A “Nazi tiger”, with swastika symbols all over its body, is chewing a man. However, the presence of the man is only implied, what you actually see is just an umbrella, with a tag of “appeasement”, in its mouth. In the cartoon, David Low of the London Evening Standard apparently had a message for the US president.
Delivering a lecture on ‘The Comic as Continuity’, chief political cartoonist of the Indian Express EP Unny took the audience through this and more slides to sketch a history of cartooning across the world and in India. Organised by the LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives, a cultural trust, the event was held at the India International Centre in New Delhi on November 11, as part of a 14-part lecture series on ‘Culture as Continuum’.
Unny raised pertinent questions on what is a cartoon, can cartoons be stand-alones, are they merely meant to entertain, and how does the media use cartoons. “Most of the cartoons can be traced back to actual events in history. There is no stand-alone cartoon. The cartoon can step out of the character, creating a sort of a hologram that can do and say anything which the real character may not do in public,” said Unny.
Cartoons can be used as tools for updating history, just like Ralph Steadman did in 1995. He illustrated the 50thanniversary issue of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, book replete with references to the Soviet Union, which by 1995 wasn’t even into existence.
However, while cartoons are agents of continuity, they can also be tools of inversion as well. The Emergency years were tough for cartoonists. “Our traditional cartoons were upright, direct and outspoken, and were powerful tools for the media,” said Unny, recalling how Indira Gandhi banned cartoons during that phase. Shankar’s Weeklyclosed within a month of the imposition of Emergency. “But when such discontinuity takes place, it comes back with a vengeance, and that is what happened. Once Emergency was lifted, the cartoonist Ravi Shankar and editor Arun Shourie of The Indian Expressrun a cartoon campaign against Rajiv Gandhi for nearly two years, but without tiring out the readers,” he said. Similar work was seen at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition and the attack on the World Trade Centre in the US.
Unny also shared some cartooning cues. “When things go terribly wrong, Gandhi makes an appearance,” he said, showing a cartoon, where Gandhi is seen exiting the Ram Janambhoomi site.