Millennium Post

Politicians must have a sense of humour

It is believed that even dictators, apart from democratic governments, fear the political cartoonist and his strokes. You can thus judge the freedom in a country by judging the freedom of its cartoonist. But what is it about this apparently small sketch that makes it so adored by the public and abhorred by the powers that fail?  First of all, a cartoon is that rare creation that wraps art, portraiture and comment in the same picture. It appears funny but the message it delivers is hardly that. When satire and wit blend with comic strokes, what emerges is a potent combination, a deadly potion, a cartoon that can hit governments harder than a thousand word editorial can.

This is speaking for the political cartoonist. But even other cartoonists, no matter what genre they belong to, enjoy the same power and popularity. Under the guise of tickling the funny bone of the reader, what a cartoonist does is to mould public opinion, drawing his attention gently to the follies of our leaders, of the people around us, in short, of ourselves.

It is hard to imagine that it took mankind and evolution 16 whole centuries to arrive at this exalted art form. But then cartoon being a highly sophisticated, symbolic and subtle creation would surely have required an evolved mind to create and appreciate it.  However, opinions differ. The ancient Greek caveman who drew pictorial representations on caves may be thought of as the world’s first cartoonist, but the first ever documented evidence seems to point to the Italian brothers, Annibale and Agostini Carrcci, who in 1590, produced a series of drawings called
ritratini carichi
(loaded portraits). It is from this term that the word ‘caricature’ was born. Then on, there was no looking back for these pictorial delights.

Cartooning flourished in Europe in the next hundred years and traveled to neighbouring continents too. So whether it was the royal family of France or Spain or later the New York political group in the late nineteenth century, cartoonist flourished but at the same time faced the ire of the rulers. But one thing was clear. Cartoons were here to stay as a highly popular form of artistic expression and an indelible part of the media, print or otherwise.

The popularity, though, came at a high price: Curbs, threat and arrests. As recent as 1944, a group of Polish cartoonists were actually executed for drawing against Nazi Fascism. In 1970, Turkish cartoonist Turhan Selcuk was tortured by the military junta there. Well, the cold fact is that even today, violence against these truly non-violent artists continue across the globe in Palestine, Israel, the US, UK and even India. Cartoonists and their editors all over the world face torture and even death for merely doing their jobs.

In the Indian context, the cartoon entered the scene with the British, but over the years, came into its own in a stylised and independent version that is hugely popular. However, the late K Shankar Pillai can be considered the Father of Indian Cartooning, just as the legendary David Low is of World Cartooning. Today every region in India has its own breed of cartoonists who have become cult figures among their readers. Newspapers just can’t do without these witty warriors who use the weapon of humour to tackle grim problems. In fact, not just the newspapers, not merely the print media, cartoons have cut across all media barriers to emerge as a powerful communication tool. Audio-visual media, internet, films, multimedia, advertisements, hoardings for public messages… all use cartoons to the maximum advantage. For, a cartoon with the bare minimum of exaggerated strokes comes loaded with wit, satire and punch. It is this exaggeration that prevents it from being a mere illustration, sketch or painting. A cartoon is thus documentary evidence, a political and social commentary on the time during which it is drawn. By holding a mirror to the society of the times, it becomes a benchmark which can be referred to any time. It is these traits that make a cartoon a historian’s delight. And again, it is these very traits that have led cartoon journalism to evolve as a branch of study in its own right today.

Every region, every state of India has many glorious flag-bearers who have become cartooning legends in themselves and spawned an entire generation of artists to carry forward their art. A noteworthy mention of such talent attracting global attention is that of R K Laxman, who won the Roman Magsaysay Award in 1984 for his accomplishment.

In this backdrop it is sad indeed that the present government is considering pulling out cartoons and drawings from all school text books following the row over the Ambedkar cartoon in Parliament.  There is need to consider few things before the government moves on.

Satirical and political cartoons and wider dissemination are indication of a country’s maturity. If a country does not know how to laugh at itself, then there is no country more melancholic than that.  The harmless but funny cartoons in school textbooks, which have always existed, do not harm impressionable minds but, on the contrary, teach them how one can see that lighter side of often grim things. It is true that cartoon should not be offensive or hurt the sentiments of the people but this is a rare case. They should, in particular, not be drawn on sensitive subject like religion.

Of all the over 50 cartoons liberally sprinkled through the pages of political science and social science textbooks for class IX to XII that have invited the ire of Parliament target politicians, in particular prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Politicians are subject of satire over pleading for votes to ticket distribution to relatives, the possible criminal-politician nexus to walkouts in Parliaments and toppling of state governments, to haggling over a particular portfolio and supporting or opposing bills.  As many as 13 cartoons, among the sharpest in the text books target Indira Gandhi.

Despite the most unpalatable insinuations, even the British government did not ban their reproduction in textbooks or crack down on cartoonists. It will be a sad day in annals of Indian history if our government, the peoples’ government, do what the British government refrained from doing.
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