The future of political cartoons
Editorial cartoonists have critiqued India since the 1960s, even through the Emergency. Now, a clutch of new political satirists is emerging online
We have imposed press censorship to stop the spread of rumours,” declared Vidya Charan Shukla, then information and broadcasting minister, on 25 June 1975, at a press conference in New Delhi. The Emergency was announced later that day, but prime minister Indira Gandhi had already appointed Shukla, replacing Inder Gujral, for the job. “But why stop the spread of humour?” retorted Abu Abraham, then the editorial cartoonist at The Indian Express. The rising tension in the room somewhat dissipated.
This is one of many anecdotal footnotes about Abraham in Out Of Line: Cartoons, Caricature And Contemporary India, an Orient BlackSwan title of last year, by Christel R. Devadawson. The book assesses the evolution of graphic satire in India—from the trailblazer Kesava Shankar Pillai, who satirized astute British viceroys and infallible nationalists, to the diffused, unmeditated politics of a modern cartoonist like Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested on charges of sedition in 2012.
Abraham is one of Devadawson’s most interesting subjects, a man with firm fibre for dissent, as well as sympathy for the Congress party as a national entity. He was one of many political cartoonists who emerged from Kerala, starting at the legendary Shankar’s Weekly, Pillai’s cartoon journal which started soon after independence. Abraham went on to work with The Indian Express, lampooning Indian politics till his death in 2002. Others from Kerala, like O.V. Vijayan, Ranga and Kutty, also featured in Shankar’s Weekly. Vijayan was scathing in his panels during the Emergency, and so was Abraham—interested not just in summarizing, but constantly castigating and warning.
The first ever cartoon of E.P. Unny—who draws “Business As Usual” in The Indian Express—was published in Shankar’s Weekly. “It had a phenomenally wide institutional reach,” says Unny. It had Jawaharlal Nehru’s tacit support. On 17 May 1964, 10 days before his death, Pillai drew a portrait of an emaciated prime minister, a torch in hand, running the final leg of a race with party leaders Gulzarilal Nanda, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, V.K. Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi. Nehru responded, “Don’t spare me, Shankar.”
The political cartoonist is now in transition. Unny’s display cartoon appears occasionally on The Indian Express’ edit page, but he steadily follows the news and takes aim in “Business As Usual”, the pocket cartoon that the newspaper publishes on its front page (most mainstream English newspapers no longer regularly carry even a pocket strip on the front page). “Unless the news is alive, the cartoon won’t work. If the news is overtaken, I immediately change the cartoon so readers can relate to it better,” says Unny.
The overwhelming welter of information we incessantly consume today through pictures, text, and the moving image makes the cartoonist’s job tough. Many newspapers worldwide have done away with it. A profession that requires combining journalistic acuity with artistic singularity and crystallizing an opinion into a frame smaller than a standard postcard, is understandably ill-at-ease in the age of Instagram. It takes time for a budding cartoonist to get his groove, and for audiences to discover him.
In India, many newspapers still retain a cartoonist, especially the regional language dailies, but in the editorial scheme, the cartoonist is playful and illustrative, rather than a stand-alone opinion piece. Unny says the political cartoon in India has had an “uneven decline”. “Pick up any Malayalam newspaper, and it will have a cartoon both on the front page and inside as well. They also have great following. A newspaper like Mathrubhumi or the Malayala Manorama has circulation figures of 1.5-2 million. How many English newspapers have that?”
The Internet has given rise to a clutch of new political and social satirists; some very provocative artists have made their mark. In her book, Devadawson explains why the public space of the Internet can be unwittingly more fragile than the private imagination. Censorship and intolerance have serially targeted the Internet, and the Charlie Hebdo killings this year, and Trivedi’s arrest, when he created vitriolic cartoons satirizing political figures and corruption, are just two instances that will possibly contribute significantly to how cyberspace changes the character and reach of the political cartoonist.
Take Crocodile In Water, Tiger On Land (CWTL). In their second strip published online on 27 September 2010, this anonymous cartoonist duo from Kolkata introduced themselves: caricatured beings apologetically discussing urban upper-class disconnectedness with the reality of the “unwashed millions” outside the car in which they are travelling, and whether their comic strip should tackle such serious issues. When their car crashes into an autorickshaw, the male cartoonist-driver lets out a fusillade of abuses and name-dropping at the Bihari driver. The duo then return to the topic of “the disconnected elite and defenceless poor” and the male character even wonders if HarperCollins, the publishers, will like the cartoon.
Published online from their cubby-hole every Monday (“the best day of the week for insults”), CWTL gets between 1,500-4,000 hits on its site (www.crocodileinwatertigeronland.tumblr.com) every week. On a couple of occasions, the number of hits have been as high as 15,000. Now 250-strips old, when HarperCollins publishes a compilation of CWTL comic strips around August, they will make the transition from Web to print. Through 50-odd sardonic, annotated strips about Indian life over the last five years, the book is likely to be categorized under non-fiction. The cartoonists’ avowed anonymity, though, will remain intact.
After days of persuasion, when they decide to meet us for an interaction, ground rules are set: no photographs, no descriptors, no mentioning of names or location, and no giveaway background details. They demand that their gender not be disclosed or even the fact that we’ve met, but concessions are wrangled out on those fronts.
Is anonymity a ruse for greater creative liberties and daring? Can it be a cover for the stinging political commentary in CWTL and a safeguard against threats? Or, is anonymity essential to the anticipation built around the Monday “insults”?
“We wanted the work to be judged on its own merit. Besides, as comic geeks, being masked and anonymous appealed to us,” the CWTL duo wrote over email prior to the meeting.They don’t perceive any specific threats to themselves. Multiple instance of state-enforced censorship, politically motivated clampdowns, arrests of artists and dissenters, and overreaching laws like Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act (which led to many arrests but was later struck down by the Supreme Court in March), are backdrops to their oeuvre. One of their strips deals with the Rajya Sabha discussing an issue as trivial as radio jockeys spoofing members of Parliament, taking off from Union minister Prakash Javadekar’s reported statement calling it a “serious issue”. There is another one on being monitored by the government’s Electronic Media Monitoring Centre—far removed from Nehru asking Shankar to not spare him.
“Broadly, there are two kinds of threats. First is a crackdown from official quarters. Our work is based on published facts freely available in the public domain. While we lampoon everybody, we don’t abuse anybody,” they write. The other threat is from goons. “But that could happen to you if you went pubbing in Karnataka. Best not to sweat over these things.”
Beginning with their first overtly anti-establishment strip published in January 2011, where they also decisively introduced the television set representing the government and big media, CWTL has used every opportunity to dig beyond the rhetoric of progress and development: cleaning the Ganga is easily achieved through countless dams and barrages which solve the problem by cleaning the river off its very water; ATM guards are the first to be sacked by cost-cutting banks; and India’s mission to Mars is juxtaposed against its mission to construct toilets, with the strip suggesting daily shuttle service to Mars for those who poop in the open. In their recent strip published on 25 May, the television set returns with news of defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s controversial statement of neutralizing terrorists using terrorists. The duo shun slapstick in favour of researched and grounded intellectual satire—the caustic text by the man, the pen-on-paper minimalist drawings by the woman. They are even-handed in their criticism of the Congress, the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress.
More cyber opinions
Social media fuel the work of many cartoonists we met—three of them are Bengaluru’s Aarthi Parthasarathy, 30, and Rachita Taneja, 23, and Srinagar’s Mir Suhail, 25.
On 28 May, the Kashmir Reader, a daily newspaper in the Kashmir valley, carried a news report of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chairman Yasin Malik calling for a jail bharo andolan starting 29 May. The article quoted him expressing his dismay with the local press, which he felt, didn’t hold the state government accountable.
“I may not be very old, but I have seen a lot. We have a brutal law, AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), and people die every day. Last year, a friend of mine was killed in a protest. The Indian government says Kashmir is an integral part of India, but that is not how we are treated. Conflict is part of our life,” he says. This leads Mir to address issues with an urgency and nuance that may be lost on those who are not aware of the political issues in Kashmir. He is often attacked on Facebook, where he uploads his daily cartoons. Several of his cartoons are also widely shared. A recent Congress rally in Srinagar used one of Mir’s old cartoons of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Parthasarathy’s Royal Existentials is a weekly Web comic which uses miniature paintings to convey “historical (and contemporary) angst” with deadpan wit. The queen tells the king: “Dear King, these days, I’m just befuddled by people’s lack of engagement with issues that affect and confront them directly. I mean, it is clear by ignoring the real problem we become part of it, is it not?” The king responds: “He he he.. it’s so cute, how you make it sound like people actually want to learn and become better human beings.”
Taneja’s comics are simple doodles made with a black marker on a white sheet, often three or four panels long, with minimal text. “The point of Sanitary Panels is to be confrontational and offer my personal views on things that make me angry, or happy.”
The old and the new professional
Through the 1960s until the Noughties, the political cartoonist was influential, even without the kind of reach the Internet opens up today. In Maharashtra, the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray began his career as a cartoonist at The Free Press Journal in Mumbai, simultaneously published in the Sunday edition of The Times Of India. In 1960, he launched the cartoon weekly Marmik with his brother, using the paper to campaign against the growing influence of non-Marathis in Mumbai, targeting specifically Gujaratis and south Indians. He influenced many cartoonists in the state, including Shivram Dattatreya Phadnis, famous for his cartoons without captions.
More recently, editorial cartoonist Chandi Lahiri received encouragement from one of his subjects, the former Bengal chief minister B.C. Roy. Later, another chief minister Jyoti Basu revoked Lahiri’s press pass to enter the government’s administrative headquarters, Writers’ Building. Lahiri’s famous cartoon of the tormuj (watermelon: a Congressman on the exterior, with a Communist red core) has since become part of Bengali political lexicon. Younger artists like Sarbajit Sen continue to mark their work with pinching political and social dark humour.
Nationally, the late R.K. Laxman made the editorial cartoon iconic and, for the first time in India, popular. Like Thackeray, he began in The Free Press Journal. Also like Thackeray, the British cartoonist Sir David Low was his hero, and British magazines such as Punch, Tit-Bits, The Strand and Bystander, known for their illustrations, were his bible. Laxman’s “common man”, a silent witness to the shenanigans of politicians who are supposed to fulfil his hopes and aspirations but are instead always betraying him, had mass appeal. In the Laxman fold is Hemant Morparia, who, through his strip called “Cheerful Pessimist”, which appears in Mumbai Mirror and Money Life, has been working for more than 25 years as a cartoonist alongside his other profession in radiology.
While few like Mir, Taneja and Parthasarathy are developing their own language, the influence of Laxman on those who came to the profession even decades after him continues. Most professional cartoonists shun the path that Vijayan or Abraham practised. Instead of scathing commentary, they go either for gentle insinuations or the humorous gag. Whoever is in news is a soft target, which doesn’t necessarily build up a body of work based on a world view or a set of beliefs. Satish Acharya, 43, and Kantesh Badigar, 37, the winners of the first and second prizes of the Maya Kamath Memorial Awards 2015—an annual recognition of work in the field named after one of India’s few woman political cartoonists, by The Indian Institute of Cartoonists, Bengaluru—say they have derived their basic template from Laxman’s “You Said It” strip although neither of them work with a permanent character or set of characters. Acharya, based in Kundapur, Karnataka, says he draws two to three cartoons a day for websites and publications like Sify.com, Bollywoodhungama.com, Espncricinfo and Sports Illustrated. His first-prize winning cartoon, which got him Rs.25,000, was titled Baba Ramdev Gets Z-Category Security. “What most publications and websites prefer today are natural, realistic cartoons that don’t make very controversial statements but make you laugh,” says Acharya. He worked in the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day for 10 years before moving to his hometown to make a living out of cartooning.
Badigar, who lives in Dharwad, the cultural hub of north Karnataka, also works from home, mostly for Kannada publications, including the newspaper Usha Kiran. He tackles some darker themes, but adheres to a largely apolitical stance as Acharya.
Located in a 2,000 sq. ft basement off the arterial MG Road in Bengaluru, the Indian Institute of Cartoonists is the only nodal establishment of its kind in India. Born of the fertile imagination of V.G. Narendra—a career-cartoonist, with spells in leading dailies across the country—and bankrolled by the controversial Ashok Kheny, managing director of NICE Ltd (Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise), the space comprises a vast, if gloomy, gallery and a tiny office stacked with books and papers and a desk computer in a corner.
The institute, set up in 2001, 67-year-old Narendra tells us, came up with the sole purpose of supporting budding cartoonists, making available to them facilities and resources that were undreamt of when he was starting out on his career in Dharwad. Like the Kochi-based Kerala Cartoon Academy set up in the early 1980s, it allowed them to set up a network of cartoonists from across the country, organize them into a community and bring on board leading names like Mario Miranda and Laxman. Its Maya Kamath Memorial Awards, distributed this year on 6 June, had entries from as far as Cyprus, Macedonia and Croatia. A total of 91 entries came in for the Political Cartooning section, indicating that interest in the satirical art is alive and well.
The institute conducts workshops for participants of all ages; at the most recent one in May, the youngest sign-up was all of 12 years of age. “We teach everything from drawing straight lines to expressing their ideas without speech bubbles, so that they are accessible anywhere in the world. We also include basics of caricaturing, comics, political cartoons, social cartoons,” says Narendra. With his pulse on emerging cartoonists, Narendra believes the Internet will keep political cartooning alive.
Is the future of original, acerbic political cartooning then in the likes of CWTL? Though students for many decades of cartoons by artists like Robert Crumb, Garry Trudeau, Hergé, Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Orijit Sen (their Indian “hero”), who published under their real names, the CWTL duo wanted to remain anonymous even as the comic went online with their Tumblr website and Facebook page. Over 6,400 followers on Facebook like and share their spoofy outrage every week.
Over tea and cigarettes at their Kolkata home, they give out snippets from their lives: student life in Kolkata and New Delhi; a shared interest in cartooning; marriage, living and breathing within Kolkata’s cultural spaces; drawing inspiration from the heft of Bengali satirical writing from 19th century Bengali literature like Hutom Pyanchar Naksha, to the contemporary writer Nabarun Bhattacharya; and an alignment in their political thinking. “Somebody once described our comics as pro-poor,” the woman laughs. “Tell me, what is pro-poor? Is there such a term? Can anybody be anti-poor?”
Elizabeth Kuruvilla and Sumana Mukherjee contributed to this story.
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