The art of political cartooning has always had its ups and downs but in the age of social media outrage and thin-skinned autocrats, the few square inches of visual satire are fighting for survival
First, The New York Times published a cartoon showing Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu that was slammed for its “anti-Semitic tropes”. It apologised but the matter didn’t stop at that. The paper then dispensed with editorial cartoons altogether in its international edition. The domestic paper had ditched cartoons several years ago. While the NYT never had much of a cartoon tradition, this move is of a piece with the sidelining of the cartoon in many US newspapers, where it has been a mainstay of journalism and democracy for decades.
Meanwhile, in India’s own hub of cartooning, Kerala, the state government has objected to an award-winning cartoon for humiliating the Christian clergy, in its depiction of rape-accused Bishop Franco as a rooster holding up a pair of panties on his crosier.
Clearly, even in the age of social media memes, this centuries-old art form has lost none of its power to provoke and to shape opinion, but the business of satire is getting harder. In diverse, unequal societies around the world, cartoons are causing firestorms with their stereotyping of ethnic and religious groups.
But does it even make sense to expect delicacy and tact from a blunt form? “As the Madras High Court recently ruled, the cartoon is inherently an art of ridicule. So it has to be read in that way. It is a raw art that came from the streets. Like a poster, it is highly one-sided political propaganda, even if it becomes a little more gentlemanly when it came into the newsroom,” says a political cartoonist who does not wish to be named. “If you’re worried about offending some group or the other, the cartoon will become bland and aseptic, then it’s better not to have it at all,” he adds.
It’s hard to pin down when people began doodling funny pictures of the powerful, but political cartoons as we know them began in 18th-century London, and colonial India had a thriving tradition of graphic satire. The magazine Punch inspired an Oudh Punch, a Hindi Punch, and Basantak in West Bengal. Cartoonists like Jatin Sen, Benoy Ghosh and Gaganendranath Tagore drew ironic pictures of their social and political contexts.
“Think of David Low, whose cartoons of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and so on made such an impact on the public. In India, the then-viceroy Lord Linlithgow requested Shankar (the father of Indian cartooning) for the original of a cartoon mocking him, Jawaharlal Nehru also famously said ‘don’t spare me, Shankar’. But now, politicians just don’t want democracy and free thinking,” says VG Narendra, managing trustee of the Indian Institute of Cartoonists.
Cartoonists have drawn the ire of all quarters of the political spectrum. After Abu Abraham’s famous cartoon of the thenpresident signing the Emergency from his bathtub, cartoons were entirely ceased during Indira Gandhi’s repressive rule. A few years ago, an old Shankar cartoon of Ambedkar in an NCERT textbook became a flashpoint — some declared it anti-Dalit and offensive to the architect of the Constitution, others appealed for it to be seen in context. Politicians across the spectrum have quarrelled with cartoons.
“Even though they’re theoretically more open, some left-liberals can be more censorious than the right-wing. Social media gives anyone a chance to claim moral high ground, and it has enabled the worst kind of poseurs,” says long-time cartoonist Hemant Morparia.
Then again, the right to ridicule doesn’t seem to be equally available — there’s a world of inflammatory grassroots cartooning on right-wing social media, with evil-looking Muslims, feminists etc, but no visible response from the other side. “Those cartoons are just random shouting, but professional cartooning is different, there’s a responsibility to myself, to my editor, my paper and my audience,” responds Morparia.
Indian editorial cartoons have pushed in many directions, from OV Vijayan’s progressive politics to Bal Thackeray’s incendiary portrayals of migrants as tentacled octopuses choking Mumbai, and so on. “A cartoon often speaks louder than a 100 editorials and my cartoons did manage to have this effect. Whatever we are today is because of this art,” Thackeray wrote about the Shiv Sena’s rise.
An editorial cartoon is crucially inspired by the moment, led by the news. The words and caricatures have to jive, they can’t stand alone. Every medium has its constraints, a cartoon’s constraints are space and attention. Within a few square inches, it has to grab the reader’s eye. “Our society is so polarised that a neutral position is hard to sustain. It’s also dangerous when you start to censor yourself, regulate yourself,” says Sandeep Adhwaryu, a cartoonist at the Times of India.
It’s also hard to avoid all visual cliches and stereotypes. While writers can use words in inventive ways, a cartoon needs to make sense quickly, so using a tilak or a crescent or cross to represent religions is a quick shorthand. “These are still benign cliches, one has to distinguish between these and the truly malignant ones,” says Morparia.
A cartoon is a function of its society, says Adhwaryu. French cartoons, for instance, have always been more outre, they take liberties for the sake of it. Generational sensibilities also change. For instance, the celebrated Mario Miranda drew on several sexist stereotypes, with his voluptuous, bug-eyed women — but such cartoons are less likely to pass muster today. “It’s the way norms change, people used to say ‘moral leper’ all the time in editorials once, now they wouldn’t,” says a cartoonist. R K Laxman’s memorable work, which another cartoonist calls “a Mumbaikar’s view of politics”, reflect his own times and thoughts.
We need cartoons, these concentrated pellets of critique and humour, in both good times and bad ones. As the recently sacked NYT cartoonist Patrick Chappatte wrote, “political cartoons were born with democracy. And they are challenged when freedom is.”