So Much to Laugh At, But….

Suddenly we find ourselves living in drab times. Our newspapers have given up their daily front page cartoon and our cartoonists have lost their punch

How sad they don't make cartoons like this any more.......  President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad at work during Indira Gandhi raj. Abu Abraham's classic, timeless creation that remains unmatched to this day.

How sad they don’t make cartoons like this any more……. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad at work during Indira Gandhi raj. Abu Abraham’s classic, timeless creation that remains unmatched to this day.

“What? None of the promises I made before the last elections has been carried out? Just wait! I promise to look into the matter when I’m elected again….”

So promises the seasoned neta wooing voters in the good old cartoon dating back to another election, another era. Such is the power of promises that Netaji went on to win that election by a handsome margin, and many more elections thereafter, and was in the running all over again in the Lok Sabha elections last year with another bagful of promises. The bad news is that there is no trace of the jolly old cartoonist who gave that vintage cartoon to us.

Suddenly we find ourselves living in drab times with so much to laugh about but no one laughing. The political landscape appears barren and bleak. Public discourse is shrill and raucous. Tempers run high in Parliament and legislatures with political parties locked permanently in conflict and confrontation. Newspapers have surrendered their daily front page cartoon, making way for grim graphics or  a plethora of postage stamp-sized stories.

Just rewind to Elections 2014: millions of voters, thousands of vote-seekers, and hundreds of motor mouths exchanging fire and fireworks across 24×7 TV channels and yet hardly any moments of mirth! What made matters doubly serious is that even the cartoonists didn’t seem to be laughing very much.

Right since Independence, elections have usually been an endless carnival for cartoonists, a no-holds-barred riot of laughter. Remember the legendary Shankar of Shankar’s Weekly fame, the one and only R.K.Laxman who brought smile and sunshine to millions of faces each morning with his front page cartoons in The Times of India for well over a half-century, the deliciously sweet-and-sour Abu, the straight-as-a-jalebi Sudhir Dar, the razor-sharp Rajinder Puri, the jest-a-minute Ahmed, the subtly witty Kutty, the tongue-in-cheek Vijayan, and so on — each with his trademark punch that had readers chuckling.

Even their targets – Nehru, Indira, Morarji, Shastri, Sheikh Abdullah, Krishna Menon, Kamaraj, Vajpayee, Lohia, Jagjivan Ram, Zail Singh, Charan Singh, Bansi Lal et al – enjoyed their front page caricatures so much that often they went out of their way to ask the cartoonists for the originals that would be cheerfully framed and displayed in their drawing rooms for years.

Clearly times have changed. And certainly not for the better, judging by what one sees. On a typical morning these days you have the Hindustan Times carrying an apology of a cartoon on Page 10 showing Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung locked in war with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal under a punch-line, “Power Jung”. Anyone who finds that funny surely merits a one-way air ticket to Mumbai with a free pass for ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’.

Or you have on Page 16 of The Times of India a travesty of a cartoon showing the Union Defence Minister pointing to a transistor set on his table and telling the Chief of the Air Staff, “By aerial assaults I meant attacks through radio, not fighter planes!”

Or you have on Page 17 of the Indian Express another parody of a cartoon showing a teenager mulling in all seriousness over the day’s headline, “No leader photo in govt ads”, and wondering, “Can’t the courts instead free up public space?”

It’s not that the formidable Narendra Modi’s much talked about army of RSS swayamsevaks has driven our cartoonists to Pakistan or some such place. No, no, not yet. They are still around, but something seriously is amiss.

In fact, apart from Modi himself, the presence of the quintessentially cartoonable Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav et al in the political arena along with Sonia, Sushma, Vasundhara, Mamata, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Maneka and Uma among many others should be any cartoonist’s dream come true. Yet for all the barbs that are the hallmark of our politics, you can hardly recall any cartoon hitting the bull’s-eye.

By all indications things have gone from bad to worse during the one year since the Lok Sabha elections.

As Prime Minister Modi divides his morning hours shuttling between power yoga and power breakfast in his second year at 7 Safdarjung Road, most political cartoons appear as off-target or off-colour as the characters they portrayed. Or so abstract that you have to strain hard to smile.

Like the one that showed a bewildered young man in BJP headgear hooked to music on his iPod muttering to himself: “Doesn’t work – this jugalbandi between Ustad Bismillah Khan and Togadia….”

Or the one that had a jubilant Modi on his election campaign tour down South eyeing “Rajinikanth fan club vote bank” and the matinee idol grinning: “I don’t mind it!”

Another had a puzzled Modi wondering, “The Congress claims to be secular, but it has asked for Muslim votes on the basis of religion. How can it ask for religious votes and call itself secular?” To which Sonia quipped, “Simple! It’s because Congress has made secularism its religion….”

When not playing serious secular games with Sonia, Modi was seen challenging Rahul inside the Gandhis’ family bastion Amethi shouting “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi…,” followed by a return game in Modi’s own newfound Varanasi with Rahul this time charging in forcefully shouting “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi…”

If that was one cartoonist’s idea of fun and games and laughter, another had breathless Congressmen in spotless khadi kurta-pyjamas warming up furiously for a run at a coaching camp. “Not polls,” explained one of them, “We’re training to rush to the well of the House once we are in Opposition….” The poor chaps would have spared themselves the bother if only they knew that post election, there’s going to be no Opposition worth the name and so hardly any rushing anywhere.

Politics without an Opposition of substance is bad enough, but newspapers without cartoons – or, worse, cartoons without punch – is a tragic denouement for a land that never tires of proclaiming itself as the largest democracy on earth. There couldn’t be anything more ominous for democratic discourse than the shrinking space for satire and spoof in an increasingly intolerant society. In the absence of larger-than-life patriarchs like Nehru and Vajpayee – who personified civility in public life and batted for wit and repartee in political life – it is unrealistic to expect the remedy to come from the present political class with their tendency to call the media names or file defamation or even sedition charges at the first sign of criticism. The space for satire and humour has to come from our newspapers and magazines making a conscious effort to stop pulling their punches. It’s not as if Indians have lost their sense of political humour. Just tune in to Twitter any day for a reality check – where perhaps the protection offered by anonymity and the shared complicity of thousands emboldens the authors of witticisms, memes and other forms of internet humour. If print today has become such barren terrain for humour, it’s because proprietors and editors have lost their stomach for a laugh.

Media culture tends to be a reflection of political culture. An entire generation of cartoonists came of age under the shade of a solitary banyan tree that was Shankar’s Weekly. A few weeks into the Emergency, the magazine announced it was shutting down. This is what its editors wrote on August 31, 1975:

“In our first editorial we made the point that our function was to make our readers laugh – at the world, at pompous leaders, at humbug, at foibles, at ourselves. But, what are the people who have a developed sense of humour? It is a people with certain civilised norms of behaviour, where there is tolerance and a dash of compassion.

“Dictatorships cannot afford laughter because people may laugh at the dictator and that wouldn’t do. In all the years of Hitler, there never was a good comedy, not a good cartoon, not a parody, or a spoof. From this point, the world and sadly enough India have become grimmer…

cover-weekly-a (1)

The final cover of Shankar’s Weekly. Image courtesy of Sans Serif.

“But Shankar’s Weekly is an incurable optimist. We are certain that despite the present situation, the world will become a happier and more relaxed place. The spirit of man will in the end overcome all death dealing forces and life will blossom to a degree where humanity will find its highest purpose discharged.

“Some call this God. We prefer to call it human destiny. And on that thought we bid you good-bye and the best of luck.”

Shankar’s Weekly went its way and never returned but I am sure our cartoonists and humourists will stage a comeback despite the grimness of our times.  I believe they are more than capable of making us laugh at ourselves and our leaders, provided, of course, today’s editors and proprietors are prepared to be bold.

Yash Paul Narula is a seasoned journalist.