Journalism’s first task is to speak truth to power. Cartoons can do it with humour and devastating efficacy. Scholars consider Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Join or die’, a 1754 cartoon that depicted a snake cut into multiple parts to represent the Colonies, as the first political cartoon. Over the next 250 years, political cartooning matured into a specific genre to become an integral part of the news ecology, with most countries witnessing their own visual and metaphorical idioms.
On April 6, there was a daylong symposium at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, on political cartooning in India. Major cartoonists from various publications came together to pay homage to the masters of cartooning — R.K. Laxman and Rajinder Puri — and to reflect on the current status of cartooning in India. In the course of the discussion, one name kept cropping up as the person who provided the initial fillip to cartooning in India: David Low. It was incredible to note that the three finest exponents of the editorial art — Low, Laxman and Puri — were associated with The Hindu at some point.
Laxman, who has illustrated R.K. Narayan’s stories in The Hindu , has written extensively on how Low was an inspiration. Where did Laxman see Low’s cartoons? How did he manage to see a body of work of this New Zealand-born cartoonist who lived in Britain for the better part of his creative life? The Hindu introduced Low to Indian readers. In the special issue to mark the 125th anniversary of this newspaper, S. Muthiah provided some historical background. He wrote: “Photography became a regular feature in the 1920s. Around this time, [the editor Kasturi] Srinivasan even introduced illustrated jokes to fill space at the end of columns. He took this a step forward when, in October 1925, the paper published its first political cartoon by one who signed himself ‘Horace’ and remains anonymous to this day. The inability to find a regular cartoonist made cartooning in the paper not only infrequent but of variable quality. When The Hindu began publishing regular cartoons, they were by David Low; his work, introduced with some fanfare, first appeared in the paper in 1933 and continued until the celebrated cartoonist’s death in 1963.”
“ The three finest exponents of cartooning — David Low, R.K. Laxman and Rajinder Puri — were associated with The Hindu at some point ”
History, alas, is never so neat. There was a break in the publication in The Hindu of Low’s cartoons immediately after Independence and it was resumed only in 1949. Rangaswami Parthasarathy, in his book A Hundred Years of The Hindu , records the resumption of Low’s cartoons as well as the newspaper’s regard for his genius. It praised him for his absolute fearlessness and contended: “This modern David vanquished many a Goliath in the course of his illustrious career.” It further said that Low “has added to the gaiety of nations, and it has been estimated that over five million breakfast tables scattered about the world rock with mirth every morning when the daily newspaper is passed round. All this is to the good; for a cartoon by Low is a liberal education in itself. But it is no less true to say that only a well educated person, alert to contemporary developments and versed in historical lore can fully appreciate the subtleties and the nuances of his drawings.”
If the duty is to speak truth to power, then the anger of the powerful towards truth tellers seems to be the natural corollary. Low, like most talented editorial artists, was able to see ahead of his time and realised the perils of the Hitler-Mussolini alliance. His unsparing criticism irritated the Germans, who, after trying in vain to stop his cartoons in Britain, thought of means to black them out in India. V.K. Narasimhan in his biography of Kasturi Srinivasan documents the attempt of Krupp, a German corporate, apparently on the suggestion of the German government, to threaten The Hindu . As has been documented, Krupp threatened to stop advertising in the paper if it failed to drop Low’s cartoons. “Srinivasan coolly returned the contract to Krupp, adding that no external interference with the editor’s right to publish what he chose would be tolerated,” wrote Narasimhan.
The task of defending the cartoonist did not end either with World War II or Indian Independence. Low came under attack for his cartoon “The Morning After”, on the coronation of the Queen in June 1953. It was first published in The Guardian . Some of The Guardian ’s readers protested against the irreverence in referring to the coronation celebrations as a “spree”, and a costly one at that, and suggesting that the nation would have cause to regret it when the time to count the cost arrived.
The Hindu ’s response, as recorded by Rangaswami Parthasarathy, was thus: “The inescapable facts of geography and distance have taken that particular sting out of its publication in The Hindu to-day… But who would think of coming between Low and his audience with a kindly veil! As The Guardian puts it: ‘Low expresses his own independent views; we should not dream of censoring him unless he overstepped the bounds of libel and decency’. Neither should we.”
(To be continued.)