From the Archives: April 5,1996

Cartooning in India

Print edition : February 20, 2015

R.K. Laxman drawing a cartoon during his visit to Padma Sheshadri Bala Bhavan Learning Leadership Academy in Bangalore on October 19, 2006. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash



THE contents of a good political cartoon are an understanding of political affairs, humour and, above all, a firm control over satirical draftsmanship. If a cartoonist has political sense but no sense of humour, he cannot be a political cartoonist. If, on the other hand, he is devoid of both but somehow gifted with the talent to draw, he may pass off as a cartoonist, for after all a cartoon is a visual experience first. Besides, a good drawing helps to cover up weak humour and a poor political idea.

Today our country can boast of having a great number of good flourishing cartoonists with political awareness, sense of satire and original draftsmanship, if sometimes in some cases it is perhaps a bit too stylised!

The thirst for cartoons among newspaper readers has increased to an extent that there is hardly a paper today, whatever the language, which does not carry a cartoon, good, bad or indifferent. Just to satisfy the reader’s expectation and habit, sometimes embarrassingly poor efforts get into the columns of the paper. To give a hypothetical example of this kind, you might behold a cartoon showing a Cabinet Minister, allegedly corrupt, depicted as a python gobbling up bags and bags of currency notes. Now, this is neither funny nor politically thought-provoking; it is visually clumsy. This is just downright abuse and is in bad taste!

But, surprisingly, I have heard appreciative comments by readers on cartoons of this kind. “Did you see in the paper the cartoon of the Minister shown as a python? Ah, ah, ah, very funny!”

But, mercifully, such readers are in a minuscule minority and so are the cartoonists who cater to their taste. On the other hand, we have advanced a great deal in the field of cartooning, putting the British, from whom we learnt this art, far behind us!

Curiously, the quality of cartooning in Britain has gone down steadily in the post-War era. This resulted in the closure of Punch, Titbits and other magazines devoted to satirical humour. These publications, besides stimulating the national humour, provided a platform for the cartoonists to develop their art.

Now the quality of our cartoons and the importance they enjoy in the national press are second to none in the world! A century ago no one could have guessed that our political leaders, social workers and public figures would have taken lightly to their images being distorted and bedevilled through cartoons in the newspapers.

There could easily have been a sense of outrage, protests and indirect pressures on the cartoonist, to smother and suppress him. Surprisingly there was not a single instance of this happening!

Our Constitution ensured protection to the cartoonist, of course. I feel that the constitutional guarantee apart, there was one man on the political scene to whom the cartoonist should owe the freedom he enjoys today. It was Jawaharlal Nehru. He liked cartoons. He admired Shankar, the cartoonist of The Hindustan Times in those days. He talked and laughed about the cartoons in the company of his fellow-politicians, who were all hard-boiled freedom fighters, hardly used, I imagine, to the lighter side of life. Slowly they started taking interest in the cartoons. If some cartoon in a newspaper seemed somewhat unkind and hurting, they learnt by and by to grin and bear it, if only to show that they possessed a broad-minded sense of humour like Nehru!

But in the early days, a few Ministers did twinge at the barbed comments of cartoonists on their proclamations, policies and promises. Morarji Desai was one of them. I did a cartoon criticising his plans to ban horse-racing and crosswords. He felt outraged at my comment and called a full-dress Cabinet meeting to discuss how to eliminate the menace of the cartoonist. But when the constitutional freedom enjoyed by the cartoonist was pointed out, he quietened down and I carried on!

My belief in Nehru’s role in liberalising our national sense of humour was confirmed when I spent an hour with him once. He showed a keen interest in my work, work-style, background, and so on. He liked my efforts and said that my mother should be a proud lady. He even autographed a book of cartoons of mine, which was nothing but unrelieved ridicule of the Congress rule, page after page.

Thus, the atmosphere was congenial for the growth of healthy graphic satire. Of course, a variety of other factors such as the physical appearance of our leaders, the style of dress and individual eccentricities aided the cartoonist greatly. To the cock-eyed vision of the cartoonist, the general public was no less interesting —like the uniformity of headgear and the beards of the Sikhs in the north to the dhoti-clad southerner, to the Bengali wrapped in yards and yards of cloth and to the red-turbaned Rajasthani wandering in the western deserts.

Such a colourful variety presents a problem when the cartoonist has to depict the common citizen of India. The cartoonist cannot pass off a figure of a Kathewari or a Keralite or a Gujarati as the common type representing the whole nation which exists and functions for his sake. He is the direct victim of our beneficiary of its blunders and successes.

In the West, the symbol of the common man is far easier to draw. By and large, everybody wears the same dark pants, coat and hat, simplifying the effort of cartoonist who could just dress his creation in this standard attire for his purpose.

In the beginning, I used to draw a crowd of people in all sorts of dresses to take the place of the common man. Since I had to meet a deadline in producing my cartoon for the next day’s paper, I started reducing the size of the crowd according to the time I had at my disposal. Gradually the crowd disappeared, leaving a man in check coat, bald head with a wisp of hair at the back, bushy eyebrows, bulbous nose supporting large spectacles! Thus, in a way, he discovered me!

As a symbol representing the common people, he has become quite a familiar figure, reacting to the social, economic and political situations that he is put into by his rulers. He became so popular that the Government of India thought it fit to have him on the postal stamp a few years ago during the commemoration of the 150th year of The Times of India.

In all the five decades he has been around, he has not spoken a word, nor has he a name. He is just an omnipotent silent observer of events he is helplessly involved in.

A letter from the Editor


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Editor, Frontline

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