Truth be told, I didn’t find Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons all that good. Like all political cartoons, they are abrasive and in-your-face, but lack the trenchant wit of great cartoonists like George Grosz and Robert Crumb.
Trivedi’s bestial drawings are intended to offend, and come from a place of pain. To call them cartoons is like calling Sonu Nigam a classical ustad.
Gang rape of Mother India? Come on. That’s as subtle as hitting me on the head with a Mayawati statue. Where is the satire in that? Kasab, as a dog, urinating on the Constitution? A cliché masquerading as cartoon.
Don’t get me wrong. I admire Trivedi. In him, I see the youthful idealism of someone I knew a long time ago: me. Trivedi believes that it is possible to instigate change and he is willing to go out on a limb for that. He seems to have a moral compass, which is more than you can say for some of those opposing him. The Parliament as a toilet bowl was a clever analogy. But this piece is not about constitutional law or about civic activism. It is about cartoons—an art form that seems to capture the mood of the moment.
Cartoons have become lightning rods for controversy. They are easy to share, take a short while—in these time-compressed times—to digest, and are often easy to understand. They compress the message and can, therefore, be quickly transmitted throughout the world—the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad being an example.
India has had fine cartoonists, in spite of the rap that we Indians don’t have a sense of humour. R.K. Laxman’s work had a narrative punch. You could imagine the backstory of the “common man” simply by what Laxman suggested on the page with a few lines. Mario Miranda’s cartoons were more tongue-in-cheek. They poked fun but originated from affection rather than malice.
I met Miranda once, at his home in Goa. He received me in his peach-coloured study with its high ceilings, black and white etchings, and well-placed curios. His hair was grey and his eyes were keen. He hobbled in using a stick and offered me his full name as sardonic introduction—Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto de Miranda—before instructing me to call him “Mario”. Three dogs came in after him as he sat down in his salon. It was during the Christmas holidays and Miranda’s house was full of people, including his daughter-in-law from Austria, family and friends. He hated Christmas, he said. He hated being “forced to be happy”. He was spending his days listening to the opera, drawing cartoons and making fun of his European neighbours who had moved to Goa to enjoy its unhurried pace and relaxed life. Susegad, as Miranda called it.
Cartoonists like Miranda and Bangalore’s Paul Fernandes, who runs aPaulogy, aren’t as strident as today’s political cartoonists. Although they aren’t political cartoonists in the tradition of Grosz, whose savage cartoons of Nazism earned him accolades, they share Grosz’s eye. As fellow cartoonist Matt Buck said, “Grosz drew with an unsparing eye and produced powerful reflections of what people do rather than what they say they do.” The same could be said of Miranda’s depictions of Goa and Fernandes’ depictions of Bangalore. Trivedi’s work is more like Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose depiction of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban sparked worldwide protests from Muslims. Subtle it is not.
Cartoons are a sophisticated instrument in the hierarchy of humour, falling above slapstick, jokes, humorous observations and wit. Cartoons use sarcasm, which requires an understanding of truth and irony. Psychologists say that children learn to lie as early as three years old, but learn sarcasm much later. People with certain forms of autism and brain damage cannot understand sarcasm with its biting wit and bitter hostility.
So why did Congress leader R.P. Pandey lodge a complaint against Trivedi? Why did West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee imprison Ambikesh Mahapatra, the professor who poked fun at her? Is it because Indians don’t have a sense of humour? I don’t think so. Judging from the Tamil movies that I favour, we Indians do have a sense of humour. It’s just that we prefer our humour to be lower down the totem pole. We like slapstick, just like babies. Babies laugh at slapstick: people tripping, wires pinging, cheeks popping. This is the humour that we are born with. With cultural conditioning comes the milieu that makes us appreciate sardonic wit or specific Sardarji jokes.
The problem with today’s cartoons and Trivedi’s in particular is that cartoons have lost their sense of humour. Insults are cheap and easy to do. Combining them with sarcasm and wit is hard and that is where Westergaard, Trivedi, and others like them fail.
Shoba Narayan may wax eloquent about wit and sarcasm but her sense of humour veers towards Tamil comedians Senthil and Goundamani: exponents of slapstick. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns