Wijesoma Voice of the voiceless Punchi Singho
As I displayed some cartooning skills at school, after my Advanced
Levels, my father took me to see the well-known cartoonist W.R. Wijesoma
at his residence in Ratmalana. I expected this celebrated cartoonist to
be a well-built and shabbily dressed man, to my surprise I saw this
diminutive man, smartly clad in white shirt and trousers, with a 'Punchi
Singho' face coming to the gate with a broad smile.
After having a quick look at my work he invited me to Lake House next
day and introduced me to Philip Cooray, a senior editor, who gave me a
break as a freelance designer at the Observer Saturday Magazine during
my holidays. That was the stepping stone of my career as a newspaper
designer and later as a cartoonist.
Wije Rupage Wijesoma was born in 1925 to parents who hailed from the
Southern part of Sri Lanka. His mother died when he was still a kid, and
he grew up in Colombo under the tender care of his aunt and grandmother,
who had been very fond of this little boy.
Young Wijesoma obtained his formal education at the Maligakanda
Government School Maradana and Mahabodhi Vidyalaya. His drawing skills
were first recognised at school. He employed his creative talents in
scouting activities. He considered scouting to be one of the most
influential things in his life. As a troop leader, he shone in scout
activities in camping and hiking, winning many awards for the school.
His education was disrupted during World War II and he wasn't able to
resume formal studies. Later he enrolled in the Colombo Technical School
where he learnt practical training in various crafts.
During the war years, he spent his days at the Museum and the Public
Library, reading newspapers and magazines to keep himself updated on
current affairs and the latest developments around the world. He made it
a habit to read anything he came across. He would even read the
newspapers in which the sugar was wrapped.
Young Wijesoma had to struggle in getting a job as a cartoonist when
he started his career. His first cartoons were offered to The Observer -
they were appreciated, but he did not obtain employment as a cartoonist.
Then he tried his luck as a proofreader. In September 1947, he
applied for a post at the Times of Ceylon. He was interviewed by the
editor Frank Moraes who was impressed by his language skills and wanted
him to report to work next day.
At the reading room, he gathered knowledge on journalism and its
process. Inspired by the works of master cartoonists Aubrey Collette and
G. S. Fernando, he also wanted to become a cartoonist. But his dream was
not immediately fulfilled, as there was no place for a third cartoonist
in the Group.
1948, as Collette decided to move to The Observer, Wijesoma got the
chance he was waiting for - an incident occurred involving Sir John
Kotelawela who had lost his baggage while on a trip to London. Wijesoma
was requested by his superiors to create a cartoon for the Sunday Times.
He drew Sir John covering his nakedness with a newspaper at the airport,
and the Editor Victor Louis promptly gave the young man a place at the
Sunday Times. He later went over to the Sunday Lankadeepa when it
started under D.B. Dhanapala where he developed his trademark 'Punchi
'Punchi Singho' was the cartoon character, he created as the Sri
Lankan stereotype of the common man clad in sarong and banian with an
umbrella and a bag; this character evolved through the years, becoming
poorer, sporting tattered clothes and a worn umbrella in later years.
Wijesoma got into a spot of bother when he was threatened with libel
for a cartoon he did which portrayed JR Jayewardene with a dollar sign
in his pocket. His intention was to show that JR was pro-American. But
it was interpreted as a bribe and a Letter of Demand was sent to him.
But the case was settled by the able Board of the Times which comprised
several top lawyers.
In 1968, after 21 years at the Times Group, Wijesoma moved to the
Lake House to serve at The Observer.
He enjoyed working at the Lake House until he tasted his first bitter
experiences of press control when Lake House was taken over by the
government. The first cartoon sketched by Wijesoma for the new
management, on Dr. N. M. Perera, then Finance Minister, captioned
'Doctor's Dilemma' was not published in the next day's newspaper.
Instead, he was summoned to the Chairman's office and was requested to
do a cartoon on one of the opposition politicians. Wijesoma agreed. "But
first, you publish the cartoon I drew of N. M. Perera." The cartoon was
He saw the Lake House through changing governments and worsening
conditions with increasing interference by the management to edit his
cartoons which compelled him to leave the State Media for good.
In 1981, when the leading businessman Upali Wijewardene launched The
Island and Divaina, Wijesoma was one of the key people he chose. There
was some controversy about Wijesoma's salary. But editor Edmond
Ranasinghe made it happen and got Wijesoma to work for the newspaper and
proved that the value of a man cannot be measured by money. He was a
great asset to the newspaper for the next 25 years until he breathed his
last in 2006.
Wijesoma was undoubtedly the longest serving political cartoonist of
Sri Lanka. He completed 50 years in the trade in 1997. He won the best
cartoonist award in the year 2000.
The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka honoured him with the Long and
Distinguished Service Gold Medal Award in 2004.
His cartoons have appeared in the New York Times and the World Atlas
Wijesoma was also a great wild life photographer. He used to spend
days in the country's primordial jungles among the birds and wild
elephants whenever he got a break from cartooning.
A very humane person, his great abilities and fame sat lightly on
him. He helped and guided young journalists and colleagues in many ways.
A devoted family man, he nursed his wife through her last illness many
years ago and was bereft by her death.
The modest, soft-spoken artist had been ailing for some time but
almost till his last breath kept the country amused over the antics and
escapades of generations of politicians over five decades.
Former Editor of 'The Island' and 'The Observer', the late Ajith
Samaranayake described him in his tribute as, "an eminently earthy man
with an unerring ear for the nuances of the mass mood, he had the
uncanny knack of capturing and crystallising a situation with a
wonderful economy of lines" and ranked him among the best in the world.
"As a political cartoonist who with a single stroke could puncture
the pomposities of self-inflated politicians and officials, Wijesoma was
fiercely protective of his independence and integrity."
"Many were the times when he clashed with newspaper managements which
however always treated him with great respect for they knew that he
could never be bought over whether by his own proprietors or other
forces," Ajith wrote.
Wijesoma's magical strength was how he was able to appeal to both the
Sinhala and English readership. Without making loud claims of his
pretensions, he gave a true humanistic outlook about Sri Lanka,
transcending all frontiers.
Wijesoma will be best remembered for his creation Punchi Singho, a
self-caricature of the so-called man on the street. Punchi Singho gave
the appearance of frailness but he could stand up to tyrants. After
Wijesoma's departure Punchi Singho disappeared from the public eye
leaving an enormous empty space in editorial pages.