A cow is a cow

The concept of subtlety is extremely modern, one that has come into expression only over the last 150 years. It also carries with it certain notions that actually developed in the West – ideas about reduction and minimalism, saying less than you should say. Yet I have no problem with a sense of melodrama in the visual. These are highly melodramatic works we see here today. This is, I think, the Subcontinental visual sensibility; we don't need to reject it. Therefore, we don't need to Westernise in the modernist sensibility of the West.

Cartoons in Southasia often exemplify truisms: you show a cow and call it a cow. Looking at 'traditional' expression from this part of the world, there is a tendency to overstate – to be a little loud, to over-decorate – which could sometimes contain regressive values, but at other times also carry interesting traditional discourse. Moreover, there is a way of reaching out to a larger public with this imagery, which cartoonists probably understand better than editorial writers. Although it was Pablo Picasso who said that it was not the job of the artist to clean up the mess left behind by politics in society, it is increasingly clear that it is the job of the cartoonist to pick up that mess. Indeed, many of them do see themselves in that role, and therefore there is a certain moralism attached to the practice of cartooning, much more than to the act of editorial writing or reportage in the media. I think cartoonists have an in-built moral premise, which is very strong because it means that you come with a certain innocence of the eye and innocence of intent; you are looking at society a little more severely than perhaps the rest of the world looks at it.

Therefore, we tend to regard the cartoonist as a humourist. And that is a mistake, because it is not the job of a cartoonist to be a humourist or an after-dinner joke-cracker. Unfortunately, many cartoonists also see themselves as humourists, and that is a limitation. By definition, I would say, a cartoonist is a bloodthirsty critic, with a special ability to condense the critique into a whiplash, a momentary sting. The sting is not supposed to be that little laughter that you generate and go away. Otherwise, it gets too cosy – you get invited to dinner by the minister whom you have just lampooned, saying "Why don't you lampoon me some more, because that is giving me publicity?"

The challenge is, how much tighter and sharper can the critique be? What you can say in 200 words – is it possible to say in 20? Doing so means that you compress the idea, tighten it to a point where it can't do anything but explode. The cartoonist's craft is somewhat similar. A good example is a cartoon by Abu from soon after the Watergate scandal in the US. He had this wonderful image of the White House in the background, like a tombstone, and a caption below that said "Richard Nixon lied here (1969-74)". Closer to home, during the general elections in India in 1982 – where the issue of caste had emerged in a big way – Abu's minimalist cartoon in the Indian Express stated, "Vote your caste here". There could be no more succinct comment on the emerging caste-based politics of that time.

Agonising entertainment
Cartoonists specialise not only in hard-hitting analyses of current events. The more prescient among them also predict the future. O V Vijayan, the well-known editorial cartoonist with The Hindu, was one such. His cartoon-based prediction of the rise of fundamentalism with the Jana Sangh – later to become the Bharatiya Janata Party – can be rated as one of the most astute commentaries about Indian politics ever drawn. In the late 1960s, Vijayan, in a play on the Jana Sangh's election symbol, the lamp, drew a cartoon with the caption "Mein lampf" (see image). This was 30 years before the rise of the BJP and the decisive role the party was to play in communalising Indian politics. It was prophetic.

In classic journalism and classic cartooning, you are two steps ahead: you know what is coming, you have caught on to the trend, and you are telling your readers, Look out, watch out! A sense of anticipation – that is what political work is all about. It is evident in Abu's work – picking up on signals and transforming them into cartoons. He sees this innocent female politician in Indira Gandhi – the darling of the socialists in India at that time, the darling of the press, seen to be brushing aside the old cobwebs of history, all of the corrupt in the Congress party. And within two years, he is seeing and marking every moment of her transformation. Abu is almost yelling at you, Watch out, Emergency ahead!

The cartoonist, thus, is not humouring people. If there is laughter, it must happen with that sense of agony. It is not a laughter of entertainment. Unfortunately, most cartoonists are defusing themselves into being entertainment personalities. It then becomes more difficult to speak truth to authority, to match authoritarianism with your own sense of power. Indeed, we must preserve the sensibility of the surgeon's scalpel that, with one clean slice, is able to prise open the innards, look at them very closely, and then stitch the whole thing back together if necessary – but the wound has to continue to show.

~ Sadanand Menon is an arts editor, photographer and adjunct faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, Madras.

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