When Jawaharlal Nehru is being posthumously pitted against formidable peers like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, it is time to take a fresh look at the country’s first prime minister. Best done through the eyes of a cartoonist, not because the cartoon is any more objective than the din in the air. Far from it. There is no cartoon without a slant and none knew this better than Shankar, who shaped the Indian edit cartoon through those nation-building, opinion-making years.
The art practice, however, has one vital documental merit. The cartoonist records history even as it is being made. The ‘live’ cartoons eventually add up to a historical record that is also more or less tamper-proof. You can destroy, not deform the lot. You can remove old cartoons from textbooks or fob off the researcher by renaming libraries and museums. But the archival cartoon itself can’t be ‘rewritten’ to glorify the protagonist. You meddle with a cartoon and your hero will end up looking even more comic.
The Shankar cartoon, certainly open to multiple readings, is particularly difficult to tweak. It is least wordy and showcases an elaborately crafted visual that spoke for itself. He did over 1,500 such firewalled cartoons on Nehru. The young barrister must have returned from London to make a quiet cartoon entry in the late 1920s when Shankar was freelancing in Mumbai. As the cartoonist moved to Delhi in 1932, and through his 14 years in The Hindustan Times, you see Nehru moving steadily into centre stage.
When Shankar’s Weekly started in May 1948, it was the prime minister who released the first issue. Shankar had a whole week to produce his quota of cartoons now. The output must have been that much less visceral and more reflective. Again, the cartoonist was his own editor and owner as well. Not that he enjoyed less autonomy earlier; Shankar came into all the freedom he wanted ironically when his target shifted from the colonial masters to a man and a movement he was broadly in tune with. The cartoons alongside are picked from this phase when the PM, the country and the cartoonist were all at once free.
How free, let us see.
The capital of newly freed India was no more than the low-rise Lutyens quarter where everyone knew everyone else. Shankar was already a celebrity. The principal protagonist of the cartoon was the kind who drove up on a whim from Teen Murti Bhavan to the cartoonist friend’s Babar Lane home in Bengali Market for idli-sambar breakfast. The guest had a temper, not to speak of a sharp sense of repartee, enough to tear into a cartoon if he chose to. But no sparks have been reported across the dining table. On his part did Shankar anticipate conflict and pull punches at least in the prime ministerial honeymoon?
Unlikely. A mere three years into his tryst with destiny, Nehru is shown using Parliament as a rubber stamp in the aftermath of the postponed general election. Cuts at the very root of the man’s self-esteem as a parliamentarian and practising democrat. Years later, under the Emergency when Indira Gandhi extended the term of the Lok Sabha, Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the House “parlok sabha”. Shankar’s worst fear wasn’t misplaced.
From the mundane rubber stamp let us move on to a breathtaking image by no means unfavourable to the PM but uninhibited even by our standards today. You see Nehru in the buff. The non-frontal nudity is of course most aesthetically offset by the allusion to the famous oil painting Love Locked Out by American artist Anna Lea Merritt. The skies didn’t fall then as they don’t now over Europe and the US when Steve Bell and Gerald Scarfe disrobe their leaders routinely.
Barely a decade into power, Nehru is shown adept enough to ground socialists, capitalists and Communists in one go but not the ominous communalist. His successors (Indira Gandhi with Bhindranwale, Narasimha Rao with Ayodhya, Rajiv Gandhi with Shah Bano) didn’t grow much wiser on this count.
Then there are cartoons that refuse to date, rich in parallels and contrasts with the present. Our first PM had ample mann to broadcast baat, not to mention a global image that outmatched the domestic. He would resort to near-divine diplomacy to manage venerable cows, and was often called upon to conduct a jugalbandi between shrill voices and sober ones that echoed his own. On special occasions like the Bhavnagar AICC session in 1961, the entire leadership turns out armed with adhesives to integrate an India lying about in pieces. The image looks Buddhist and nothing like ‘Bharat Mata’.
Again, there are interesting patterns across cartoons. You do get the occasional glimpse of the proverbially lonely man at the top but mostly he is in the company of colleagues from his Cabinet, party or the Opposition. Prime ministerial conduct back then seems far more like a shared spectacle.
By now if you are beginning to entertain any notion of a bygone era that was larger than life, drop the thought. In a 1952 Gandhi Jayanti cartoon, a solemn Nehru and an array of leaders from the Marxian A K Gopalan to the Gandhian socialist Acharya Kripalani are ceremoniously carrying statuettes of the Mahatma. Gandhi himself would have had no quarrel with the stark image that mocks iconisation. He did have some years ago over a cartoon on Jinnah, and promptly wrote to Shankar, “You fulfil merely the first test of a cartoonist. Your cartoons are good as works of art. But if they do not speak accurately and do not joke without offending, you will not rise high in your profession.”
Nehru’s mentor was a keener cartoon watcher.