CARICATURING CULTURE IN INDIA:
CARTOONS AND HISTORY IN THE MODERN WORLD;
Author: Ritu G Khanduri
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.
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.”