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High art: independent trajectory

Looking back at The Hindu’s cartoon legacy spread across different political eras, what stands out is the choice of visual metaphors that seem to have a trans-temporal and trans-spatial quality. The quality that proves the dictum ‘continuity with constant change’ shapes the media narrative. For instance, David Low used the bus as a metaphor to portray the idea of Partition in his 1946 cartoon titled “Missed the bus”. This cartoon showed Muhammad Ali Jinnah standing with a suitcase marked ‘Pakistan’, while the departing bus was marked as ‘New India’.

In 1965, when there was squabbling between the Communists and the Samyukta Socialist Party over the composition of the Cabinet to form a coalition government in Kerala, Jomton (pseudonym for John Thomas) drew a cartoon using the bus metaphor. Leaders led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad were depicted as missing the ‘unstable party rule’ bus, while people were getting ready to receive the next bus marked ‘President’s Rule’.

Writing about cartooning in India, R.K. Laxman explained how “we have advanced a great deal in the field of cartooning, putting the British, from whom we learnt this art, far behind us” ( Frontline, April 5, 1996). He was of the firm opinion that the freedom cartoonists enjoy in India does not stem from its constitutional guarantees alone, but also the political practice of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. “He liked cartoons. He admired Shankar, the cartoonist of Hindustan Times in those days. He talked and laughed about the cartoons in the company of his fellow politicians, who were all hard-boiled freedom fighters, hardly used, I imagine, to the lighter side of life. Slowly they started taking interest in the cartoons,” observed Laxman.

The Hindu’s efforts at indigenising, or shall we say nationalising, cartoons started around the time of Independence. The focus shifted from the ills of colonial rule and the impact of World War-II to the multiple challenges confronting a new nation. Those who were glorified and venerated as freedom fighters till the other day were subjected to closer scrutiny and their follies lampooned mercilessly. The other significant aspect was the newspaper’s ability to protect itself from becoming xenophobic or inward-looking. It maintained a balance in its cartoon space to critically look at both national and international issues. Some of the cartoons were indeed early warning signals. If Vasu’s cartoon (November 8, 1949) on the politics of language in Madras captured the dilemmas of leaders in formulating the language policy, Thanu’s cartoon (July 7, 1953) on the form of democracy in East Germany was a brilliant exposition of Cold War politics. Jomton succeeded Vasu and Thanu as the newspaper’s cartoonist in the early 1960s.

When Rajinder Puri left Hindustan Times in 1967 to become a freelancer, The Hindu worked out an arrangement with him. His cartoons continued to feature till his next move to become the editor of the magazine, Stir Weekly. Well-known writer O.V. Vijayan succeeded him as The Hindu’scartoonist, bringing literary allusions, most often from George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Far m, as an additional element to cartooning. In the post-Emergency phase, E.P. Unny became the staff cartoonist. Keshav and Surendra have been with the newspaper from 1987 and 1996 respectively, taking forward the legacy of questioning with wit.

Taking offence

It requires a larger political and cultural milieu for cartoons to flourish in any society. It was not just Nehru but also some regional leaders who exhibited a fine understanding of the role of cartoons in a democratic society. C.N. Annadurai, founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, wrote an excellent illustrated essay on the role of cartoons, titled “Cartoonayanam”. However, we do have people who take offence quickly. Laxman recollected the reaction of Morarji Desai to one of his cartoons: “I did a cartoon criticising his plans to ban horse-racing and crosswords. He felt outraged at my comment and called a full-dress Cabinet meeting to discuss how to eliminate the menace of the cartoonist.”

In 1987, P.H. Pandian, Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, sentenced S. Balasubramanian, Editor of Ananda Vikatan, to three months’ rigorous imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House, for publishing a cartoon. We need more Nehrus and Annadurais and fewer Desais and Pandians to enliven our morning readings.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 3:16:21 AM |

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