In another era, a wit that pulled no punches

The colonial government took a liberal view of the merciless lampooning that it received at the hands of cartoonists in the Indian press

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:12 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2012 01:06 am IST

A cartoon is a written expression of the comic impulse, and the cartoonist is an artisan of nib and brush who puts down complex processes of reason and argument in drawings and pictures. His impact is that readers sit up, smile, frown, or simply laugh. In short, cartoons appeal to popular taste and popular intelligence. ‘Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,' wrote Mark Twain.

Witticism and satire became legitimate, acceptable, and popular in social conversation, cultural dialogues and as a genre of literature in the subcontinent principally because of poets like Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830). A folk poet, he had chosen a medium from which he was never to stray during his ever-widening survey of popular culture.

Loftiness of feeling

Every generation has its own standard of critical judgment, but cartoons introduce a loftiness of feeling. As early as 1906, the outstanding Tamil poet Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) front-paged cartoons in the India weekly he edited to rub in his fiercely nationalistic views. He would often pose for his cartoonist to emphasise the gestural effects he desired the cartoons to reflect. Given India's folk and classical tradition of satire, it was easy for the cartoonist to relate to a form that freezes mime and movement into a stinging visual. Most newspapers of the time carried cartoons.

As a child, R.K. Laxman saw a cartoon opposite the editorial page. It made no sense to him but ‘the brilliance of the draftsmanship' was stunning and held his attention for a long time. The cartoon was by David Low, who worked for the Evening Standard in London.

Jawaharlal Nehru knew Shankar, the cartoonist, and sent two of his cartoons to Indira (Indu) Nehru in early November 1939. Indira, in turn, sent a cartoon by Gabriel from Brentford, Middlesex. The poster in which the cartoon appeared referred to ‘Freedom is in Peril, Defend it with All Your Might.' These lines appeared as the masthead of the National Herald , a Congress newspaper from Lucknow.

One mark of a great satirist is that he sees the most effective way of getting through his opponent's guard, and another is that he seizes every casual opening to land his punches. In the articles and cartoon published in the Awadh Punch , Sajjad Husain, the editor, and his friends do both of those things to perfection.

Themes and the 20th Century

Cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication. The volume of humour produced by this weekly had both variety and range. One of its offshoots was that political/social satire became an accepted and legitimate medium of experience. Indeed, the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore.

One would have therefore expected the cartoons to be an incessant thorn in the flesh of the authorities — the British official portrayed in the cartoons. This was not so: Archibald Constable put together a collection of Awadh Punch cartoons ‘in recognition of the amusement and interesting information, we have from time to time derived from its pages and pictures.' As an administrator brimming with confidence, he could afford to ignore what appeared in the Awadh Punch . He seemed to identify more with a cartoon in one of Kipling's stories that illustrates a solitary Englishman quietly riding towards a town seized by an outbreak of mob passions, not doubting for a moment that the angry waves would be stilled at his appearance.

The British Empire reinforced a hierarchical view of the world, in which Britain occupied a pre-eminent place among the colonial, while those subjected to it were ranged below, in varying degrees of supposed inferiority. In their gallery of caricatures, the cartoonists illustrated this theme brilliantly. Thus the image of M.E. Grant Duff, or ‘The Grand Puff of Madras,' Governor of Madras from 1881-1886, is brilliantly introduced by Mumbai's Parsee Punch . His tenure was filled with a number of controversies and allegations of partisan behaviour and injustice.

Similarly, the Parsee Punch cartoons chronicled, in the manner of a text, the adventures and misadventures of Dufferin, the viceroy. The artist's lively talent for ridicule is evident from a cartoon that portrays the viceroy as a woodman in Bengal in the act of felling down the ‘plants' — political meetings, political agitation and mass meetings — with a scythe and a hatchet.

Colonial administrators and their apologists were never tired of pointing with pride to what they claimed to have done and were doing for the benefit of the Indian people. But many Indian-owned newspapers, the Awadh Punch being the most prominent among them, claimed that there was another side which could not fail to prove disillusioning to all who learned the truth about the ruin and destruction caused by the colonial regime.

Liberal interpretation

Despite the most unpalatable insinuations and unpleasant comparisons, the British government did not put the cartoonists in jail. The fact that the British administration interpreted liberally its comic representations in the ‘native press' is reflected in a cartoon representing the British throne with the bird of freedom on the right arm. In the body of the picture is a woman marked ‘Congress' attended by men from various parts of India. At the foot of the throne is a scroll marked ‘complaints,' and standing over it is the figure of a man clothed with the Union Jack marked ‘Government of India.' He bears a lighted torch marked ‘education.' The man stands between the right arm of the throne and the woman. The slogan is: ‘Will those whose view turns dust into gold cast an eye on us also?'

‘The only meaning to be gathered from the cartoon,' a British official observed, ‘is that education, which has spread throughout India, and by its light has shown clearly the freedom which has its seat on the throne, has emboldened the people of India, through their representatives in the National Congress to [illegible] and lay at the foot of the throne their grievances.'

Post-Independence, the record of our own officials is far too grim to be recounted here. Scores of cartoons bring to uncover, in varying degrees, how the Congress regenerated national life. One of them denotes the party as a stout child in English attire riding a hobby in the shape of a unicorn, with the British lion standing by. The Urdu verse conveys the message, ‘This child is a promising one.' Another depicts the Congress as a beautiful woman wearing a coronet, and the editor of the Pioneer as a painter — a hideous monster. The explanation states — ‘a picture for the Simla Exhibition: A true painter and a faithful picture.' Again, there is a sketch of an infuriated elephant marked ‘National Congress' tossing a European marked ‘Anglo-Indian.' The account reads as — ‘One hundred days for the thief; one day for the honest man.'

A favourite with several vernacular papers for his ‘firmness of mind' was Charles Bradlaugh who had ridiculed the Home government's fiscal and frontier policies in the House of Commons and introduced a bill reforming the Indian councils along the lines advocated by the Congress. In a cartoon, he stands next to Hume and William Wedderburn, the Congress President in 1889 and 1910, who gave his body, mind and money to the party, with garlands of flowers around their necks. A number of Indian women throw flowers on ‘The Friends of India.' In another place, pro-Congress Indian ladies from different provinces mourn over Bradlaugh's coffin. The Congress, kneeling down, offers a bouquet of flowers, and repeats an Urdu verse — ‘you are going, but to whose care have you left me?' This comment indicates how the Congress relied upon, at least in its early years, on its British patrons in London to articulate its demands.

We need to be aware of and express, in an inventively humorous manner, the relationship between seemingly incongruous and disparate things. For this to happen, we must draw some wisdom from wit and humour in public life, past and present. Cartoons offer such rare insights into our political and cultural histories that they can be read as a document without undermining their artistic achievements.

(Mushirul Hasan has published Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: Awadh Punch, and Wit and Wisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, 2012.)

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