No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956
Edited and selected by Unnamati Syama Sundar
This book takes a good hard look at independent India’s early cartooning. It could be disturbing for readers who believe that a cartoon can do no wrong. As you turn the pages, you still find much that is right but the noise is sometimes loud enough to drown out the message.
For everyday art that quickly caught the Indian imagination, our cartoon seldom gets a second look. Gallery shows aren’t common. Book-length collections are rare and the ones we have — like Shankar’s work on Jawaharlal Nehru, Abu Abraham’s on the Emergency, professor Mushirul Hasan’s essays on the indigenous Punch clones — examine historic moments, personalities and issues, remaining firmly on the side of the cartoon. Here, Syama Sundar turns the spotlight on the work practice itself. He presents 122 cartoons on BR Ambedkar chronologically — with news context and visual content analysed — to build a case of caste bias against the protagonist.
The book works like one big cartoon. One-sided, adversarial, unsparing. Cartoonists can’t complain. They are getting a taste of their own medicine. Himself a cartoonist and research scholar, the author packs so much punch into the exercise that you wince serially. There is occasional relief when a cartoon is let off lightly but the wince returns soon enough when another is dismissed with a one word comment: “Sigh!”
You see a succession of disturbing Ambedkar images that adds up to a trend. The country’s first law minister and Constitution maker is invariably the shortest figure in the frame. When he has to be complimented for a good deed, he is the priestly Manu, chest bared to display the sacred thread. When he accomplishes a task as commendable as the third reading of the draft Constitution, he is called Kaliyug Bhim. When he revives postwar coal production by letting women into the workforce, he is in shop-soiled overalls, wheeling soot-stained women out of the mine. Casteism, like misfortune, never comes singly. Sexism is close behind.
How could cartoonists, famously individualistic, regress collectively? These top talents worked for English dailies, mostly based in Delhi, where the journalistic fraternity was literally bumping into leaders making history. At least two of the papers were founded by key headline makers — National Herald by Jawaharlal Nehru and Dawn by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The emergence of a vast, uncertain democracy in and around the newsroom must have been pretty heady. Editors and reporters could have gained from proximity to power; cartoonists lost perspective. Gandhi in the drawing got steadily elongated and Ambedkar never grew up. Whenever the two argued, which was often, the joke was almost always on the challenger, seldom on the sage. One cartoon the author commends is from 1951 by the young Laxman, working out of Mumbai. Distance helped.
According to cartoon scholar Colin Seymore-Ure, the newspaper cartoon remains what it was in the late 18th century. Central to this near-eternity, he adds, citing art historian Ernst Gombrich, is a certain simplicity of form achieved through universal contrasts like high and low, light and dark, big and small. Shankar’s generation modelled itself on David Low and Sidney Strube, two British masters who, back home, functioned in a neat and settled polity. While here, what awaited the day’s doodle was chaos on a subcontinental scale. Practitioners were looking for a simple big picture which the Congress offered. Ambedkar was in and out of it.
After all these decades, we still aren’t done with the founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and the “Chatur Baniya” himself keeps appearing in contemporary cartoons. Ambedkar is a growing presence. He appears, book in hand, as the Statue of Liberty and justice rolled into one. Cartoonists today seem to be making amends for the lapses of the predecessors. Protest art must bond with protest politics. Or, someone else divides and rules.
Meanwhile, a little debating space could help. This book belongs there. It does what our Parliament failed to do. Back in May 2012, in a House readying for its 60th anniversary celebration, all but two of the Lok Sabha MPs present agitated and initiated action to delete cartoons from a text book. We have today this book full of cartoons that could well be on the Class XI reading list. The sixteen-year-olds would debate it vigorously, and, in two years, vote more thoughtfully.