Before he opened a new art page for himself, veteran Kerala cartoonist KJ Mathew, known more by his pen name Mathews, drew faces of people he found on newspaper pages. It could be wedding photos or obituaries. After he filled two whole notebooks with faces of strangers, Mathews, realising that he needed a public platform, began a Facebook page called Mathewsketch and in six months, drew nearly 500 faces of totally random people.
“Ninety five percent of those are faces I found randomly on profile photos and wanted to sketch. I would get their consent, especially when they are women, and then draw the pictures with a gel pen on white paper. I click photos of the pictures with my phone and post them online.
People seem to like it. Now I have got so many requests on my messenger inbox that there are bookings for five straight months,” Mathews says from his house in Kottayam.
He doesn’t draw ‘famous faces’. “But they are already famous. It is the non-famous people I want to draw and make happy with my pictures,” he says.
Mathews was drawn to cartoons as a young lad, reading comic strips of Tarzan and Mandrake and The Phantom. He wanted to create his own comics and went straight to the office of the Malayala Manorama in Kottayam. The art editor at the newspaper, also coincidentally named KJ Mathew, told him that readers would not want ‘naatile naadan kathakal’ (the local stories). But he directed Mathews to Kanam EJ, who ran the Manorajyam Magazine and needed someone to do art illustrations.
“He sent me with a letter and Kanam gave me illustrations to do. He too had been against the idea of a comic strip of my own. So I went on doing illustrations even when the magazine was bought by Dr George Thomas, former Member of Legislative Assembly. I had felt discouraged to pitch the idea of a comic strip after so many rejections but one day, I did tell him. He was not very interested, said the same things I heard before – no one would like a local story. I pleaded with him to let one run as an experiment and there was no need to pay me for it. That’s how I drew my first comic story called 12 raavukal (12 nights) in 1975,” Mathews says.
It was loved and George Thomas paid him for it and asked him to draw more. For the next 20 years, Mathews drew comic stories, which mostly appeared in Manorajyam. A few also appeared in Malayala Manorama, Mangalam and other Malayalam magazines.
Mathews' comic story 'Man who rides the red bike'
His stories often have elements of the supernatural in them, a roaming ghost or else a second birth. There is an interesting anecdote about one of his stories featuring the then popular Ind-Suzuki motorcycle. “It was the time I wanted to own one. I made a comic story about a man riding in a red Ind-Suzuki. With the money I made out of publishing that story, I bought my own Ind-Suzuki and rode through Kottayam,” he says.
All the while he drew the comic stories, Mathews also worked as an art teacher at a school in Kottayam, a job he held from 1967 to 2001.
For every request of a portrait that he now gets, Mathews gives a number, and the portrait of the person would appear on his page with that number, in order. As this story is written, no 489 has been posted. No 1 had appeared on December 16, 2019, exactly six months ago, which means Mathews has drawn more than one portrait every single day. “And I hope to do that till as long as I can,” he says.