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Indian caricaturists: jesters as commentators

Understanding what makes political caricature funny to some but not to others is critical today, the author of these analyses of Indian caricature through the ages tells this writer

Geetanjali Krishna 

“On the Runway” by R K Laxman, printed in TheTimes of India in 1960. Reprinted with permission from Caricaturing culture in India

Author: Ritu G Khanduri

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages: 355
Price: $95

What is it about cartoons and caricatures that invite offence and violent protests from some and an unwavering allegiance to free speech from others? The tragedy that recently unfolded in the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris has brought to the fore the debate on the politics of humour. Who laughs at what — and who doesn’t — is a striking reflection of social and political relationships in society. This is why Ritu Gairola Khanduri’s refreshingly original book, Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World, which traces India’s political history through political caricatures across the ages, is timely and important.

“Political caricatures are not merely funny, two-dimensional images,” says Khanduri, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in University of Texas at Arlington College of Liberal Arts, in an interview to Business Standard. As a visual reaction to events, cartoons have the ability to reflect as well as shape public opinion. “They’re complex images with layers of sub-textual meaning. Understanding what makes them funny to some but not to others is what we need to understand, especially in our present times,” she says. Khanduri’s academic research is peppered with interviews of cartoonists, vignettes that enliven the book tremendously. The excerpted interviews and letters from prominent Indian cartoonists Kutty, Bireshwar, Samuel, R K Laxman, Suresh Sawant and Mita Roy among others add an interesting human element to Khanduri’s research.

“Bridging the Gulf” by K Shankar Pillai, 1949. Reprinted with permission from Caricaturing culture in India
Towards the beginning of the book, using political cartoons published during the colonial era, Khanduri draws attention to how Gandhi, as the editor of Indian Opinion, the multilingual newspaper for Indians in South Africa, understood the importance of cartoons as a means of generating a newspaper-literate readership in India. In fact, letters from him to political associates show how closely he followed British political cartoons, even as he himself became the subject of many of them. “As editor, he decoded the hidden meanings in imperialist cartoons, and tried to educate his readers about how to interpret them,” says Khanduri. Later, however, as leader of the Congress, Gandhi reprimanded Shankar, the famous cartoonist of the Hindustan Times, for satirising the Congress! Thus, the refusal to laugh at a cartoon is also contextual, and says a great deal about undercurrents and balance of power in social relationships.

Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World
This is interestingly brought out by Khanduri’s analysis of the influence of Punch, the premier English satirical magazine, on pre-Independence Indian audiences. The magazine developed Hindi, Gujarati and Awadhi versions, to name some. Being in local languages, the content was inaccessible to the British, giving them some leeway to satirise colonial rule. She likens Punch to the popular character of Sanskrit drama, the Vidushaka, a jester and a commentator.

Reviewing the work of Laxman, India’s best-known cartoonist, the author points out how the jester/commentator can also shape public opinion. Laxman’s Common Man cartoons were a cynical portrayal of Indian governance, generating an early discourse on corruption. Abu Abraham’s fearless cartoons during the Emergency, the formation of Bangladesh and the Vietnam War also illustrate this point.

The early and mid-1990s saw debates on censorship of political humour. It was, however, in 2005 that the issue of censorship of cartoons came centre stage with the publication of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s cartoons of Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. What was humour for some was blasphemy for others and political humour was no longer a mere laughing matter. Matters have now come to a head with the killing of 11 people from Charlie Hebdo over the nature of cartoons it has published.

“The Charlie Hebdo incident is an unmitigated tragedy, but the debate it has resulted in, both offline and online, will go a long way in enabling people to be more informed about sub-textual meanings when they read cartoons and satire,” Khanduri says. “Protest and debate are part of the democratic process. They’re opportunities to discuss politics at the ground. In a democracy, the refusal to laugh at a joke need not necessarily mean that one lacks a sense of humour, or that one is authoritarian.” Protests against cartoons emerge from ideological positions and it is essential that they be seen in their specific contexts. In many ways, the author posits, such debate is useful. “Moreover,” she says, “it has forced us all to think long and hard about what it means to be liberal in these modern times.”

First Published: Sat, January 24 2015. 00:28 IST