No humour please, we are Indians!
iconic Bengali humorist Sukumar Ray described a curious race of
beings "who were scared to laugh". With the government forced to
apologise for a 1949 cartoon on Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar
The uproar over a cartoon in a
school textbook and the undue haste shown by the government in
withdrawing the book were both out of place and uncalled for.
This, apart from other things, shows how little we know of our
history and how poor we are in appreciating works of art.
Those attacking cartoons tend to forget that cartooning in India
has had a long history and is firmly entrenched in society. A
rough calculation will show that in over a century of its
existence, nearly one million cartoons and caricatures have
appeared in newspapers and periodicals in many languages and
Cartoons by nature are forward-looking, democratic and secular in
their approach and need no certificates from the government.
Cartoons thrive on acceptability of their comments by a society
which is far more mature.
Right from the days of the freedom struggle, cartoons have played
an important role in mass awakening, stirring the minds of
thinking people. To do this, at times, the ever uncompromising
cartoonists have not shied away from taking a stand against
governments and even their own papers' editorial line.
This was particularly evident when the Babri mosque was razed and,
10 years later, during the Gujarat riots. I compiled two books of
cartoons on the two events ("Punchline" and "Drawing the Battle
Lines"). It was interesting that of over 5,000 cartoons I
collected, not one favoured the mosque demolition or the killings.
The cartoonists have also come under attack for being fierce
votaries of freedom of speech and expression. But such cases have
been rare. During the Emergency (1975-77), cartoons were censored
as if the government feared that its reputation was dented by
their innocuous strokes.
Cartoons are a complex genre of art. Being a curious mix of
humour, satire and political understanding, they are not produced
just to make one laugh. They are different from caricatures. They
look at the realities and make one think. Even when commenting on
social issues, cartoons provide space for lateral thinking.
Since cartoons are works of art, they do not require captive
audiences. Like any art work, it is their inherent magnetic
strength and bare truth that draws people to them. It is their
multi-layeredness that opens the doors for various
interpretations. Some interpretations though could go totally
haywire as happened in the case of the nearly 60-year-old Nehru-Ambedkar
If the opposition to this cartoon was on the count of the captive
audiences, like in schools, it may have been understandable. The
opposition, however, was political and so needs to be condemned. A
cartoon which was not opposed by the leaders figuring in it
suddenly becomes hot potato because the politics of the day
interprets it in its own way.
Equally distressing is the way the mass media chose to respond to
the cartoon row. The media went overboard, seeing Satan where
there was none. If the government acted in panic trying to avoid
yet another controversy, the media appears to have played the game
by the rules set by the government.
Cartoons in textbooks can be a subject matter for thorough
discussion. Some, like the government of the day, may reject it
outright but a blanket ban may not be the best answer. There may
be a contention that one should have cartoons in textbooks, if one
must, only in the higher classes when the level of maturity and
capabilities for proper interpretation have adequately developed.
Madhuker Upadhyay is an author and journalist. He
can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org