers, in a cartoon, the public would reject it. The cartoon offers basically the same nutrients, but in a different presentation."

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