When the museum management interns at DakshinaChitra in Chennai brainstormed ideas for its ongoing exhibition, one recurrent theme that they landed on in their discussions was ‘democracy’. “We wondered how we could put forth such an abstract idea through an exhibition, without making it pedantic?” says Rituparna Pal, an intern.
Editorial cartooning would be their best bet, decided Rituparna, along with the team of 10 interns, she is part of. They then put together Cartoon-o-cracy, an exhibition that traces seven decades of Indian democracy through political cartoons. The team collected cartoons from 1950 to 2020, each decade getting its separate section. The post-2010 period has an entire collage to itself — “For post 2010, we have done a collage of cartoons to signify the boom in digital media and to show that political cartooning is not confined to the newsroom anymore,” says Rituparna.
The cartoons focus on historic events that have been important for our democracy or may have threatened the republic in any way. “We have highlighted how cartoonists have chosen to respond to these events. During the ’50s, Shankar was the towering figure, and we have displayed his portrayal of Nehru’s dilemmas. At the same time, there are the cartoons of BR Ambedkar which are problematic. We noted how even cartoonists are not free from prejudices,” she says.
In the 1970s, with the Emergency under Indira Gandhi’s rule being one of the most noteworthy events, the cartoons highlight Abu Abraham’s Private View on Indian Express and the stamp of censorship on them, besides criticism of other Government policies such as compulsory vasectomy.
The 1990s saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid, propelling a chain reaction of events which determine our country’s secular fabric even today. Caricatures of LK Advani and his ratha yatra by RK Laxman is one of the many cartoons displayed in this section.
“We could not include regional artists due to constraints of time and space. So we focussed on national cartoonists like Shankar, Kutty, Abu Abraham, OV Vijayan, RK Lakshman, Maya Kamath, Mita Roy, Rajinder Puri, EP Unny, Ajit Ninan, Aseem Trivedi, and Surendra,” she says. The team then gathered the cartoons from online sources and categorised them into different themes such as political, economic, social and entertainment.
“Then came the most difficult task of finding the dates and the sources of the cartoons,” she says, adding that they referred to Ritu Gairola Khanduri’s Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World and Unnamati Syama Sundar’s No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956 , among others.
The exhibition will also screen two short films. One of them is is, Don’t Spare Me Shankar , by Gurcharan Singh. The other one is about the Propaganda model, postulated by American activist and linguist Noam Chomsky, which says that the mass media goes through five filters of ownership, funding, sourcing, facing flak, and the fear ideology.
“Cartoons, as a form of art, can evade these traps and put forward arrays of opinions that exist in society,” says Sreya Mukherjee, another intern who worked on researching for, and curating cartoons for the exhibition. “No matter what governments have done, cartoonists have made sure democracy is kept alive. The small corner that they occupy in the newspaper is pivotal for us. Through just a few strokes here and there, they have made sure that we have our freedom of expression.”
Cartoon-o-cracy is ongoing at Kadambari Art Gallery, DakshinaChitra until March 5.