Cartoon’s cultural statement gains national recognition for H.S. artist

Kaavya Ramachandran’s cartoon illustrating the dilemma facing high school students with uniquely spelled last names and pronunciations won her a Silver Key Award in the nationally recognized Scholastics Art and Writing competition.


Lauren Serge | Staff Writer

Kaavya Ramachandran has never taken an art class, but that did not stop the Mason High School junior from entering one of the nation’s most prestigious art and writing competitions.

Based on personal experience, Ramachandran created a piece entitled “Dilemma,” a political cartoon which creatively shares her thoughts on mispronunciation in social situations.

Despite her lack of art training, Ramachandran decided to submit her piece to the Scholastic Art and Writing competition, and later recieved a Silver Key for her commentary.
The cartoon depicted the struggles Ramachandran has personally faced when questioned about the pronunciation and spelling of her last name. The sketched character of Ramachandran contemplates the various methods she could utilize when saying her name, from stripping its cultural significance, to fleeing the scene.

Through lighthearted humor, the cartoon portrayed her personal strains when confronted about her last name, yet Ramachandran said her inspiration was prompted by the commonality of mispronunciation for many different people.

“The moment in the cartoon isn’t specific to one culture because a lot of people have long last names or first names that are difficult to pronounce and those people get misunderstood a lot,” Ramachandran said. “I feel like it’s an experience that a lot of people have and can relate to, so I thought I could do something with it.”

Her notion awarded her a Silver Key, an acknowledgement Ramachandran said was a pleasant surprise considering she is not enrolled in any art classes.

“It was insane,” Ramachandran said. “I wasn’t anticipating it at all, like the day national results came out, I was refreshing the page all day, so it was very exciting to see that recognition. I don’t use a drawing tablet or anything like that either, so I’m happy they considered it worthy.”

By improving her drawings through the scribble feature on the notes app, Ramachandran decided to submit her piece after applying to the writing category. The editorial cartoon category is a recent addition to the Scholastic art section, sponsored by the Herb Block Foundation, and Ramachandran said she had doubts about the propriety of her creation.

“I was worried about whether or not it would qualify as a political cartoon because I wasn’t totally sure if it was giving a fully political message,” Ramachandran said. “But I realized, it is saying something socially, about not having to feel ashamed or compensate for my last name in any way.”

The message Ramachandran conveyed amplifies the viewpoint she felt had not been shared in the past, demonstrating the feelings of the person with the complex last name. It displays her character battling through several thoughts, cautious not to offend the opposite perspective. Ramachandran said this idea of confusion and discretion is widely more prevalent than the idea of insensitivity.

“It’s just kind of people not knowing what to do in the situation. I’m terrible at names myself, but I don’t want to make someone feel bad because of my mistake,” Ramachandran said. “On the other end, people don’t want to offend anybody, so it’s sort of a minefield, as you’re trying to not make anybody upset. It’s benign because the intention is usually not to be hurtful or insensitive or racist, it’s just an experience that needed to be brought to light, specifically the perspective of the person with the difficult name. “

For people with elaborate names, Ramachandran said the issue of how they are articulated occurs often, a factor which she and others alike have become accustomed to, rather than offended by.

“It’s the moment when the substitute teachers get to a lull in the attendance sheet, you just raise your hand because you know it’s you,” Ramachandran said. “I know a lot of people who have names like mine, that have a lot of letters in them or a lot of vowels next to each other, we get it at this point that a lot of people aren’t going to get our names right on the first try. We’re getting to the point where it doesn’t affect us anymore, but then it’s the question of whether we should be offended because it’s a cultural thing, and if you’re not being true to yourself.”

This internal conflict is conquered in different ways for each person, some of which are demonstrated in Ramachandran’s cartoon. Ramachandran personally tries to enunciate based on the language she speaks at home, but she said the methods used by each individual should not be regretted as the aims on both ends of the spectrum are frequently good natured.

“It’s sort of a thing that’s specific to the person. I always try to say it with the accent and the Tamil inflection, and if they cannot understand it, then I say it with an American inflection just to make it easier to understand,” Ramachandran said. “My overall intention is to never make somebody feel bad about something they can’t control; no one should feel guilty on either side of the scenario. Even at the Scholastic awards, I had to give my last name,so I could be seated. So, even where I was being awarded for the issue, I was experiencing the issue. I realized it really came full circle.”