From The Discomfort Zone: Vive le crayon!

What auto-censored traditional media could not say, Charlie Hebdo ripped apart without any frontier.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Updated: January 11, 2015 12:00:22 am
charlie hebdo, charlie hebdo attack Charb, the publishing director Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. (Source:AP)

“Papa, do you remember when I was a kid I used to watch Dorothée’s programme? There used to be an artist called Cabu. They killed him.” I got this text from my son, who was born and raised in France. I called him, he could barely talk through his grief. Watch Channel 2’s children’s programme by Dorothée called Vive les vacances (Long live the holidays) from 30 years ago where Cabu’s live drawings kept a whole generation spellbound. It’s incredible how the many generations I saw at solidarity gatherings condemning the Charlie Hebdo shootout, were all so heavily influenced by intellectual satirical cartoonists.

Gerrard, Jose and I were colleagues working in a design firm at Nation, Paris East in the late 1970s. We’d lunch at La Grignoterie on Boulevard De Picpus. Particularly on Wednesdays, we’d delay the owner because that’s the day Charlie Hebdo was published.

The satirical paper challenged us with intellectual entertainment. What auto-censored traditional media could not say, Charlie Hebdo ripped apart without any frontier. Their lampooning spared no one, from politics and presidents to religious symbols like popes, to high-profile celebrities and the extreme right-wing. They rebelliously took on subjects they disapproved of. They often appeared crude, but with simple pencil strokes they aroused both great laughter and intense anger. The three of us would have triangular fights or two-against-one fights. The best part after a big fight was that Jose and I would immediately become friendly colleagues again.

On January 8, Jose and I spoke on Skype, watching TV in shock, he in France and I in India. We mused over how Charlie Hebdo’s non-conformist illustrators had engaged us every Wednesday. Provocative cartoons by Jean Cabu, Georges Wolinski and Philippe Honoré could express satire with a few lines within a few seconds; something that would take a thousand words to write. I asked Jose why we felt as though we’d lost our friends as we had never met them. Jose figured it was the power of their pencils, their humour and extreme modesty. As fellow artists, we connected easily to their artistic, expressive minds that showed a tangential perspective. They were not known outside France as they communicated in French, but just look at how the whole world is mourning their death. This shows how creative ideology and liberty of expression can never die.

The power of crayons led people of all ages to 26 Rue Serpollet, Paris 75020. They put boxes of colourful pencils as memorial remembrances for those the terrorists gunned down at Charlie Hebdo on January 7, four of whom were considered among France’s most ingenious cartoonists of all time. “I would rather die standing than live on my knees,” is what editor Stephane Charbonnier had once said. Watching a TV interview of his companion, Jeannette Bougrab, really moved me. Remembering Stephane, she said that despite her being from the right wing and him being a leftist, their love was above politics. She was dreading the next few days because two tough jobs awaited her: she had to see her companion’s bullet-ridden body after the autopsy, and see him get into the grave. I will never forget her expression of pain.

Satirical caricature has been a revered tradition in French journalism since before the Revolution in 1789. Satire’s core aim is to make people laugh. But censorship was not unknown to France. When satirical magazine Hara-kiri published some mockery after Charles de Gaulle’s death in 1970, it was banned. Most of Hara-kiri’s illustrators then started an alternative, irreverently calling it Charlie Hebdo. Aside from barbing de Gaulle, Charlie also references Charlie Brown, the lovable but never-give-up loser created by American Charles Shultz in the comic strip Peanuts. Hebdo is abbreviated hebdomadaire, meaning “weekly”.

Charlie Hebdo was the heart of French culture, admired for its creativity. Other French publications are contributing to keep it alive and a million copies will be printed of its next edition. Although barely known outside France, young cartoonists worldwide want to join it today. France is hosting an international rally against terrorism on January 11. What Voltaire, the 18th century French satirical polemicist and philosopher, once said sums up the solidarity people feel today: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management

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