Cartoonists have become an integral part of the intellectual life of a modern society. Some draw without intent to draw blood; some remove masks and hold a mirror to the face of society. There cannot be a cartoon without a certain amount of irreverence. But it depends on the cartoonist whether the irreverence aims at malice or irony… Shankar was not afraid to wound if there was a reason to do so.
That was then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in July 1983 in a foreword to a collection of cartoons by K Shankar Pillai. Someone should have told this to the MPs,especially the ones from the Congress,who forced a ban on cartoons offensive to politicians in NCERT school textbooks. Many of the offensive cartoons feature Indira Gandhi while it was Shankars sketch that set off the furore.
The foreword by the late PM was to a childrens book whose title Dont Spare Me Shankar (published in 1983 and reprinted in 2009) was itself borrowed from Jawaharlal Nehrus affectionate remark to Shankar,by then famous for lampooning virtually every political figure of the time.
…Turning over (the books) pages,we relive the controversies of yesterday the vanities of some,and the intrinsic strength of the man who stood above them in large-heartedness,ability and vision, Indira Gandhi added.
The book was published by the Childrens Book Trust which Shankar founded in 1957. The CBT also runs the famous Shankars International Dolls Museum in Delhi. Among other sketches,the cartoons in the book depict MPs as hounds baying for the Opposition,shown as rats. One has Nehru punching Ram Manohar Lohia,Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and JP,among others. Another has Nehru delivering a well-aimed kick upstairs to some ministers reluctant to accept gubernatorial positions. One cartoon dated May 23,1954,interestingly,has Nehru egging on his ministers,all of whom are on snails holding whips. It is dubbed Indian Derby. It was a Shankar cartoon showing B R Ambedkar on a snail with a whip,with Nehru standing behind him holding another whip,that was seen to be offensive by MPs.
My father could have easily interchanged who was sitting on the snail. What mattered was the subject,which was the delay in framing the Constitution, Shanta Srinivasan,Shankars elder daughter,who heads the Shankars International Dolls Museum,told The Indian Express. All this has really hurt us. In the last two days,we have been very hurt. We are all very sad.
The grandson of B R Ambedkar,Prakash Ambedkar,himself dismisses the entire controversy. The Congress and BJP are both dumb and paralytic so they need to be spoonfed. These vultures (opposed to the use of cartoons in textbooks) are spoonfeeding them, says Prakash,a former MP himself. We dont have a leader who can stand up and say that we are not going to tolerate such nonsense. Todays politicians lack humour and knowledge, he added.
According to Prakash,the contentious cartoon of Ambedkar at the centre of the controversy could have been removed,but the rest of the NCERT book should have remained as it was.
Yogendra Yadav,who resigned as chief advisor to the NCERT after the cartoon row,said the media should perhaps also speak to the students who have so far been kept out of this discourse.
This is not the first time Shankars cartoons have riled politicians. In her much-acclaimed biography titled Shankar,which was published by CBT,Alaka Shankar,the cartoonists daughter-in-law,narrates how a cartoon by Shankar,which depicted women students of Lady Irwin College as Thinking of opening a Lipstick Service Station at Connaught Place raised the hackles of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur,the then Chairperson of the All India Womens Conference.
Kaur wrote to then Hindustan Times editor Devdas Gandhi,Mahatma Gandhis son,demanding that he fire Shankar as the newspapers cartoonist. She took her lament to Sarojini Naidu,who did ring up Shankar,but only to ask for an idli-sambar treat. As a last resort,Kaur went to Gandhiji who summoned Shankar. Describing the meeting,Alaka Shankar writes: Shankar calmly narrated the incident (he attended the college convocation where,he said,the students had blindly applied lipstick across their mouths) that had incited him to draw the particular cartoon…Gandhiji heard him silently and in the end,he took one more look at the cartoon and burst out laughing. You are acquitted,Shankar! he said.