Doodling for a cause
Hemant Morparia’s subversive cartoons undermine authority, mock the powerful and expose biases
A voice behind a curtain asks me to wait just a bit. “I’m with a patient,” he says. I assume it belongs to Hemant Morparia. Ten minutes later, I try to match the person in the hallway to his familiar self-caricature; the forehead is clearly the exaggerated feature, and I observe that his moustache is no longer stand-alone; it is connected to the beard underneath his chin. The rectangular-framed glasses serve as the link connecting the real-life person to the cartoon counterpart, making him instantly recognizable.
It is 7pm. We are at Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital, one of three places where he practises as a radiologist. He leads me into a vacant sonography room so we can chat at ease about his solo exhibition, Motabhai Is Watching You, ahead of its opening at Sakshi Salon, Colaba. I think of Cornered, the title of his single-square cartoon format for Mumbai Mirror. It describes my journalistic manoeuvre on him.
Given his daunting schedule as a consulting radiologist and the current non-functional state of his cellphone, I had to corner him into an interview by asking to meet him at his workplace. I expect a matter-of-fact, let’s-get-on-with-this attitude. Instead, I encounter someone who indulges my questions and speaks with rare candidness about the country’s political state. “I’m a pessimist, not a cynic,” he tells me shortly after I mention the 2019 election. “That’s what my recent cartoon was about,” he says, referring to what he had drawn for the 1 August edition of the paper: a scene in the offices of the Election Commission where a bureaucrat, dressed in grey, says to his superior, seated behind the desk, “What say we declare Modi the winner, cancel the 2019 general elections, and save the Govt. 1000s of crores?” The senior officer’s expression indicates that he is actually considering the proposition.
I assume, looking at Morparia’s recent body of work, that he shares that sense of doom about the present state of affairs. Surprisingly, he doesn’t. It’s not that different from what we’ve seen before, he suggests. Still, his ongoing exhibition at Sakshi Salon is au courant with the emerging culture of government surveillance. Using pun-based humour, it plays on the Gujarati adage of Motabhai as an endearing term for a protective brother figure. At the same time, it refers to the ever-watchful, omnipresent nature of Narendra Modi’s presence across billboards, newspapers and public relations machinery.
Morparia began “cartooning” during a residency at KEM Hospital in Parel, Mumbai, nearly 30 years ago, starting out with The Illustrated Weekly Of India in 1986. He has exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (2002), Sakshi Gallery (2004), and Alliance Française (2009 and 2010).
“It has to work at different levels,” Morparia says when I ask what makes a political cartoon tick. While he has no hesitation in working with more populist vocabulary, he is not afraid of intellectual directions. Between consultations, he slips away to his home in Walkeshwar to sketch his cartoon for the following day. But the empty page is rarely ever a blank slate—Morparia always approaches it with an idea that has been fermenting in his mind during his daily routine.
The beauty of the exhibition at Sakshi Salon is that it offers viewers, many of whom are likely to be long-time readers, an unprecedented glimpse into his artistic process, besides showcasing his recent exploration of sculpture.
Viewed as a set, the 50 cartoons demonstrate his understated facility with punch lines, and for capturing the political pulse of the present “post-truth” era, one that is undoubtedly febrile for all forms of comedy, particularly satire. One cartoon in the set has Modi, dressed in a toga, lying by the edge of a pool surrounded by lotuses, gazing at his own reflection, channelling the Greek myth of Narcissus. “…And what shall we do for Valentine’s Day?” he asks his reflected other. The original, on display in the show, shows a sketch to the left of the final cartoon, exposing Morparia’s formal strategy. Some such notes are confined to the date of the cartoon.
All are originals, not just in terms of their provenance, but their brand of humour, ranging from keen puns that mock recent right-wing trends and policies—like a wasp nest hanging from a branch that has one wasp greeting another with, “Honey I’m Home!!”; the tag line says, “Ghar Waspi”. Or one that has a spiritual leader, or perhaps god himself, speaking to a bunch of eager followers, “After death, as per your karma, you will be reincarnated…but as per new rules, you will need your Aadhaar card for it,” a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the identity card being made mandatory for the processing of virtually every kind of bureaucratic endeavour.
The show also includes five sculptures. Four are of political, popular, and historical figures in resin, steel and clay: L.K. Advani, Rajinikanth, Barack Obama, and the excavated site of Mohenjo Daro. The fifth—a set of oddly bent spoons—is an extension of a cartoon from June 2016, of a similar mise-en-scène with the accompanying text, “Spoon-bending tricks? Or Chamchas doing yoga?”
“I love working with my hands,” Morparia confesses when I ask about his newfound fascination with the sculptural medium. It explains his Twitter bio, “cartoonist, sculptor, doctor, learning to play congo drums and djembe. And learning to cook a bit…” The one confirmed hobby missing from his list is archery, a sport that, like cartooning, relies on a skilfully targeted attack.
Motabhai Is Watching You is on till 9 September, at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai. For details, visit Sakshigallery.com.