Sanitary Panels would not have been possible without the Internet’: Rachita Taneja

This election season, the webcomic has covered everything from ethics of NOTA to the media’s softball interview questions to Prime Minister Modi.

Published : May 28, 2024 18:49 IST - 5 MINS READ

Cartoonist Rachita Taneja. The Bengaluru-based artist was recently honoured with the Kofi Annan Courage in Cartooning Award, alongside Hong Kong’s Zunzi.

Cartoonist Rachita Taneja. The Bengaluru-based artist was recently honoured with the Kofi Annan Courage in Cartooning Award, alongside Hong Kong’s Zunzi. | Photo Credit: Rachita Taneja

Rachita Taneja uploaded the very first strip of her now celebrated cartoon, Sanitary Panels, on Facebook in 2014—it was about the newly sworn-in Narendra Modi government’s crackdown on dissenters. Since then, Sanitary Panels’ characteristic stick figures have poked fun at hypocrisies of all kinds, across politics, culture, Bollywood. They have done so with irony and a distinctly millennial brand of humour, which sharpen their effectiveness. Recently, the 32-year-old Bengaluru-based artist’s talent was officially recognised when she was jointly awarded the biennial Kofi Annan Courage in Cartooning award, alongside Hong Kong’s Zunzi.

This election season, Sanitary Panels has had several election-themed strips, covering everything from the ethics of a NOTA (“None of the above”) vote to the Indian media lobbing softball interview questions at Prime Minister Modi. Taneja discussed her work with Frontline over email. Edited extracts from the interview:

Tell me about your early influences in the cartooning world and some of the contemporary artists you follow.

As a child, I would read R.K. Laxman’s work in the newspapers, even if I didn’t properly understand the politics of it. I still don’t think I properly understand politics, but I keep working at it. A little later, I started to follow Randall Munroe’s xkcd strips. Munroe used stick figures to talk about concepts of science, technology, engineering, etc, and that was certainly an early influence. Also, I used to spend a lot of time on the Internet—Imgur and Tumblr were two major sites for me. I was trying to figure out my own style and trying to see how memes etc. could be incorporated within art, especially in a social justice context. So, I think, all these things amalgamated to form my webcomic.

Also Read | Memes and cartoons in times of war

One of the most misunderstood aspects of political cartooning is that it is journalism but seldom acknowledged as such. How would you explain this to a layperson, the idea that a cartoon making fun of a politician is every bit as “journalistic” as a fact-check about their various claims and promises?

I am not entirely sure where I stand on the debate on whether political cartooning is journalism, because I feel that we [political cartoonists] are one step removed from going and talking to sources, gathering information—the “journalism” that you’re speaking of here. Yes, we gather information, but it is mostly through the words of journalists. So, while fact-checking is definitely journalism, I am not sure if political cartooning meets that standard in the same way.

The Sanitary Panels strip on NOTA.

The Sanitary Panels strip on NOTA. | Photo Credit: @sanitarypanels/Instagram

In an old interview, you talk about how Sanitary Panels was initially called “Uncle Comics” and you wanted to make “uncles” uncomfortable, especially those who feel entitled to comment on (or even dictate outright) the personal lives of others. Could you talk us through this aspect of life, as a young Indian woman?

When I started making Sanitary Panels at the age of 21-22, there weren’t too many female political cartoonists in India. The situation is a lot better now—I see so many creators sharing their work on Instagram. But yes, during that initial phase, I had to deal with a lot of condescension that came my way through comments, DMs, and so on. That condescension can manifest in real-life social situations as well. Say, you’re at a family gathering and the elder males of the family are talking about politics—they’ll shut you down, saying, “You don’t know anything about this”. I might not know everything all the time but that shouldn’t stop me from having my own political opinion.

As a side note, you can observe the same voice of condescension being adopted with the American campus protests. Older folks are telling pro-Palestine protesters that they’re too young, that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

“I love the fact that the Internet allows me to just create stuff and have people responding to it in real time. I know social media can be a double-edged sword, but still, it feels great that my work can reach so many people easily.”

In 2021, the Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings against you, citing a cartoon that was critical of Supreme Court judges. What is your biggest learning from this phase?

Since the case is still sub judice, I can’t talk too much about it. What I will say is that it was heartening to see the community of artists and political cartoonists in India coming out in my support. I felt very grateful that they had my back. This is something that I’m also trying to do on behalf of younger artists who are being trolled or attacked or persecuted.

Rachita Taneja and Hong Kong’s cartoonist Zunzi pose during the presentation of the exhibition, “Dessins pour la liberté” (Cartoons for peace), on the shores of Lake Geneva on the occasion of International Press Freedom Day in Geneva on May 3, 2024.

Rachita Taneja and Hong Kong’s cartoonist Zunzi pose during the presentation of the exhibition, “Dessins pour la liberté” (Cartoons for peace), on the shores of Lake Geneva on the occasion of International Press Freedom Day in Geneva on May 3, 2024. | Photo Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

For a lot of people, especially older people, the idea of political cartooning is inextricable from the strip in the daily newspaper. How has the form changed, thanks to the Internet?

Sanitary Panels would not have been possible without the Internet. Because, how often do you come across stick figures in tiny boxes in daily newspapers? My format is also different, I don’t necessarily do one or two-panel cartoons, of the kind popular in daily newspapers.

So, its online presence gives Sanitary Panels a certain flexibility in terms of both form and content. I love the fact that the Internet allows me to just create stuff and have people responding to it in real time. I know social media can be a double-edged sword, but still, it feels great that my work can reach so many people easily.

Also Read | Remembering Abu Abraham, the cartoonist who bore witness

Have you ever looked back at one of your older strips and thought, “I got it wrong here”? If yes, what did you do to address the situation?

Absolutely. Down the years, there have been a couple of comics that I had to take down. People didn’t respond to these comics in the way that I thought they would. People criticised these stories for very legitimate reasons and I responded by taking them down. I took it as part of the learning process. I don’t want to do any harm and I want to keep growing as a person and as an artist.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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