Cartooning does not fall under the category of absurd-art. However, as Kerala celebrates the centenary of the first cartoon in Malayalam this year, the discipline of cartooning is facing an absurd situation. On Wednesday, the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, an autonomous body, was asked by the state government to review its decision to award a cartoonist because of objections from a section of the Christian clergy. The cartoon chosen for the award is on a controversial bishop, Franco Mulakkal, who has been accused of rape.
It was the first prime minister of the country who asked Kesava Sankara Pillai alias Sankar, the pioneer of the Indian political cartoon, not to spare him in his work. And Sankar didn’t. Sankar’s Kerala, where some of the country’s major cartoonists were born, has changed. Kerala society has undergone such transformation that a section of the society think they are infallible and above criticism. For instance, the cartoon under attack has only lampooned the accused bishop; the cartoonist has only the person, not the church and its values, in the crosshairs. Besides, the government has no business to ask the autonomous akademi to revisit the three-member jury’s decision to award the cartoonist.
The present controversy is a reflection of a deeper crisis in Kerala. Any refusal to introspect may only deepen the crisis. How is it that a society which prided itself on nurturing art forms such as Chakyar Koothu and Ottan Thullal, in which satire is the dominant idiom, which celebrated writers including Sanjayan, VKN and Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, and prided in cartoonists like Abu, Kutty and O V Vijayan, became intolerant of criticism?
All mainstream political parties and the media are scared of annoying any religious or caste formations even on issues of serious concern. Last year, a major campaign by a caste outfit forced a well-established weekly to suspend the publication of an innovative novel that was being serialised. I am apprehensive that Kerala, as a society, is losing its vocabulary to critique. Sociologists, economists and intellectuals, communists and Congressmen, have been idylling on a cushion, namely the “Kerala Model” of development, to claim that the state is on par with European societies. This image of an enlightened Kerala is turning out to be a farce. Creative freedom in the state is increasingly under threat and if the trend continues, the Malayalam language and Kerala will cease to be spaces for creative endeavours.
The decision of Left Democratic Front government to succumb to the pressures of the Catholic church is deemed to be an outcome of its ringing defeat in the Lok Sabha election. If so, it has failed to read the writing on the wall. The Left government’s incapability to understand the nuances of the Sabarimala issue and go in for an unilateral implementation of the Supreme Court order in favour of allowing all women entry into the shrine is said to have caused a major erosion in its votes. The organised Hindu right has already accused the government of having separate yardsticks for different communities.
In short, the cartoon episode has not just flagged the larger issue of Kerala’s liberal public space becoming constricted but also about the Left political mainstream allowing itself to be reduced to a clueless spectator in such debates. In the 1970s and in the wake of the Naxalbari rebellion, K G Sankara Pillai, an important voice in modern Malayalam poetry, wrote a seminal poem in which he visualised Kerala tuning in to Bengal for inspiration. It appears the present Kerala Left is seeking an uninspiring parallel in present-day Bengal.
Gopalakrishnan is a Malayalam writer
— This article first appeared in the June 14, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Joke is on Kerala’