Political cartoonist with the Indian Express EP Unny vividly recalls a conversation at a press meet with a group of American diplomats visiting New Delhi more than a decade ago. It started out as small talk but the Kerala-based cartoonist was soon let in on a trade secret.
“They told me that before they enter a new country, they scan through past editions of editorial cartoons. It tells them about the government, the people and the press,” says Unny. “You get a gist of what’s happening in the country along with perspective depending on the tonality of the cartoon.”
For a new democracy in 1947, India boasted of a rich tradition of political cartoons. The three successive decades produced stalwarts like Abu Abraham, Kutty and K Shankar Pillai. Many called this the ‘golden age’. This phase ended during the Emergency in 1975, when Press was censored.
Until two years ago, India was still learning to laugh at itself. In 2011, cartoons made headlines when campaign cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges for a cartoon that depicted the national emblem.
This was followed by parliament raising objections about an Ambedkar cartoon drawn in 1949 and a Jadavpur University professor being jailed for circulating a cartoon that was allegedly anti-Mamata Banerjee, head of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
Losing our funny bone
Sajith Kumar, cartoonist with the Financial Chronicle says controversy is not necessarily a bad thing. “If people are getting offended, the cartoon is fulfilling its purpose,” he says. Keshav, political cartoonist with The Hindu since 1987, calls it ‘a peaceful protest through humour’.
“It is supposed to be anti-establishment and not everyone is going to be happy. But cartoonists need to be clear about their Laxman Rekha. You can’t have an angry cartoon that targets a person. It needs to address an issue,” says Keshav.
The world seems to be seeing a dearth of political cartooning.
Ravi Shankar Etteth, former cartoonist and executive editor of The New Indian Express, believes that besides India, Britian is suffering as well. “The editorial cartoon in the US is still doing fine but that’s because it’s an irreverent society so it won’t suffer just yet.” The tell-tale signs of this downtrend are visible on the front page of leading dailies.
While it was common to see editorial cartoons on the front page, blown up to four columns, newspapers today restrict the cartoon to a pocket on the front page or push it on the inside pages. Sudhir Tailang, cartoonist with the Asian Age, explains, “The front page was suddenly taken over by crime, cricket and cinema, and the cartoons was pushed aside.”
Etteth agrees. “The immediacy of news has elbowed out analysis from papers. Readers get their dose of analysis from TV news debates,” he says.
The blame game
Satish Acharya, cartoonist with Sify (.com) says the problem lies with new-age editors who see editorial cartoons simply as a funny visual. “Editorial cartoons can be a frank opinion but editors try to dilute it,” he says.
Blame it on the editor? It’s not so easy, says Keshav. “When newspapers started to function like businesses and businessmen launched news agencies — journalism gave way to commercialism. Now, a newspaper can’t afford to rub those in power the wrong way,” he explains.
Meanwhile, temperamental politicians aren’t making life easier either. “Thirty-five per cent of our members of parliament have either a family name, dynasty or a criminal record. They aren’t as evolved as the leaders who emerged from the freedom movement,” says Tailang.
Prashant Kulkarni, cartoonist with Loksatta, a Marathi daily, is more concerned about Mamata than the Jadavpur artist. “Politicians should take it as a compliment that they are important enough to feature in a political cartoon. When cartoonists start ignoring a politician, it’s a sign that his political career is over,” says Kulkarni.
Times have changed
Unny recalls how former prime ministers would approach him for the original drawing of cartoons. Nostalgia apart, technology seems to be doing its bit to evangalise cartoons. The criticism from the reader no longer comes in the form of Letters to the Editor. It's social media that is making it possible for readers to laugh or lament in real time. “Young people get their news online and they share cartoons because it lends itself to the visual medium. Where print quality may lack, the back lighting of a mobile screen makes simple cartoons look good,” says Unny.
Etteth is not so optimistic. He believes that the political cartoon is on its last leg. “Audiences aren’t smart enough to understand the literary and cultural allusions used in editorial cartoons. How can the cartoon survive without people who can laugh at it?” he says.
What happens to the editorial cartoon that survived the non-cooperation movement and the Emergency but suffers in a 66-year-old democracy? Whatever be the answer, it is no longer a laughing matter.