Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Meet the excavator of wit
After editing copy on current affairs and financial trends across newspapers for over 30 years, Shubha Khandekar, in 2012, enrolled herself into a certificate course in archaeology at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the Kalina campus of the University of Mumbai. She was 57
After editing copy on current affairs and financial trends across newspapers for over 30 years, Shubha Khandekar, in 2012, enrolled herself into a certificate course in archaeology at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the Kalina campus of the University of Mumbai. She was 57.
The course was her way of connecting with an academic discipline that she hadn't found time to pursue when she left her doctorate mid-way in 1981. While she wanted to revive connections with colleagues teaching archaeology or conducting excavations, the course resulted in an unexpected outcome. It fashioned out a second career for her, as cartoonist. It also prompted her to work on a book of cartoons inspired by archaeology-history factoids. Titled ArchaeoGiri (Kaveri Books), the book holds 76 cartoons with explanatory text, and was recently released by noted historian-archaeologist Padmashree Dr MK Dhavalikar.
A young Khandekar at Inamgaon near Ghod river in Maharashtra with the excavation team
ArchaeoGiri is what Khandekar, now 61, calls "liberation." First, it triggered a goodbye to daily journalism and then freed her from the everyday commute into the south of Mumbai from her Kalyan residence. Second, her niche interest in cartoons became a tool to integrate and celebrate her various cultural influences when growing up in Delhi, and spending her later years in Pune, Nagpur and Mumbai.
Whether it was excavation experience (1978-80) in the post-Harappan settlement of Inamgaon under Dr Dhavalikar; the history lessons by stalwarts who graced the Delhi University Masters' course (1977); a short stint with the colourful boss of Amar Chitra Katha, Uncle Pai (1985-87) or her association with left-leaning women's groups like Stree Mukti Sanghatna and her experience of rendering Mulgi Zhali Ho in English — her past echoed in her cartoons.
Including Dr ZD Ansari, director of the project
Her drawings seem like a rational scribe's autopsy on contemporary politics. For instance, she captures a king who has married a princess from an influential family for political convenience. She looks at the overnight renaming of New Delhi's Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road — a subject that political cartoonists also commented on. She examines the cruel force exerted by plunderers like Mahmud of Ghazni. A chapter called Hide 'n Seek deals with the everlasting search for the Aryan homeland. Pseudo-archaeologists and godmen forcing themselves on government bodies like the Archaeological Survey of India are captured well in the mythical ASI vacancy ad for Director Excavations: "Wanted a Sadhu who is able to dream; has ministers among devotees and is alien to archaeology."
A dig at bureaucracy isn't the defining characteristic of ArachaeoGiri. From the book emerges a rich feminist consciousness — the woman's gaze at an issue, if it can be called that. A particularly interesting perspective is offered on how the invention of the wheel only added to a woman's daily chores. Khandekar's perception of the evolutionary history of Goddess Lakshmi is enlightening. Despite being universally worshipped as the Goddess of wealth, there are no shrines dedicated to her. She is always depicted as Lord Vishnu's consort (feet masseur), notes the caricaturist.
Draughtsmen Vishwasrao and Yashwant Rasar, and Dr MK Dhavalikar, in the late 1970s. Pic/Vasant Shinde
Khandekar doesn't enter the realm of mythology, merely to elicit humour. But, wherever myths and religious practice generate archaeological evidence, she exploits the opportunity to satirise. Delving into the history of Ganesh worship, she depicts an elephants' conference in which the animals recall how one amongst them attained unexpected Godhood. Similarly, she smartly connects the iconic image of river Ganga locked in Lord Shiva's tresses with the 2013 flooding of Lord Kedarnath's shrine in Uttarakhand. Parvati's line is lethal and reflects everyday sexism: "I had warned you Mahadev not to place that woman over your head."
The book's geographical core lies in Maharashtra. The writer-cartoonist has a special affinity for the rock-cut heritage of Ajanta, Ellora and the Pandav leni in Nashik, manifested in cartoons on the popular association of the Buddhist caves with Mahabharata's Pandavas. She elaborates on an interesting explanation regarding the unfinished caves built by the exiled Pandava brothers, who carved the shelters through the night and stopped work at daybreak. Khandekar wonders when the indefatigable brothers, with a common wife in tow, slept.
Shubha Khandekar was a copy editor for 30 years before she fashioned a second career as cartoonist. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
ArchaeoGiri is a work in progress and the writer is aware of the improvement her craft needs. Her punch lines are spot on. She is quick to connect Harappans' meticulous attention to drainage with the Swachh Bharat campaign; she sees Emperor Ashoka's edicts that protest the killing of animals as a precursor to today's obsession with vegetarianism. But, her caricatures can be honed further, obviously because she has started at a stage and age where schooling is self-driven. She calls her drawings "a Herculean jugaad" in which she played with the pencil-eraser and tore heaps of failed attempts.
However, archaeologist colleagues have been encouraging. Dr Manjiri Bhalerao (Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth) says her cartoon specialisation is the first-of-its-kind because no other cartoonist in India has an orientation in archaeology. Similarly, indologist and art historian Dr Arvind P Jamkhedkar says ArachaeoGiri is a welcome comeback of a student who has had a ringside view of excavations.
The book fills a gap in India's cultural universe. While there are comic strips on the Greek and Egyptian civilizations and the mighty Roman empire (the Asterix series), an Indian equivalent is missing. Khandekar feels India has not entertained such a tradition because "we have not yet made peace with our past". Isn't it time to take a dig at what's bygone?
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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