Who's Laughing Now? : The Hiccups and Histories of India's Political Cartoons

India's political cartoons have endured a long history of censorship.
India's political cartoons have endured a long history of censorship.L: The Indian Express, R: scroll.in

Sometime in April this year, India surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country. No one could have foretold how displeased our citizens would be about this ill-fated milestone, until a German magazine Der Spiegel poked the bear by publishing a cartoon that transformed this social media kerfuffle into a 'geopolitical issue'. Meanwhile, the cartoonist Patrick Chappatte was mortified that he had managed to stir so much animosity. Giving Charlie Hebdo vibes, anyone?

Rarely in ‘good taste’, editorial illustrations have been known to serve as a counterweight to hero worship of authority figures and their PR propaganda, especially during election season. With tongue-in-cheek censure and sometimes outright blasphemy, political cartoons in particular have historically flipped the metaphorical middle finger to bureaucratic hypocrisy. Their subject matter usually involves current affairs and to understand the visual humour, it is imperative for the readers to have some context of the present socio-political landscape.

India's political cartoons have endured a long history of censorship.
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Political cartoons have long been the most dramatic tradition in a newspaper. Through animation, they found their passage into digital media and with the rise of participatory cultures of memes, satire has now infiltrated cyberspace in the form of chat board discourse. Like Priyanka Sharma who was sent to jail after publishing a meme of Bengal’s chief minister, the history of expressing controversial sentiments through visual humour in our country has been racked with censorship and repression.

Around the time of the Indian Rebellion in 1857, a discontent with the British Raj had been sown into the emotional topography of our artists. With freedom of expression and rightful assembly being heavily curtailed and the regime bearing down on anyone critical of the East India Company, political caricatures and the press assumed more significance in letting vent to the anguish of an entire nation.

The London based periodical Punch that began publication in 1841 was known for maligning the Crown’s colonial subjects as an underdeveloped and servile race of human beings.

This inspired copycat vernacular cartoons in homegrown publications such as the Delhi Sketch Book (1850-57), the Amrit Bazar Patrika from Bengal in 1872, Basantak in Kolkata (1874-76), Urdu-language Avadh Punch (1877-1936), Bombay based weekly Hindi Punch (1889-1931) among others.

Political commentary on Indian resistance efforts was common in The Punch.
Political commentary on Indian resistance efforts was common in The Punch.library.csun.edu

The first illustration to incite a legislative response was published in the Bengali newspaper Sulav Samachar in the 1870s, uncovering the brutal treatment of working class Indians at the hands of Europeans, who often went scot-free for their crimes. This was the first time a local newspaper had been openly seditious about the colonial justice system and in 1878, the Raj imposed the Vernacular Press Act by Lord Lytton.

Other than exposing the tyrannical policies of the British politicians, many Indian publications also lampooned Brahminical elitism, glorified the Indian National Congress, and condemned the political misadventures of colonial administration in other parts of the world.

The Avadh Punch was known for chronicling 19th century colonial India.
The Avadh Punch was known for chronicling 19th century colonial India.brownhistory.substack.com

In the early 20th century, Gaganendranath Tagore (nephew to the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) drew heavily from the Kalighat style of social criticism to elevate the art of caricature. His cartoons often depicted morbidly decadent Brahmins sucking the lifeblood out of our indigenous labourers. A number of other Bengali cartoonists like Kafi Khan, Jatin Sen, Revati Bhushan and Amal Chakrabarti were known for their rancid barbs aimed at the British overlords for the exploitation of Indian resources.

Similar efforts were blossoming in principalities of former day Assam, Odisha and Gujarat that lambasted the reprehensible taxation, feudalism and violent suppression of resistance under colonial rule. In the south, Swadesamitran was the first Tamil language newspaper founded by the famous Tamil poet C. Subramania Bharati that chronicled the independence movement in full-page cartoons to inspire nationalistic zeal among its readers. The Viswadeepam (in Kozhikode), Rasi (in Alappuzha), Sarasam (in Changanacherry), and Narmada (in Kottayam) were some of the magazines published in Kerala in the mid 1900s.

Imperishable Sacredness of A Brahmin by Gaganendranath Tagore
Imperishable Sacredness of A Brahmin by Gaganendranath TagoreVictoria and Albert Museum

Unlike folk caricatures like patachitra, cartooning as an act of defiance was limited to the intellectual middle class that subscribed to periodicals while many factions of society, such as the Muslims, scheduled castes, and women were not represented. All this changed ever so slightly with Shankara Pillai, who’s often referred to as the ‘father of political cartooning in India’, when he founded Shankar’s Weekly in 1948. This was a satirical magazine that became a hotbed for a new epoch of post-colonial cartoonists like R.K. Laxman, Vijay Narain Seth, Satish Acharya, Abu Abraham, Bal Thackeray and Maya Kamath to name a few.

In May 2012, there was a bizarre resurrection of a 1949 cartoon by Shankara Pillai in Parliament that allegedly insulted B R Ambedkar. The cartoon depicted Ambedkar atop a snail with the word “Constitution” written on it, while Jawaharlal Nehru stood behind with a whip in his hand. The inclusion of this cartoon in an NCERT political science textbook indicated, for many, the remaining vestiges of intellectual contempt for Ambedkar’s philosophy and legacy.

Many other such contentious cartoons have elicited outrage from time to time among different communities within our diaspora who might take umbrage to parodies of beloved leaders or opprobrium to rampant corruption still prevalent today. The imprisonment of Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition in 2012 for displaying the parliament building as a lavatory buzzing with flies is among many troubling examples of the Indian government’s clampdown on journalists and political cartoonists both in print and on social media. 

India's political cartoons have endured a long history of censorship.
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Editorial cartoons may have been a British hand-me-down but the art of political satire has been ever-present in our theatre and royal courts in the shape of the vidushak or the archetypal fool. Only the fool can mock the nobility and ridicule their ways, compelling change and social reform within the administration by encouraging and pushing progress through humour. But if the vidushak is strangled, how can the emperor possibly know humility?

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