An archive of English cartoons on BR Ambedkar

No Laughing Matter is an indictment of casteism in the press at the time

August 23, 2019 12:49 pm | Updated 12:49 pm IST

Whether or not freedom of speech dominates political correctness in comedy is a debate as old as time. But for author and cartoonist Unnamati Syama Sundar, this debate is exactly seven years old.

In 2012, a cartoon on BR Ambedkar — depicting Jawaharlal Nehru with a whip in his hand, next to Ambedkar, seated on a snail called Constitution — became the eye of a political storm. Some defended the artist’s right to speech, others called for a removal of this cartoon from the NCERT textbooks.

“I figured, why look at just this one comic. Throughout history, Ambedkar has been portrayed unfairly or in a mocking tone,” says Syama, who back then was a part of the core committee set up to remove the cartoon. And so began his archival research into cartoons in the English language press about the Dalit icon and Father of the Indian Constitution. This culminated in a book, No Laughing Matter , which will be launched in Chennai this weekend.

In a discussion with director Pa Ranjith, art critic and writer Indran, and writer Jeyarani, Syama will be explaining how the 122 cartoons collected in the book are an indictment of the caste bias and prejudice in mainstream media of that time. The collection includes the work of prominent cartoonists such as Shankar, Enver Ahmed and Vasu, among others.

Some cartoons depict Ambedkar as a woman to mock him — “revealing the rampant misogyny” — others as a tantrum-throwing child. Yet others make fun of his stature by physically dwarfing him. The cartoons, listed chronologically, are followed by an unsparing, sarcastic commentary, explaining the context and taking on its supposed wit.

Explaining the research that went behind this book, Syama points out how his MPhil course in Jawaharlal Nehru University came in handy. “During that course, I was working on colonial Indian cartoons that had appeared in periodicals, newspapers and magazines of the time,” he says, “So in 2012, that became the foundation for this work. There was no one digital reserve I could rely on. I had to go through each issue, refer to hundreds of microfilm rolls at Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi.”

Not only was there a large number of cartoons to go through, ones on Ambedkar were not very frequent.

“Unlike Gandhi or Jinnah, who were always in the news, the press rarely kept contact with Ambedkar, unless he had given a really radical speech.”

Battling the question of free speech, he claims cartoons need not be used to punch down communities that have already been oppressed for generations.

Instead he reminds us how, “In the Southern part of India — Telugu cartoons especially — were used to highlight social injustices such as untouchability, the caste system, child brides and so on.”

No Laughing Matter will be launched at Alliance Francaise of Madras on August 25, between 5.30 pm and 8.30 pm.

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