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The Tempest in a Cartoon: Looking back at the creative world of RK Laxman on his birthday

RK Laxman did not believe there could be equality in the Indian democracy Photograph: (Others)

WION Texas, United States Oct 24, 2016, 12.20 PM (IST) Ritu Gairola Khanduri

In a career spanning almost six decades, R.K. Laxman (1921-2015) tapped the spine of India’s democracy. For readers abroad, his cartoons provided a “critical view” of a nation standing up against Nixon’s USA and when occasion demanded a pat on the back to American democracy. Unlike the demanding lines of Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-78) and O.V. Vijayan (1930-2005), Laxman’s brush took gentle swipes at the contradictions in democracy and the precarity of everyday life. His ebullient cartoons could be enjoyed in wall calendars and as daily dose of humor in gilded pages of limited edition diaries.

The celebration of democracy in theory gets less merrier when cartoonists raise their brush to democracy experienced in the bureaucrat’s files, the minister’s corruption, the experts magical turnaround of data, development and globalisation, and the rituals of Indian democracy performed under the gaze of the Mahatma’s portrait. In this democracy at work, beggars, village folks, the Common Man and the Common Woman were the smart observers. They were the audience and critics in the theater of democracy. 

Early in his career, at the Free Press Journal, and soon after at the Times of India, young Laxman’s cartoons pictured the harrowing Partition. Laxman’s cohort of cartoonists were well-positioned to compare the colonial and postcolonial experience of cartooning: “Before fifty years, we accepted imperialism. We never bothered much about democracy. We accepted the idea of being kicked around. It was okay. But now, when we don't accept the idea of being kicked around, we are being kicked around!”

Continuing his response to Pritish Nandy’s question about how he captured the “spirit of this change”— from democracy in concept to democracy in practice—one could almost hear Laxman sigh: “In the name of Ram Mandir you do anything. In the name of caste, religion, community you do anything. You kill anyone, murder anyone but nobody minds because we have so many people around. Our asset is our population. Whatever you do, however many you kill, murder, injure—the numbers never diminish. So nobody cares.” 

In the name of Ram Mandir you do anything. In the name of caste, religion, community you do anything. You kill anyone, murder anyone but nobody minds because we have so many people around. Our asset is our population. Whatever you do, however many you kill, murder, injure—the numbers never diminish. So nobody cares.
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To this list one can add a growing squeamishness about cartoons. 

During the colonial years, cartoons in various Punch avatars, such as the Calcutta-based Hindu Punch, challenged social practices by invoking the Hindu pantheon. The practice of child marriage, duality in moral norms for men and women, and the hypocrisy of priests were subject to cartoons. Indeed, with the growth of the vernacular press and the numerous “comic papers,” colonial surveillance was confounded by the play of caricature and satire. 

 

"Tab Aur Ab", Hindu Punch, 24-10-1928 (Others)

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With democracy readers and activists scrutinised cartoons.

The cheer of accolades and fans Laxman won over were occasionally interrupted by disagreement. Laxman’s cartoons received complaints. Dalit activists took him to task for caricaturing the former prime minister, A. B. Vajpayee, as the Buddha and for “pouring of contempt, sarcasm, and humiliation at other less fortunate Indian citizens [that] must be resisted in no uncertain terms.” Readers have often charged cartoonists with overreach. When I met cartoonist Bireshwar (1920-2007) in 2003, he showed me a clipping of a reader’s letter to the editor, complaining about the caricature of Lord Hanuman.

The state too participated. 

The Emergency stands as one moment in the story of curbs on the press. The state’s censorship of cartoons were fodder for more humor. Laxman and Abu Abraham later revealed their unpublished, censored cartoons. Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons against corruption brought to focus a fragile state of humor. 

The Emergency stands as one moment in the story of curbs on the press. The state’s censorship of cartoons were fodder for more humor.
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Protestors attack Indian newspaper over anti-ISIS piggy bank cartoon,” #KejriwalInsultsHanuman and Saamana’s composite “Mook[a] Morcha” cartoon headline the recent swirl of cartoons that insult.

At the heart of these protestations are hurt sentiments. How can one explain this tempest in the cartoon? Is this a new kind of media literacy? Are cartoons no more “weapons of the weak” or for the weak? Why do cartoons hurt so quickly and mobilise so energetically?

“The cartoon published in Saamana was in bad taste. It hurts people's sentiments. It's not only the Maratha Morcha remark in the cartoon, I am very hurt by the remark against martyrs (referring to the frame wherein a cop looks at a dead soldier and says “Something's amiss. This soldier died as a result of dengue and not a terror attack”). It's below the belt. Nobody thinks this way about our soldiers…” (Journalist Uday Tanpathak).

Cartoons are instigating a new kind of citizenship and a new sentiment of politics. The language of hurt sentiments has brought the politics of representation to the fore in an unprecedented manner. New visual taboos and new ways of feeling hurt are a part of learning to be political. How can this democracy of hurt sentiments account for “moral injury”? Is democracy hurting in this battle of sentiments?

Cartoons are instigating a new kind of citizenship and a new sentiment of politics.
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Laxman did not believe there could be equality in the Indian democracy. He did not present us with an alternative politics in which one could care and not kill in the name of religion and community. Along with the acknowledgment of the erosion in public uses of the cartoon one may ask: What political futures and possibilities can our cartoonists imagine?  

Ritu Gairola Khanduri

Ritu Gairola Khanduri is a historian and cultural anthropologist. She is the author of Caricaturing culture in India: Cartoons and history in the modern world.

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