'The Growing Shrillness of Politics is a Problem for the Cartoonist'

An interview with the well-known political cartoonist, E.P. Unny, who points to a new challenge in the time of faith-packaged politics: How do you do a cartoon that demolishes the politics without any collateral damage to faith, which might mean a great deal to the best of readers?

Drawing the line that often overtakes the word. Credit: Gokul Gopalakrishnan

Eminent political cartoonist E.P. Unny, who has nuanced his way into the reader’s mind with his clear lines, subtle wit and biting satire since 1977, locates his practice at the cusp of the relationship between the cartoonist and the reader. As the chief political cartoonist of The Indian Express sees it, practitioners of journalism may categorise cartoonists as hard-hitting or subversive, but the fact is that a cartoonist is not an artist working in splendid isolation, he is a practitioner who yields to news and to the context around him, of which a significant element is the sensibility of the reader at any given point.

The Indian Express cartoonist who has drawn non-stop for four decades, having worked at The Hindu, Sunday Mail and the Economic Times earlier, has seen Indian cartooning go through various phases, facing challenges from humourless clampdowns of authorities across the political spectrum. But, the challenge that faces the cartoonist in India – and across the world – now is of a different order, says Unny. Under the influence of an emerging brand of mainstream politics that draws its self-image from a dominant religion and is impacting the very fabric of our everyday lives, social attitudes are hardening into extreme positions. The newspaper reader cannot remain untouched by this phenomenon. Therefore, the challenge today, he feels, is to find creative ways to be persuasive with a large section of readers, especially the younger generation.

The Wire caught Unny in a reflective mode following a panel discussion on the state of Indian cartooning at the Samanvay Indian Languages Festival held in Delhi recently. In an interview, the cartoonist voices his concerns about the extent to which readership has become segmented, affected by ‘extremitis’ – those who agree with you respond to you and the others cut you out of the picture — and how it affects the content and craft of the cartoonist. Excerpts from the interview:

You made an intriguing remark that earlier people would call to tell you they liked your cartoon because they agreed with you and now they do because you agree with them. What does that tell you?

It tells me that people have already made up their minds. Whenever they come across a cartoon that is in agreement with their views, they respond to it. As a result, most of the people who want to engage with your cartoon creatively are those who are broadly in agreement with you. There is a corresponding group, violently in disagreement with you – the ‘followers’ one way or other. They are not even looking at your cartoon. That is the extent to which readership has become segmented.

Is this something that you are experiencing only now?

Until now, by and large, I thought the cartoon readership was more or less a continuum. Of course, there were always people who liked one kind of cartoon more than others, or those who might not understand allusions or the context and miss the punch line. And those who were following one’s work might have had their differences but one did not come across a violent dislike of the cartoon. Now there is a section of readers who would be upset about the liberal cartoon, might even see it as non-committal.

Why do you think that is so?

Social attitudes are hardening and this is bound to reflect in the readership. The first casualty in the media in such cases is the day’s cartoon — because as a pointed view sharply expressed it also is one-sided; with the single cartoon you can’t have an on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand argument.

A reader who engages with the single cartoon over a period of time is able to recognise a cartoonist as a voice. That is when an abiding relationship evolves between a reader and a cartoonist. The reader does not have to like every cartoon. Earlier, people would still tolerate cartoons they did not agree with. Tolerate is a bad word, they would say, good cartoon but I don’t agree with you. Today, I think they cut you out of the picture or simply switch off.


Is this a novel situation?

Yes, and one understands that it is a reflection of what is happening in society. We are all experiencing this even at the social level. Say you are a member of some club. Normally, you meet various kinds of people across the table, chit-chat with them. Lately the entire picture, the very architecture of the table, is beginning to change — in fact the content of conversation changes. You slowly find certain people dropping out of the table. A kind of homogeneity comes into being, which is scary.

Some might point out that this has always been so, that people have lived their lives enclosed by caste prejudices. That is true but we have also seen such prejudices being subverted and new caste configurations come up – witness Mayawati’s rise in the past three decades. In the case of religious discrimination, the ‘other’ is led by forces equally keen to be ghettoised.

What I am talking about is an emerging brand of politics that draws its self-image from a dominant religion. This is impacting our neighbourhoods and the very fabric of our everyday lives.


For one, bullying works very fast. Earlier, it would take some time for the state to percolate down and start messing with your lives. Today it is instant action at a distance – like the butterfly effect. In such a situation how does any communicator work? How can one estimate what could offend whom?

Strangely, even among those who are with you in terms of political orientation, there are people gravitating towards the shriller end of the same spectrum. This scenario is akin to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Left movement was highly fragmented what with Naxalism, Trotskyism, Royism and mainstream CPI (M). The worst hostility was to be seen within them. The comrades hated each other much more than they did an Indira Gandhi or the Jan Sangh. The same thing seems to be happening in the secular camp as well. There is a great deal of comfort in, almost an addiction to extreme positions– I call it ‘extremitis’.

How does this ‘extremitis’ affect the cartoonist?

We react to social polarisation by fighting back with more anger, by making our message louder and clearer, in a shriller packaging. The question is how far does it work? It surely does up to a point. We may retain the readers who are already with us but how do you woo the middle ground?

What impact does the cartoonist’s shrillness have on the content and craft of the cartoon?

That’s an interesting question. In view of the rapidity with which news breaks and shifts nowadays, there is a tendency among many cartoonists to cling to the most evident or audible part of news, which is mostly verbal. Say some neta makes a provocative statement. To counter that, the cartoonist clings to that statement and even highlights it because his cartoon is a counter-statement.

While it makes the cartoon very apt and powerful, if practiced on a daily basis cartooning gets reduced to a ‘tu tu main main’ kind of slanging match. The big picture gets lost. Of course, as a post-modernist you can say there is no big picture, but the editorial cartoon is an older art.

If you think about it, cartoonists are under this kind of stress elsewhere too. After the twin tower collapse and more recently the Charlie Hebdo incident, cartoonists everywhere have to deal with terror and not just as a professional threat. And some show faith in the good old editorial art.

What positives can you see in cartoon practice in this time of churn?

I would say one’s bonding with the reader. The reader who has stayed with you has become warmer. In society, there are many feeling isolated and hemmed in, such as minorities, disadvantaged groups, or those who are non-conforming individuals. When they find resonance in a mainstream publication’s cartoon, they feel connected.

As far as the content and craft of the cartoon goes, the work of cartoonists like Steve Bell is amazing. Bell can be devastatingly brutal as a cartoonist; he was the one who converted George Bush into a chimpanzee. Google his work these past weeks after the Paris attack and you will see the same man and the same intensity, but there is a significant shift in tone – he has become more reflective, and less visceral. The beauty of the cartoon emerges in a way that the cartoon almost redeems faith in the human being, in that kind of art, and faith in cartooning itself.

That kind of trajectory isn’t seen yet in India. The tendency today is toward, justifiably so, extreme forms of expression. Although not every cartoonist is doing it daily, the trend is firming up. This could be misconstrued and cleverly used by the very forces you oppose to put off people who you want should engage with you, because the issue is to do with religion. When the issue is political, you can have an argument and even win somebody back to your point of view. If, however, someone feels a cartoonist is anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim or anti-Christian, the dialogue breaks down.

Prejudice, in the Indian context, is never far from the surface. How should a cartoonist tackle it?

I am talking about our new challenge of faith-packaged politics. How do you do a cartoon that demolishes the politics without any collateral damage to faith, which might mean a great deal to the best of readers? The politician is using the readers as a human shield. The cartoonist must smartbomb.

I was at a panel discussion recently on R.K. Laxman’s cartoons, where he was criticised for not being hard hitting. What’s the big deal? Bal Thackeray was hard hitting.

My point is that Laxman lived in a different time, but the fact is that he managed to keep the middle ground readers with him. He was able to tell his readers it is vital to distrust authority. He did not arouse anger or disgust in the reader to fight the establishment, but he induced them to be wary of authority. That itself is a vital democratic value, especially with the middle ground – tell them to shelve religion, and they may not do it in a hurry. But tell the readers to distrust authority, and they may not take kindly to any diktat, from priests or politicians.

How you nuance your cartoon is the challenge. Great cartoonists did it even under less stressful or differently stressful times. In India for instance, O.V. Vijayan’s political cartoons were sharp, witty, and civilised and Abu Abraham subverted with disarming ease. He quietly, innocently dropped the nation’s President into a bath tub and you felt you never ever saw the worthy soul elsewhere.

In the illiberal social climate that you have described, can the Indian cartoonist feel optimistic?

The way I see it, this is the time for Indian cartoonists to woo readers. But for this they need to be alive to the new sensibilities. In and around cities today, thanks to several factors, a large number of people are reading graphic novels. A significant section of readers happens to be women, for some reason, and some of the significant creators of graphic novels too are women, unlike news cartooning where their proportion is very low. There is a new readership for comics and comic literacy is very high. The use of smileys in cell phone messages, which I call the image-text, is a new kind of communication, and will probably become the language of the 21st century. These emoticons are basic comics — two dots and one line which can be a smile or upside down, a grimace. Graphic comicality is becoming part of our language and expression. This is how kids get fascinated with cartoons, and many of them draw as well as they write and sing.

Again, the cartoon as work practice is expanding in scope. Graphic reporting could get more regular. More than the occasional poll time travel and sketching some of us do.

Then there is the world of graphic activism, which well-known cartoonists like Patrick Chappatte are known for. He goes to conflict zones to conduct workshops for cartoonists on both or several sides of the fault-lines, and they emerge visibly transformed (he has made a TED talk about it). Chappatte – he has a Swiss father and Lebanese mother, was born in Lahore, raised in Singapore, and is based in Washington — is truly a global guy and this reflects in his work. His cartoons hold bite but no ethnic slant. In that sense he is like American editorial cartoonist Herblock (Herbert Block) who with his absolutely humanistic kind of drawing, rose above prejudice.

Does that pose a challenge to Indian cartoonists?

A cartoonist working for a multi-edition English newspaper in India has to deal with 60-70 faces a year, which no national cartoonist is required to do in other countries. A good cartoonist works it out and overcomes the issue of ethnic or racial slants in the cartoon. But, yes, there can be Islamophobia, or stereotyping. To some extent you have to use visual features — a policeman has to be shown in a policeman’s uniform! In the identity business people want to look like stereotypes. You have to somehow, when you draw, mock it.

That brings to mind the gentle mocking tone with which you probed the current climate of posthumously pitting Nehru against his peers such as Sardar Patel and Subhash Bose, and accusing him of being a non-democrat. To mark Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary this year, you presented in The Indian Express a fantastic selection of cartoons on him by his contemporary Shankar, along with a companion piece. To think that cartoons from a different era can speak to us so urgently even now is astounding.

At a time when Nehru is being dragged into all kinds of controversies, and Teen Murti Bhavan is on the verge of being renamed ‘Deen’ Murti Bhavan (Deen Dayal Upadhyay, RSS ideologue), I thought it would be a good idea to give Nehru the worst test anybody can give a leader – show him through the filter of a cartoonist. In this case he was good friends with the cartoonist so it became a test of the cartoonist as well!

Readers responded. People were amazed that the issues on which Shankar mocked Nehru still persist, such as making a good impression abroad; the question of Kashmir, with the UN already non-supportive; and the prime ministerial urge to air his mann ki baat.

What kind of institutional memory do cartoonists possess?

The biggest break happened with the advent of the internet. Cartoonists of my generation mostly learnt cartooning from our predecessors in print, finding our own paths eventually. That kind of learning has stopped for the younger generation now has thousands of cartoonists from all over the global websites to study and learn from. They don’t need to claim certain local legacies I would.


My first influence is Aravindan, whom non-Malayalam audiences know mainly as a filmmaker. I liked cartooning as a child because I grew up on Aravindan’s story-telling cartoon. My cartoon reading itself was conditioned by this gentle master. When I came to the political cartoon later, I learned from many: Shankar’s Weekly was to be found even in small towns; it had a significant institutional circulation. There was a club in Palakkad, where I grew up, which subscribed to the magazine. The weekly had PKS Kutty to Jules Feiffer apart from Shankar himself. Then there was Vijayan, drawing bilingually for The Hindu and Mathrubhumi, and Abu who could be seen six days a week in The Indian Express. The fare was rich enough to fall for.

The younger generation may or may not be influenced by Indian cartoonists. In any case one can find global influences in their work. The plus side of it is that if you see a great deal of cartoons on the Internet, the chances of slavishly following one style may be low.

You mentioned that you are working on a project to study cartoons in the English press from the 1940s to the present to see what kind of story they are telling, what they talk about and, more importantly, what they don’t talk about.

The project is still work in progress. One broad pattern that I am able to see is that there is a Delhi way of cartooning and a Bombay way of cartooning. I call it the tale of two cities. In the Bombay school, R.K. Laxman is a standalone. The Delhi school is represented by Shankar, Kutty, Vijayan, Abu, Rajinder Puri, Ranga, Anwar Ahmad et al. They were all cartooning from the national capital post-partition, as Delhi changed from a colonial capital to the capital of independent India. Delhi was all about power politics and policy making. Hence the Delhi cartoonist directly engaged with politics. Even the Delhi-based Samuel, who preceded Laxman with a pocket cartoon, focused on a bureaucrat’s life through the eyes of a character called Babuji. Laxman looked at things from Mumbai’s point of view; politics was at one remove. That city happened to be a mini-India, a gateway for him to find readers anywhere in India as more editions opened. He himself was a migrant.

The Delhi school of cartooning is represented to a great extent by cartoonists from Kerala – Shankar, Vijayan, Abu, Kutty, and of course you. How come so many cartoonists hail from Kerala?

Abu used to say it was because of high literacy (political literacy included) and high joblessness. I have a theory that it has something to do with the tea shops! Jokes apart, social anthropologist Adrian C. Clarke visited Kerala in the 1950s and wrote a book on Malabar. He said that the institution that subverted caste taboos the most were tea shops. If you want to imagine the proto cartoon or verbal cartoon which precedes the Malayalam cartoon, look at the tea shop where people broke inter-dining norms to share tea. In early days, tea shops and even barber shops used to have sign boards saying, don’t discuss politics. People must have violently discussed it and verbal cartoons must have been flying around! It only took somebody who could draw to convert it into a printable cartoon. Also, printing came early to Kerala. Plus there were social reform movements by Sree Narayana Guru, and the advent of early Left politics. These must have been among the reasons.

Cartoons emerging from chai shop chronicles…
Chai pe Charcha had a vibrant adversarial past, unlike its sarkari promotional present.