Mathew Abraham was born in Mavelikara, Kerala, India on 11 June 1924, the son of A.M. Mathew, a lawyer. His family was Syrian Christian, from Attupurathu, and he began to draw caricatures at the age of three.
Abraham studied French, mathematics and, from 1943, English at the Travancore University in Kerala, where he was also tennis champion. After graduating in 1945 he moved to Bombay, where he worked as a reporter on the Bombay Sentinel from 1946 to 1949. He drew cartoons in his spare time, and published them in a racy downmarket magazine called Blitz, and in a political publication called Bharat. In 1951, following an invitation from Shankar, the doyen of Indian cartooning, Abraham became staff cartoonist on the satirical magazine Shankar's Weekly in New Delhi.
In 1953 Abraham came to Britain on a "short visit", but stayed on, contributing cartoons to Punch, Everybody's, London Opinion, Daily Sketch and other publications. In 1956 he got a job drawing cartoons for Tribune, then edited by Michael Foot, which he signed "Abraham". Soon afterwards he was poached by David Astor, editor of the Observer, who declared that "I want to buy you out of the Tribune", and gave him his letter of appointment the following day, after a confrontation with Foot.
Abraham was determined to succeed. "From the day I arrived in England I didn't waste time", he later recalled: "I listened to all radio programmes including Woman's Hour and Children's Hour just to educate myself...By the time that I got the job at the Observer, I knew the country, its socio-political history and the idioms, very well."
Abraham was the Observer's first staff political cartoonist, and drew a cartoon each week. He admitted that it was "a great strain to produce something every Friday", but by sheer effort he managed to increase his speed of working to accommodate the weekly schedule. One of his first Observer cartoons dealt with the Middle East, which led Astor to suggest that the signature "Abraham" was inappropriate for such work. Abraham offered to sign the Observer cartoons with his nickname "Abu", and Astor considered this "suitably mysterious". Abraham used it for the rest of his career.
Abraham admitted that his strong opinions brought "a lot of objection from people, even my own colleagues". The criticism was political rather than racist, although at first "there were some nut-cases who used to write saying 'go back where you came from', and that kind of thing." In 1966 Abraham moved from the Observer to the daily Guardian, where he worked as pocket cartoonist alongside Bill Papas. From 1966 he also resumed contributing cartoons to Tribune, using his former signature "Abraham".
Abraham worked in dip pen and indian ink, and also used a Chinese brush. He drew his cartoons while standing up, smoking his cedar pipe, and later claimed that producing daily pocket cartoons for the Guardian really taught him to draw fast. He argued that "a good cartoon is like a poster", and at its best his work was simple and bold. "I wish I could draw like a child," he said towards the end of his career: "If I can adopt that kind of a style for political cartoons, it would be a great achievement. It is very difficult to get that kind of simplicity and appeal."
In 1969 a cartoon which Abraham drew for Tribune, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, was attacked by some readers as racist, and, according to Michael Foot, this finally "persuaded him to return to his native India". Abraham went back to Delhi, where he worked at the anti-establishment Indian Express from 1969, drawing cartoons and writing comment pieces. In 1970 an animated film he had made, called No Arks, received a special award from the British Film Institute.
Abraham became a well-known public figure, and in 1972 was nominated for a six-year term in the Rajya Sabha - the upper house of the Indian parliament. Initially a supporter of Indira Gandhi, he subsequently attacked her in a series of cartoons after she declared a state of emergency in 1975. Abraham left parliament in 1978, and retired from the Indian Express in 1981. He returned to Kerala, where he died in Thiruvananthapuram on 1 December 2002. Abraham was cremated with full state honours, and the upper house of the Indian parliament held a two-minute silence in his honour.
- Ian J. Scott (ed) British Cartoonists Year Book 1964 (London, 1963), p.9.
- Interview with Abu Abraham at www.rediff.com.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.1.
- Kuldip Singh "Abu Abraham: Unsparing Cartoonist Renamed by David Astor", The Independent, 5 December 2002, p.22.
- Michael McNay "Abu Abraham", The Guardian, 7 December 2002, p.26.
- Michael Foot "Abu Abraham", The Guardian, 7 December 2002, p.26.
- The Times, 11 December 2002, p.34, "Abu Abraham."