Nails in the cartoon coffin

May 22, 2012, 07:21 IST | Sudeshna Chowdhury

First, it was a Mamata Banerjee cartoon that led to the arrest of a professor, now an Ambedkar cartoon has invited the ire of politicians. This could be the beginning of the end of political cartoons in India, say cartoonists

The Join, or Die is perhaps the world’s most influential political cartoon. Published on May 9, 1754, the cartoon soon became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War. The cartoon had a huge impact on America and was widely used by various newspapers in the US. Devised by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, to emphasize union of American colonies, experts say that the Join, or Die was one of the most popular cartoons in American history. On May 9, 2012, America’s first political cartoon completed 258 years. While newspapers in the US and then Great Britain provided political cartoonists, their rightful share of recognition and fame, political cartoons in India is a relatively a new phenomenon, mostly post independence.

Father of Cartooning
Shankar, who drew the Babasaheb Ambedkar cartoon is hailed as, ‘the father of cartooning in India’, according to the Indian Institute of Cartoonists (IIC), an organization in Bangalore, established with the aim of promoting the art of cartooning in the country. VG Narendra, Managing Trustee of IIC, who directly worked with Shankar, recollects, “While I was studying in school, I was inspired by Shankar’s cartoons published in Shankar’s Weekly, India’s first journal of political cartoons. I contributed political cartoons to daily newspapers while I was studying in college. After my graduation I went to Mumbai in search for a job. I started contributing my political cartoons to Free Press Journal (FPJ) in Mumbai. One day the Advertising Manager of FPJ, told me that during his recent visit to New Delhi he met Shankar and that he appreciated my political cartoons published on the front page of FPJ. I wrote to Shankar. Shankar later sent a message asking me to meet him at his office. I went to New Delhi and met him at Shankar’s Weekly office. I also worked with him for a week and drew many political cartoons. Then Shankar asked me to contribute political cartoons regularly for Shankar’s Weekly. I started sending my cartoons from Mumbai and they used to appear in Shankar’s Weekly regularly. After six months, he asked me to join him. Then I went to New Delhi to join Shankar’s Weekly and learnt a lot about cartoons while working with him. I can’t forget those memorable moments. When Shankar’s Weekly was closed down in 1975 because of Emergency, I came down to Bangalore to join Samyukta Karnataka, a popular Kannada Daily. In fact, Shankar's Weekly had become a launching pad for many cartoonists.”

Then and Now
The Emergency period spelt doom for political cartoons in India. Yet again, it is a tumultuous time for political cartoonists in the country. Lately, cartoons have invited the ire of a few political leaders in the country. First, a Jadavpur University professor was arrested for allegedly spreading “anti-Mamata Banerjee” cartoons through Internet. A few days ago, the Parliament was disrupted over a cartoon done by Shankar in 1949, which shows Ambedkar seated on a snail named Constitution and Jawaharlal Nehru whipping it from behind. While many political leaders have suggested that the ‘offensive’ cartoon be removed from the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) book, others want a ban on the book itself. Many political cartoonists in India feel that quite a few events this year point towards something dangerous for the cartooning industry. “It is the beginning of the end for political cartoons in India,” laments Prasannan Anickad, President of the Kerala Cartoon Academy. About the recent row over Shankar’s cartoon, VG Narendra clarifies, “The cartoon was drawn 63 years ago with good intention and with good wit and humour. The row is surely a blow to Indian democracy and freedom of expression. It is very unfortunate and uncalled for. Politicians are becoming intolerant to cartoons nowadays.”

Freedom of Speech
While most cartoonists maintain that a backlash or ban from political leaders will not deter them from doing their job, some feel that the fear is bound to creep in eventually. Prabhakar Wairkar, cartoonist, said, “To help cartoonists, the common man and intellectuals should come forward and strongly react against any form of dictatorship. Otherwise, the future of political cartoonists is quite bleak in our country. Earlier, newspapers had cartoons on their front pages. We don’t see this happening anymore as publications too fear a backlash from various political groups. Hence, they don’t take chances. If politicians continue to behave in an undemocratic manner, I fear that no one will be able to draw a cartoon of any political leader. The downfall of the cartooning industry, especially political cartoons, has already begun. The political atmosphere is the country is not conducive to the growth of political cartoonists.” Perhaps this is the reason, why young cartoonists prefer to draw social cartoons over political cartoons. “In social cartoons, one has more freedom and the fear of a backlash is much less,” said Wairkar.

With the common man: R K Laxman at the IIC Gallery

On the Ambedkar cartoon row, Wairkar said, “Cartoons are bound to be exaggerated, witty and humourous. Otherwise, it is not a cartoon at all. The recent cartoon row was aimed at curbing the freedom of expression and that is why Shankar’s cartoon was blown out of proportion.” B G Gujarappa, who has spent 30 years in the industry, said in a telephonic interview from Bangalore, “Earlier politicians were enlightened and civilized, but, this is not the case today.” He further added, “Hardly any newspaper encourages cartoonists nowadays. A cartoonist is also a writer and an illustrator. To think of an idea and replicate it on a sheet of paper requires a lot of effort and we want people to recognize that effort. We need to respect every individual expression, as we live in a democratic country. I would urge people to prevent the Talibanisation of India.”  Sudheer Nath, a cartoonist in Delhi whose cartoon on Mayawati irked Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) workers believes that politicians have a habit of taking things out of context. “The parliamentarians who raised the issue had no idea about the cartoonist or the context of the cartoon. Hence one cannot reason with them.” Despite cartoonists saying that death of political cartoons is imminent, there are a few optimists who still believe that threats or disapproval, will not act as a deterrent. V G Narendra believes that cartoonists are relentless, “The real cartoonist is not afraid of any backlash and he will go on tickling the funny bone with his sharp wit and humour.” 

On display: A picture taken on May 15, 2012 shows American cartoonist Kevin KAL Kallaugher gesturing next to his drawings during an exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. Political cartoons are “on the frontline of freedom” as recent attacks on cartoonists in Iran and Syria showed, said famous American cartoonist Kevin KAL Kallaugher. Pic/AFP

Cartoon row
>> Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested April 13 after he circulated 'defamatory' cartoons of some Trinamool Congress leaders including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee . The professor had circulated the mail by using the registered mail id of his housing society. Mahapatra's arrest had evoked severe criticism from all quarters, while many others chose social networking sites to vent their ire by ridiculing the Banerjee government for the police action. The collage allegedly includes photographs of Banerjee and Railway Minister Mukul Roy. It also uses some dialogues of Satyajit Ray's detective masterpiece on celluloid, 'Sonar Kella' showing the duo discussing how to get rid of Dinesh Trivedi, who was forced by Banerjee to give up the railways portfolio.
>> A cartoon on B R Ambedkar in an NCERT textbook rocked both Houses of Parliament, prompting the government to apologise and order the removal of the "objectionable" sketch. As Opposition leaders created an uproar over the cartoon, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal said he was not personally responsible for the row but had "no hesitation in apologising to the nation". He said a committee formed by his ministry was already reviewing all such "objectionable matters in textbooks". The cartoon, first published in 1960s by renowned cartoonist Shankar in his weekly magazine and reproduced in NCERT Class XI political science textbooks depicts Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip in his hand chasing Ambedkar, who is seated on a snail. In the cartoon, Nehru is asking Ambedkar to speed up the work on the Constitution. Outside the house, Communist Party of India member D Raja, who had given a notice to raise the issue in the Zero Hour, expressed surprise over the cartoon finding a place in the book and not coming to the notice of the government for long. "It (the cartoon) is being published in this book since 2006," said Raja —Agencies

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