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Against vanity

National symbols are meant to be revered. The cartoon is nothing if not irreverent

Written by E P Unny | Published: September 12, 2012 2:40:43 am

We got both our cartoon art and the sedition law from Britain. The two have carried on all these decades,including those 21 months of Emergency and censorship in the mid-1970s,without coming to televised blows. Now Aseem Trivedi,a 25-year-old cartoonist,has been sent to a Mumbai jail for the seditious act of insulting a national symbol. The Indian state seems to be more loyal and lawful than the queen. If you google Steve Bell,The Guardian’s editorial cartoonist,you would think he is cooling his heels in Her Majesty’s prison. Through some 30 years of merciless cartooning,he gleefully tore into most things British,symbolic and otherwise. Often reduced to bottom-wear in Steve’s work,the Union Jack still flies high over Westminster Palace.

Do four Asiatic lions,standing back to back and tall,need protection from a doodler,however agitated? There is bound to be inherent tension between any national symbol and the cartoon. One is meant to be revered and the other is nothing if not irreverent. The two should naturally clash as they do in mature democracies. Between spats,they manage to live together — the symbol on its pedestal and the cartoonist at the drawing board. Back in 1976,in a Playboy interview,when Jimmy Carter confessed to having looked at a lot of women with lust,a cartoonist put a denuded Statue of Liberty in the presidential thought balloon. Carter didn’t wage war on the cartoonist; he worked his way to the Nobel peace prize.

There has also been that rare case of the nation thankfully accepting symbols crafted by a cartoonist. The 19th century American master,Thomas Nast,visualised the party symbols for the Democrats and the Republicans — a donkey and an elephant. Santa Claus was brought to life by the same wicked pencil that did little to please the ruling classes — even less than the Anna activists and their cartoonist. Nast ran a relentless campaign against the venal Tweed Ring that reigned over New York far more brashly than the UPA can ever preside over New Delhi.

In its original form,Nast’s Santa carried a pipe as casually as our current president did during a good part of his public life,before he finally quit smoking. What do we do with archival cartoons showing Pranabda chewing on his pipe? The presidential office surely goes with plenty that is national and symbolic. Again,can we lawfully revisit the classic cartoon by Abu Abraham in this paper,which had President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed peering out of a bathtub?

The cartoonist is an easier target than the writer. The cartoon,itself a cross-examination,can’t quite stand up to courtroom cross-examination. Unlike textual material held together by logic,flawed or otherwise,the cartoon delights in inverting the familiar and linear. In any discourse on satire,“subversive” and “offensive” are words of praise. In legalistic terms,all good cartoons are therefore confessions to crime.

The Sedition Act could turn out to be hugely seductive,particularly for the satraps getting increasingly assertive in this coalition era. The beauty of such a big law is that after its run,when a lesser law is invoked against the next offensive cartoon,it would seem routine. Enough to send cartoonists scurrying between courtrooms across our famously federating polity. Will they end up like the celebrated M.F. Husain on the Arab street,looking for a little quiet at work?

Such legitimate fears apart,the fact remains that the cartoon has just got more prime time on TV than ever before. Indian television normally features on its evening shows every kind of journalist except the most news-tracking,political and visual one — the cartoonist. Ever saw a cartoonist on the small screen debating security,economy or the environment? We are called only when the cartoon is in the news for the wrong reason. To defend the cartoon — strangely,for the same reason the courts summon the accused. In the last 48 hours,there can’t be a single practising cartoonist who hasn’t received frantic invites from TV studios. TV will soon move on from its cartoon moment.

Where does that leave the young cartoonist? He has zoomed into public attention in the company of activists whose basic instincts are more in tune with promotional television than the adversarial cartoon. This is no less true of the political class in general. The cartoon is no longer what it was in the days of Shankar,Kutty,Abu and Vijayan. Till about the late 1980s,a leader was recognised more by his caricature than even the photograph. Given the then newsprint quality and printing technology,the simple bold lines of the cartoon stood out better than the grainy photograph. So much so that the older leaders collected and displayed their caricatures in their workplace. They found it much easier to live with their own funny pictures,not because they were any more liberal,but because they found in the popular cartoon a ready connect to the public.

Today,it is on television that the neta builds,gains and retrieves her image. In the process,a certain personal vanity must surely be on the rise. And when you are in power,it doesn’t take long for matters personal to become national. An extreme case can be cited from the Emergency days,when Indira became India. A two-term MP today could easily start seeing herself in monumental symbols of power.

The cartoonist,on his part,has no option but to keep responding with unflattering caricatures and ironic visuals. The cartoon art is as old as our archaic laws. Only,every succeeding generation of cartoonists pushes the democratic debate a bit more,even as the laws remain unchanged. And the younger practitioner does it with less editorial caution. No wonder Aseem got into trouble with the authorities. In the bargain,he has extended his trouble some more by getting into the wrong side of the viewfinder. Hope he gets back to his drawing board soon and regains professional poise.

The writer is chief political cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’,

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