In 1998 when BJP was elected to power, L K Advani wanted to meet the capital’s cartoonists before he began his tenure as home minister. He seemed to have a special interest in the tribe. Natural for Delhi’s early politicians who saw from close quarters free India’s cartoon emerge with a certain zest. Besides, as long time practitioner of opposition politics he must have found common ground with the adversarial art. Add to these his acquaintance with cartoonist Abu Abraham in the Rajya Sabha, where The Indian Express cartoonist was a nominated member.
Whatever the intention, the home minister was ready to receive us at his Pandara Park bungalow for evening tea. The informal delegation was naturally led by the city’s most visible cartoonist, Sudhir Dar. It wasn’t long after the Rath Yatra and the demolition of Babri Masjid and some of us were inclined to play truant. Veteran cartoonist Ranga was at his persuasive best and virtually herded us in. Through the evening, it was Dar Saab who did the talking for us. After the pleasantries, he asked the host, “Now, can we go beyond polite conversation?” and went on to make no secret of our apprehensions, staying perfectly polite.
It was a surprise to see the incisive political mind at work. Something one rarely saw in his cartoon. He kept his weekday pocket cartoon, “This is it”, wispy. It stayed true to form as it travelled from Hindustan Times to The Pioneer and finally to the now defunct, The Independent. He was content to catch the fallible leader off guard and seldom rubbed it in. Unlike unsparing peers like the combative Rajinder Puri and the cerebral O V Vijayan, he had no killer instinct. He lived through the decades of disillusionment, first with the iconic Nehru and then with the heroic Indira Gandhi, retaining an incredible lightness of touch. Indian cartooning was turning pretty acidic and he like Mario Miranda managed to stay exceptionally aloof from the hardening trend. Mario had his picturesque Goa; Dar Saab was in a Delhi that then provided neither visual nor social excitement. Lutyen’s quarter seemed designed to circulate nothing but politics. Big money caught up with the capital later.
The easier thing in those politics-only times would have been to do the display cartoon featuring recognisable characters. Instead, Dar Saab chose the pocket cartoon to depict comic characters at one remove from the neta and the babu. He reduced the day’s news to an everyday situation and located it firmly in the capital’s backdrop, giving the reader multiple prompts to relate to the content. On his day, his cartoon drew upon every aspect of the capital — from the news it made to the physical setting itself. There was a typical one that showed a couple walking beside a water body (could well be the Boat Club) commenting on a wading bird that stands on one leg. “What’s so fantastic ?”, asks the wife, “Chandrasekhar is doing it”. Through a short-lived premiership, Chandrasekhar was then running a shaky stump of a government backed from outside by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress.
Ever since he migrated to Hindustan Times in 1967, the Dar cartoon was a combo. You got to see Delhi as both city and capital in varying measures. Earlier on from 1961, he had run a politics-mukt page one pocket cartoon, “Out of My Mind” in The Statesman. Through those years of freewheeling, he honed his cartooning skills and used them in the capital to cut down the big wigs to human scale. He was that rare practitioner who could work across a range. He gave a stirring talk on AIR on a master cartoonist who can’t be more different from him, that intensely political and personal Jules Feiffer of Village Voice. Dar Saab sketched and interviewed Satyajit Ray in the filmmaker’s much photographed study in Kolkata. He cartooned with equal ease for his father Krishna Prasad Dar’s Kashmiri cookbook as well as the astro-physicist Jayant Narlikar’s Journey through the Universe.
There was no guile in the cartoon. He never screamed or lost poise. For some of us who had watched his work for years, he was surprisingly political that evening at Pandara Park. “I grew up in a conflict-averse Kashmir,” he told the home minister then. The last few weeks have had much to make him concerned. The voice, therefore, would be doubly missed.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 27, 2019 under the title ‘This was it’. Write to the author at email@example.com.