OPINION

Political cartoons in the age of memes

The job of the editorial cartoonist has changed considerably since the advent of social media. The editorial cartoon used to be placed on a pedestal; this is no longer the case.

With the advent of 24X7 news channels, access to breaking news stopped being the privilege of the newsroom. Since an editorial cartoonist’s job is to observe and comment through the comic medium, the exclusivity of observation was the first loss. What they still retained, however, was the space for response, the hallowed political cartoon space. At the time, political cartoons did not evolve to the video format beyond the occasional Gustakhi Maaf (a TV programme with puppets). The cartoon space of important newspapers could inform readers what political news was ‘trending’ the previous day. Cartoons began to be shared via email and became ‘viral’ in the email era. All these changes only served to make the cartoonist’s space more sacrosanct.

But social media changed all that. Today, everybody has a space to respond. And there is no exclusivity of observation whatsoever. At times, a child sitting in his bedroom can access expert opinions of distinguished journalists more quickly than an editorial cartoonist can while sitting in a newsroom. He can also respond to it without being bound by the necessary drawing skills. In other words, with the creation of memes, the cartoonist’s life has changed forever.

Today we live at a time where the ‘one point witty comment’ space has become the most crowded and dynamic space on the Internet. Observations in this space are not always commonplace; they are often deep and insightful. In fact, some of the most profound observations come from regular people with a small number of followers. All these changes have forced cartoonists to reflect not just on political affairs, but the space they occupy in political humour.

These rapid changes have also pushed cartoonists from the cosy and exclusive gentleman’s club into the muck of unfiltered online commentary. This can be a harrowing experience, but often liberating too. Having your ego shattered a hundred times a day can educate you but also free you in a way.

However, not all is bad. I find memes and web cartoons a great way to exercise my brain. A lot of stray comments serve as inspiration for my work, and college students are sometimes my mentors. People ask me to address specific issues, so there is constant feedback. And amidst all the trolling I deal with, I also receive really positive comments.

The political climate is also important for cartoonists. What has really changed over the last decade or so is the manner in which cartoonists have been censored. India once again finds itself in an authoritarian regime without a sense of humour. Cartoonists want to say a lot but are often silenced by editors, trolls, political parties and the worst of them all, Sections 124A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

We find solace in the fact that the best work and the most dynamic ways of resistance always come in the worst of times. Cartoonists must balance the dual task of being neutral and witty political observers and being activists who constantly push boundaries and attempt to reclaim lost spaces through innovation and persistence. These are not easy times, but they sure are exciting times.

Recommended for you