cartoon – What does the disappearing art of cartoons tell us about ourselves?

It was biting commentary and it shocked the political bosses, maybe they hated it, but they endured it well. What does the disappearing art of drawing tell us about ourselves?

Specially for The Telegraph by Manjul

Paromita Sen Published 03.04.22, 12:43 AM

Recently, the Museum of Cartoon Art at Savitribai Phule Pune University and an art gallery, also in Pune, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in memory of legendary cartoonist RK Laxman. A bit ironic considering that political cartoons have almost completely disappeared from our newspapers and magazines.

Cartoons are a barometer of democracy, says cartoonist Sandeep Adhwaryu, who lives in New Delhi. “They are an integral part of society and reflect the times we live in,” he adds. If so, the barometer indicates unnatural weather conditions.

In September 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition for a series that denounced the widespread corruption in India. One of his cartoons showed the parliament building as a toilet buzzing with flies. The website hosting the series has been blocked. Trivedi spent three years in court fighting his case and challenging the validity of the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act, which imposes up to three years in prison for sharing “offensive” posts online. At the time, the BJP criticized the move. Party spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain said: “You are in power, that does not mean you are imposing an undeclared state of emergency in the country.”

It’s been 10 years since Trivedi’s arrest. In the past five years, more cartoonists have lost column space or favor with this or that political party. Among the better known cases are those of Satish Acharya from Delhi and Manjul from Mumbai.

In 2018, Acharya’s cartoon of Prime Minister Modi was dropped in the grasp of China. In 2021 senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan shared one of Manjul’s cartoons showing India’s slow and inadequate response to the pandemic. In turn, Bhushan received a report from the social media platform Twitter informing him that he had “violated the law(s) of India”. The consequences were much more severe for Manjul. His contract – with the media house for which he worked – was terminated and he also received the “violated” email from Twitter at the request of the national government.

This time, Congress condemned the BJP’s “unprecedented waywardness”. Their spokesman Sachin Sawant said: “One can certainly say that an undeclared emergency is approaching…”

Sentu, who, like many cartoonists, bears only one name, started contributing political cartoons to Bengali newspapers a quarter of a century ago. The cartoonist from Calcutta laments his inability to criticize a political leader in power today, despite the wealth of material at his fingertips. He says: “I got away with mocking a lot of left-wing leaders. That wouldn’t be the case today. I’d probably get beat up.”

His friends in the TMC will probably apologize to him in person after their crooks beat him up, he says with a laugh. But he is determined to still point out ills in society. “If there’s no water supply, I’ll outline it, of course, even if I don’t blame anyone,” Sentu says.

Satish Acharya, who continued to draw cartoons even after his clash with the authorities, says: “I kept losing customers because I refused to dilute my cartoons.” His recent work on Covid-19 mismanagement can only be seen online. Sentu agrees that cartoons are barely published, but they are flooding the internet. Even Manjul, who has been a cartoonist for 30 years, continues to make political cartoons, but in his own space, namely his social media accounts. His platform switch, of course, brought a price, literally and otherwise.

Cartoonist Surendra, who recently retired from a leading Chennai newspaper, says he knows “brilliant cartoonist friends” who have lost customers and are struggling to survive.

Recently, the Museum of Cartoon Art at Savitribai Phule Pune University and an art gallery, also in Pune, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in memory of legendary cartoonist RK Laxman. A bit ironic considering that political cartoons have almost completely disappeared from our newspapers and magazines.

Cartoons are a barometer of democracy, says cartoonist Sandeep Adhwaryu, who lives in New Delhi. “They are an integral part of society and reflect the times we live in,” he adds. If so, the barometer indicates unnatural weather conditions.

In September 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition for a series that denounced the widespread corruption in India. One of his cartoons showed the parliament building as a toilet buzzing with flies. The website hosting the series has been blocked. Trivedi spent three years in court fighting his case and challenging the validity of the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act, which imposes up to three years in prison for sharing “offensive” posts online. At the time, the BJP criticized the move. Party spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain said: “You are in power, that does not mean you are imposing an undeclared state of emergency in the country.”

It’s been 10 years since Trivedi’s arrest. In the past five years, more cartoonists have lost column space or favor with this or that political party. Among the better known cases are those of Satish Acharya from Delhi and Manjul from Mumbai.

In 2018, Acharya’s cartoon of Prime Minister Modi was dropped in the grasp of China. In 2021 senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan shared one of Manjul’s cartoons showing India’s slow and inadequate response to the pandemic. In turn, Bhushan received a report from the social media platform Twitter informing him that he had “violated the law(s) of India”. The consequences were much more severe for Manjul. His contract – with the media house for which he worked – was terminated and he also received the “violated” email from Twitter at the request of the national government.

This time, Congress condemned the BJP’s “unprecedented waywardness”. Their spokesman Sachin Sawant said: “One can certainly say that an undeclared emergency is approaching…”

Sentu, who, like many cartoonists, bears only one name, started contributing political cartoons to Bengali newspapers a quarter of a century ago. The cartoonist from Calcutta laments his inability to criticize a political leader in power today, despite the wealth of material at his fingertips. He says: “I got away with mocking a lot of left-wing leaders. That wouldn’t be the case today. I’d probably get beat up.”

His friends in the TMC will probably apologize to him in person after their crooks beat him up, he says with a laugh. But he is determined to still point out ills in society. “If there’s no water supply, I’ll outline it, of course, even if I don’t blame anyone,” Sentu says.

Satish Acharya, who continued to draw cartoons even after his clash with the authorities, says: “I kept losing customers because I refused to dilute my cartoons.” His recent work on Covid-19 mismanagement can only be seen online. Sentu agrees that cartoons are barely published, but they are flooding the internet. Even Manjul, who has been a cartoonist for 30 years, continues to make political cartoons, but in his own space, namely his social media accounts. His platform switch, of course, brought a price, literally and otherwise.

Cartoonist Surendra, who recently retired from a leading Chennai newspaper, says he knows “brilliant cartoonist friends” who have lost customers and are struggling to survive.

Manjul tells The Telegraph how even if he now draws a cartoon in support of the Prime Minister, it is taken for criticism and he is trolled. He says: “I have been branded anti-government and no one will watch the cartoon. Without understanding it, they will just criticize.”

Satish has a diagnosis for this condition. He says: “Ideally, every citizen should question the government on a regular basis. But when people change their role in defending the government, you can’t expect them to laugh at a cartoon that makes fun of her.” This means whatever political cartoons exist today around an unwritten state censorship and have passed through the sieve of self-censorship.

“What’s the point of drawing cartoons that can’t be printed,” asks Sentu, who is considering drawing comics for children.

The colonials, who mocked who the Indian cartoons came of age, believed that the “natives” had no sense of humor. Charles Dickens wrote in 1862, when there were discussions about bringing the British satirical magazine Punch to India: “The idea seems unpromising. A confessed joke should certainly not be in place with a people who have little sense of comedy. The Asian temperament is solemn and finds no pleasure in pleasure in itself.”

That may be largely true, but it is also sad and strange, given that India had its own native satirical tradition. In an essay titled “Before the Political Cartoonist There Was the Vidusaka: A Plea for an Indigenous Comic Book Tradition,” Snehal P. Sanathanan and Vinod Balakrishnan write about the presence of caricature as a manifestation of hasya in Indian temple art from 200 AD. They cite Mughal art, which featured “striking caricatures” and Kalighat paintings from 19th-century Bengal, which used “deliberate satire and caricature.”

Indians went to Punch. After that, with the burgeoning print culture, political cartoons flourished in the print media. The Oudh Punch, Hindu Punch, The Delhi Sketchbook, Matvala, Basantak, The Indian Charivari, all published cartoons. Cartoons in India started with the British commenting on the natives, and in the first half of the 20th century, it became an expression of nationalism in Indian newspapers. After independence, cartoons did the work of the opposition.

Anandabazar Patrika published his first cartoon exactly one hundred years ago on March 18, 1922. It called for the resignation of Lord Montague. In Bengali, resignation translates as padatyag, which literally means leaving your mail, but pad also means legs.

The cartoon showed Montague leaving his legs behind.

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