Long tradition of cartoons in India

The uproar over a cartoon in a school textbook and the undue haste shown by the government in withdrawing the book were both out of place and uncalled for. This, apart from other things, shows how little we know of our history and how poor we are in appreciating works of art.

Those attacking cartoons tend to forget that cartooning in India has had a long history and is firmly entrenched in society. A rough calculation will show that in over a century of its existence, nearly one million cartoons and caricatures have appeared in newspapers and periodicals in many languages and regions.

Cartoons by nature are forward-looking, democratic and secular in their approach and need no certificates from the government. Cartoons thrive on acceptability of their comments by a society which is far more mature.

Right from the days of the freedom struggle, cartoons have played an important role in mass awakening, stirring the minds of thinking people. To do this, at times, the ever uncompromising cartoonists have not shied away from taking a stand against governments and even their own papers' editorial line.

This was particularly evident when the Babri mosque was razed and, 10 years later, during the Gujarat riots. I compiled two books of cartoons on the two events (Punchline and Drawing the Battle Lines). It was interesting that of over 5,000 cartoons I collected, not one favoured the mosque demolition or the killings.

The cartoonists have also come under attack for being fierce votaries of freedom of speech and expression. But such cases have been rare. During the Emergency (1975-77), cartoons were censored as if the government feared that its reputation was dented by their innocuous strokes.

Cartoons are a complex genre of art. Being a curious mix of humour, satire and political understanding, they are not produced just to make one laugh. They are different from caricatures. They look at the realities and make one think. Even when commenting on social issues, cartoons provide space for lateral thinking.

Since cartoons are works of art, they do not require captive audiences. Like any art work, it is their inherent magnetic strength and bare truth that draws people to them. It is their multi-layeredness that opens the doors for various interpretations. Some interpretations though could go totally haywire as happened in the case of the nearly 60-year-old Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon.

If the opposition to this cartoon was on the count of the captive audiences, like in schools, it may have been understandable. The opposition, however, was political and so needs to be condemned. A cartoon which was not opposed by the leaders figuring in it suddenly becomes hot potato because the politics of the day interprets it in its own way.

Equally distressing is the way the mass media chose to respond to the cartoon row. The media went overboard, seeing Satan where there was none. If the government acted in panic trying to avoid yet another controversy, the media appears to have played the game by the rules set by the government.

Cartoons in textbooks can be a subject matter for thorough discussion. Some, like the government of the day, may reject it outright but a blanket ban may not be the best answer. There may be a contention that one should have cartoons in textbooks, if one must, only in the higher classes when the level of maturity and capabilities for proper interpretation have adequately developed.

By Madhuker Upadhyay, courtesy IANS.
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