Because, says Sadanand Menon, their task appears to be to perform almost exclusively for the benefit of cartoonists!
Politicians in South Asian countries do not work for the people, they work for the benefit of cartoonists — this appeared the consensus at the first-ever South Asian Cartoonist’s Congress last weekend, in Kathmandu, which assembled together 40 political cartoonists from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.
The irreverent jibe became the leitmotif of the event along with a symposium on the state of political cartooning in the region, presentations by cartoonists and scholars, an exhibition of Nepali cartoons and a retrospective of the late Abu Abraham.
Indian cartoonist Manjula Padmanabhan, known for her strip Double Talk (featuring “Suki”) set the tone when she said, “We cartoonists sit with the demon of mortality on our desks and drawing boards and make it sing and dance.” She saw cartooning as an act of mitigating the stress induced by our knowledge of the inevitability of death. She also warned that the cartoonist is not necessarily a funny person. “Often they are grumpy and difficult,” she proclaimed.
Sudhir Tailang, currently with Asian Age but for long with The Hindustan Times, bemoaned that cartoonists might soon become an extinct species because political developments in the region were increasingly throwing up political leaders who were caricatures in the original. “Now, how do you draw a caricature of a caricature?” he wanted to know.
While the history of political cartooning in India has had a pantheon of star names who also happened to be brilliant editorial and creative writers, like Shankar, O V Vijayan, Abu Abraham, Kutty, Rajinder Puri and so on, few will deny that the line overtook the word several times in the history of Indian media.
The first instance was during the Emergency, the second after the demolition of Babri Masjid, and a third time after the Gujarat riots, post-Godhra. These were moments when cartoonists with their ellipse of language were able to better express the politics of hatred and the threat of authoritarianism in the air. Any compilation of cartoons from these periods will show how effective these journalists were in “naming the beast” and exposing its nefarious intent.
Editorial cartoonists are able to deliver sharp political messages transcending limitations of language and editorial or state control. The cartoonist is often able to humble pompous or megalomaniac politicians through practised satire, irony, arcasm or pure ridicule.
It was in recognition of this crucial role in protecting and nurturing the public space for dissent, critique and commentary that the congress had been organised under the stewardship of Himal editor Kanak Mani Dixit.
As media censorship continues to remain a reality in much of South Asia, it was felt that a closer look at the manner in which cartoonists face the challenges of state as well as mob censorship, their acts of negotiation or compromise while cartooning in local languages as well as the step-child status for cartooning in the editorial pecking order, would yield some insights.
What was very clear from the testimonies of cartoonists like Durga Baral (“Vatsyayan”) of Nepal or Arifur Rahman from Bangladesh and Sabir Nazar of Friday Times, Pakistan, was that not only is political cartooning in these countries serious business, it is also a risky business, as they come under attack from the state, from powerful political players, from underground militant outfits and from religious bigots.
The case of Delhi-based cartoonist Irfaan, whose body was found in mysterious circumstances, is yet to be solved. Arifur Rahman is under constant threat from religious fanatics for having chosen to lampoon the irrationality of the mullahs in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s most outspoken cartoonist (for Dawn, Karachi), Rafique Ahmed (“Feica”), described how he grew up in a culture where drawing was considered “sin”. Today, he is seen as sinning every day, but as he said cheekily, “I’m in the newspaper because the editor can’t draw.”
Most political cartoonists are considered an asset to editorial teams for their ability to see ahead, to anticipate. The craft of reducing lines and ideas to a compact shape confers upon most cartoonists an ability to “read” into current politics with greater perspicacity.
This often lends them a historical perspective that can look into the future and unravel a tangled thread. O V Vijayan anticipated the fascist character of the nascent Hindutva politics in a cartoon in The Hindu in1970, 20 years before it became “full blown”.
Abu, through his cartoons in the Indian Express in the early 1970s, saw the steady transformation of Indira Gandhi from an innocent entrant in politics to the fearsome authoritarian of the Emergency years. R K Laxman traced the trajectory of L K Advani from the moment he got on to his Matador van tricked up as a “rath” in 1989, fuelled on passions of the communal divide, leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
Laxman began by drawing a normal size Advani with a normal size crown on his head. As months passed, Advani’s head began bloating and his crown shrinking, until the politician looked like a comical figure. It is interesting that Laxman never restored the crown of the PM-in-waiting to its normal size later.
Yet, there was a distinct feeling among the participants that the cartoonist was accorded an inferior status within any newspaper’s editorial. It was only in the early years of the 21st century that the Indian Express began carrying Unny’s cartoons as third edits, to be followed a few years later by The Hindu which, after an elaborate re-design, brought the window cartoon on to the edit page, giving new dignity to the work of Keshav and Surendra.
Kunda Dixit, editor, Nepal Times, said the situation in Nepal over the past decade and the work of the cartoonists during that phase had changed the way they were treated in Nepali papers. “I treat cartoonists as I’d treat any other columnist,” he said, clarifying that “since cartoons tend to exaggerate the stereotype, some attention has to be paid to the sensibilities they might hurt”. However, all the participants were unanimous in their contention that the worst form of censorship is the “self-censorship” they themselves are induced to practice due to fear and internal constraints.
Ajit Ninan Mathew of The Times of India drew a question mark over the kind of cartooning that might survive, given that cartoonists are also called upon to play a marketing role by their media establishments. He said that while his uncle Abu Abraham believed in the existence of two types of cartoonists — those who drew black and those who drew white, he himself conceptualised this as the simplicity school (as in Tailang) or the clutter school (as in Mario Miranda).
Both are eminently workable styles as long as you don’t add captions. “If you add a caption, you are giving a chance to the editor to edit it,” he concluded in a droll manner, adding that nowadays the threat has increased “as proprietors have become editors”.
The air of irreverence generated by this group over the two days was enough to convince anyone that political malfeasance of every shade will find these modern-day crusaders facing up to it and finding that chink in the armour of the powerful through which to bring them down a peg.
A PEA BELOW THE PILLOW OF POWER
Perhaps it was Picasso who said, “It is not the job of the artist to clean up the mess left behind by politics and society.” But I dare say it is the job of cartoonists to clean up the mess around them. This makes most cartoonists deep moralists, always with a finger on the moral temperature of the political and social body.
Abu Abraham was no exception and went on to be described in The Guardian, before he returned to India after a 12-year stint in the UK, as “the conscience-keeper of the Left and a pea under the Princesses mattress”. He was certainly a pea below the pillow of power and proceeded to convert his next 12-year stint with the Indian Express into one of the most memorable equations between a paper and a cartoonist in the Indian media. The only comparable equation is that between R K Laxman and The Times of India.
Abu’s brilliant 1972 cartoon, after Richard Nixon was voted out following the Watergate Scandal, showed a sharply drawn sketch of the White House with a single-line plaque, “Richard Nixon Lied Here 1964-72”. The punch couldn’t have been bloodier. Or his brilliant 1981 take on the caste-based vote-banks that Indian elections had got reduced to in the wake of the consolidation of “identity politics”. The cartoon showed a ballot box reading, not “Cast your vote here” but “Vote your caste here”.
Abu’s special ability was in seeing humans as animal incarnates. Indira Gandhi’s long nose could be stretched to the beak of a stork or of a mother hen, Jagjivan Ram deconstructed into a wide-mouthed fish, Morarji Desai became a fox, and EMS an owl.
I remember reading an interview with Abu soon after he returned to work in India in 1969, in one of the Sunday supplements. I was still in college and his remark on his working process left a deep impression. Asked what his cartooning method was, his response was memorable, “I see everything in extensions of form; an elephant, after all, is only a pig with an elongated nose.” On occasion he could play with this and sometimes the elephant became Gandhiji with an elongated nose.
While his Emergency cartoons of the period June 1975 to February 1977 (many of them stamped “Not passed by censor”) were justifiably called “single line editorials” (like, where in Private View he says, “They sure have a good censor of humour”), my own favourite moment in Abu is when he gets affected enough by contemporary events to personalise his window cartoon. So, when he sees the spectre of rising fundamentalism, he pauses to ask the “beast”, “What have you done to my muse?” Obviously, it is a question every citizen should be asking.
THE DRAMATIC DIVIDE
Husejin Hanusic (“Hule”) from Bosnia and Herzegovina was declared the winner of the first-ever South Asian Cartoon Competition. The competition, announced in the month of June, drew an enthusiastic response with 376 entries from across south Asia and its neighborhood — Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, and the Philippines. Submissions also came from Brazil, the US and Russia.
Considering that the general standard of cartooning in the region is exceptionally high, it was surprising the winners were from outside the region. However, one look at the prize-winning entries is enough to show up the differences in approach. For instance, the painterly approach of “Hule” does not have any parallels in the region. His use of watercolours to add an emotional content to visuals with no words or captions was rated as a very special feature. In fact, none of the winning entries took recourse to captions.
It was particularly significant that cartoonists from South Asian countries felt they shared a common adversary, their own respective hard/soft states, and often discovered that they were speaking the same symbolic language. Considering that they found no admittance into the portals of “high art”, say, the Lalit Kala Akademi in India, and often found even media organisations marginalising them when they came under assault, cartoonists felt it was time to evolve cross-border institutions that would take care of the specific needs of political cartoonists.
The need was also expressed for setting up cross-regional cartoon archives as well as initiating well-designed training workshops and appreciation programmes. The 20 best cartoons from the present “competition” can be viewed on the Editors’ Pick list of the Himal website himalmag.com.