When the veteran journalist, Vinod Mehta, last edited a daily newspaper, he used to be delighted when he got a good political cartoon. He often put it right in the middle of the front page, surrounded by stories. “It made my day. A dramatic cartoon lifts the page, for it can capture the news scope in visuals what a thousand words cannot do.”

That was 20 years ago. Now, Mehta says, not a single paper uses it on the front page. “What used to be indispensable – the stand-along political cartoon – may have become an extinct species. Pocket cartoons don’t have the same impact. The political cartoonist is disappearing.”

Many in the industry are not as alarmed as the Outlook Group editorial chairman. But they agree a churning is underway within the cartooning landscape.

The stalwarts of the trade have either passed away or aged and become too unwell to practice it regularly. Those who have replaced the older lot do not command the same stature in the news organisations. Some of India’s biggest newspapers have stopped allotting a fixed space for cartoons, and often shuffle it around depending on advertisement and news content. Cartoonists often have to double up as illustrators. But there are new and positive changes, driven by technology and social media, which is infusing much-needed energy into the profession.

E P Unny, the chief political cartoonist of the Indian Express Group, is widely acknowledged as the last of the ‘Greats’ of the cartooning tradition. He has an explanation for the trend, Mehta indicates. “Cartoons used to be the only visual commentary 20 years ago. You could not deprive a reader of it. But with television, internet, fast-moving images and other sources of news, cartoon is only one visual component competing for attention.” This could be one reason, he feels, why it may appear like cartoons have lesser importance.

But this has not deterred a new generation of cartoonists from producing good work. Mail Today’s R Prasad’s cartoons get widely circulated for their political insight, humour and irony.

Prasad says cartooning is a ’24 hour job’, since one has to constantly think of the next idea as soon as a cartoon is done. “I read 5-6 papers, and watch TV news for breaking news and events. If you have a wide reading base, it gives you more options and find parallels in history, mythology and other disciplines.” Once he has hit on the theme, it takes Prasad 10 minutes or so to draw it up.

Countering the widely held misperception that cartoons mean comedy, he says, “It is actually black humour, irony, and sarcasm. You don’t laugh at a good cartoon, you chuckle at it.” Mehta, who was good friends with the legendary Abu Abraham, says cartoonists, in fact, are profound, sombre, serious, and often unhappy people, for they are constantly looking at the unhappy side of public life. “Political cartoons reflect the absurdity of the situation, the hypocrisy in what people preach and practice.”

The relationship with the editor is often the most critical for a cartoonist. Prasad has a pithy one-liner, “It is my absolute right to draw what I want. And it is the editor’s absolute right to reject it.” The judgment of both has become crucial, given the tendency of various sections to take ‘offence’ and ‘get hurt’ at the slightest of pretexts. Most cartoonists said that while they try to be ‘responsible’, it is inherent in the nature of their profession to ‘offend and hurt’.

It is not easy for young people to break in. Thirty-one year old Sajith Kumar at the Financial Chronicle learnt the craft on his own, and like R Prasad, joined the profession first as an illustrator. “The openings are so few. At most, a paper has one full-time cartoonist. So the only way to enter is by first illustrating other people’s texts and ideas.”

When Kumar was joining the profession, he was told cartooning is a ‘dying art’. But things have changed in the past few years. “Social media is transformative. Now, it is easy to project one’s work. It is seen widely, and that gives us a boost.” Interestingly, the popularity of cartoons on Twitter, blogs, Facebook and other new media platforms reflects a demand for satire. Many cartoons often go viral online. This, Kumar feels, is forcing newspapers to revamp their cartoon sections and give it the importance it deserves.

At a cartoonist conference in Kathmandu in 2008, the writer and creator of the Suki comic strip, Manjula Padmanabhan said, “Of all the demons chained to the desks of the cartoonists, the most significant one is the cartoonist, him or herself. Even as we poke fun at the world in general, we are also sending ourselves out into the market place – our own personalities, talents and wits – to be laughed at, to be ignored, to be attacked, and, sometimes, to be danced with.” Will India’s editors – at a time of a generational transformation in the cartooning fraternity, media churning, and overly sensitive pockets of public opinion – continue to offer cartoonists the space and freedom to project their work?

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