Comic art for serious people

Rajinder Puri (1934-2015) was the mascot of the morally upright Indian cartoon. His incisive mind lent a sense of truth to every contemporary political issue. He redefined the cartoon as a public service as a recent exhibition of his works showed.

Published : Jul 06, 2016 12:30 IST

Rajinder Puri, a 2007 picture.

Rajinder Puri, a 2007 picture.

AN encounter with any public history will reveal how political powers, irrespective of ideology and location, have led the common people, at various points in time, to believe that their wisdom as a community is directly linked to the quantum and depth of suffering they are capable of enduring. Thus has the tragic been established over ages as the most effective legionnaire of the philosophical. As a tragic consequence of this construction, the comic has often been pushed to the peripheries of the political state, and a great distance is constantly made up between the canons of the government and the humorous expressions of the comic artist.

Histories have conspired to identify and brand the comic as the aberrant, which at its worst could serve the benign role of the chief court jester and at its best might just be expelled on charges ranging from sedition to insanity. Needless to say, comic philosophers themselves have contributed to the unbridled success of this authoritarian strategy the world over—with their rare detachment, they would simply laugh at the murky politics of the day and never organise themselves against it as a counter political voice.

Rarely has there been a political establishment that sought to learn the truth of the human condition as pursued and expressed by a comic philosopher. But, there has hardly been a comic thinker, too, political enough to draw an unambiguous line to establish comic philosophy as a carrier of a moment’s truth.

And, that is where Rajinder Puri’s calling as a cartoonist and a political columnist becomes starkly different from that of his contemporaries. On the one hand, with the raw power of his drawing and his savage satire, he reduced the epistemological distance between the fields of the political activist and the comic artist. On the other, with his vision fixed on justice, and his cartoon-making process paralleling the building of a moral argument, he established the methodological kinship between philosophy and cartoon art and proved that the comic philosopher is for real, here and now.

Rajinder Puri (1934-2015) was the mascot of the morally upright Indian cartoon. Looking every issue in the eye without fear or favour, Puri made a non-negotiable space out of his satirical line. His incisive mind lent a sense of truth to every contemporary political issue. His probing lines, uncluttered frames and witty commentary never let our attention shift from the idea and practice of justice in our times. He redefined the cartoon as a public service.

In his column “Bull’s Eye” in the October 21, 2002, issue of Outlook , he wrote: “‘Seven months have passed, we still haven’t got the truth about Godhra,’ I said. ‘Wait for seven years,’ a lawyer advised me. ‘Remember the mass cremations in Punjab? Remember J.S. Khalra? More than seven years have passed. Have we got the truth?’”

Puri’s lines remind us that the truth is still not found—it is an unidentified, putrefying corpse lying on the rail track, exposed, disowned, disturbing us with a grotesque vision of the stinking state of affairs we are part of, urging us to do something about it, awakening the political subject in every passer-by. We sense growing frustration in his lines, but there is also a strong undercurrent of hope about knowing the truth. He lays the question of truth out there, leaving open the possibility of its just resolution. Someday, someone may come by, and do the recognising act….

While Puri’s artistic method reminds one of Honore Daumier’s exploration of the myriad possibilities of line in the expression of ideas and emotions, his quest for truth immediately takes one to Jonathan Swift’s fierce satire. “Swiftian Satire”, a recent exhibition of Puri’s cartoons in New Delhi (India International Centre Annexe, May 3-10), revealed this twin-edged reality of the late cartoonist’s relentless pursuit of social and political justice through his work. Curated by Partha Chatterjee and Arvinder Singh, the show featured a fine selection sourced from the Nehru Memorial Museum, K. Srinivasan’s personal collection and Puri’s books.

Chatterjee reports how during conversations over tea the cartoonist would occasionally allow his friends a peek into his personal memory and share some sights and scenes from the time he was working with The Manchester Guardian and The Glasgow Herald . It seems Puri had, in an unguarded moment, confessed to having seen the art of the classical and modern European masters while in England despite his avowed dislike for high art. It was during this time that he met Ronald Searle, Osbert Lancaster, Gerald Anthony Scarfe and others. The change in Puri’s drawing style between his mid 1960s’ pocket cartoon “What a Life!” in The Hindustan Times and his later cartoons showing directness of line and purpose does not escape one’s notice. One sees the thinner lines and almost Laxman-like satire in “What a Life!” undergoing a tremendous transformation.

It may be valid to connect the quick development of his uninhibited craft in handling the grotesque with his early acquaintance with the originals of the medieval Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch and the early 20th century German cartoonist and painter George Grosz. Perhaps, these encounters only accelerated the inevitable home-finding process for a cartoonist who, at the impressionable age of 13, had passed through the horrors of his country’s partition.

Puri came to Delhi with his family from Karachi, and Partition and its utter ruin of human life and trust were to mark him for life, as an individual and as a cartoonist. Later, he came in contact with the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia, and like the latter became sceptical of the Congress party’s intentions and capacity to rule India fairly. This scepticism continued through the first decades of Independence and was reaffirmed during the Emergency. In an essay in his book India: The Wasted Years, 1969-1975 , Puri wrote: “The government is becoming the common enemy, and the police is a common target of public wrath.” In a cartoon featuring Indira Gandhi, he strikes hard at her about the restrictions imposed on the press and creative artists.

The 18-month Emergency, declared in June 1975, and the resultant frustration with the political rottenness around prompted Puri to try direct political action. He became the founder-secretary of the Janata Party, which defeated the Congress in the following national elections. But he soon found that the newly built party was also becoming a hotbed of intrigue as the greed of the politicians clashed with their own stated mission of public service. Not surprisingly, the Janata Party split and out of it emerged entities such as the Janata Dal, the Lok Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Puri worked briefly with the labour cell of the BJP but quickly realised that it was not for him. In 1988, he decided to leave organised politics and continued to crusade until the very end for social and political justice for every citizen.

Purity of purpose

Puri’s work has since remained both the symbol and the field of his political commitment, which was touched by a purity of purpose and stayed free of partisan considerations. Countering the insubstantial, imitative and insecure establishment, he ceaselessly renewed his matter and method through experiments ranging from political activism to the use of technology and colours in his cartoonscape. “Swiftian Satire” showed the scale and variety of Puri’s political art. In his punches, the acuity of Abu Abraham and O.V. Vijayan and the homely wit of R.K. Laxman and Shankar (Kesava Shankar Pillai) synchronise.

His vision, ideals and craft together exemplified the procedural affinity between philosophy and caricature, and his work revealed the paradigmatic connect between these modes of understanding life. What links his philosophical vision of justice and his cartoon is their common proclivity to identify and highlight the extraordinary that is hidden in the ordinary, thus powerfully projecting a supranormal perspective of a certain object, thereby subverting its “normal” reception. This method of extricating a distinctive truth from the chaos around at once elevates the humdrum world view of the man on the street and sublimates the elitist distance offered by irony-making wordsmiths.

Paradoxically, experimenting and renewing himself despite the impression of reticence and reserve that he gave us, he thought it was not too late for him to start using the computer, and once at it, he started exploring in his unique way the graphic possibilities the digital world offered. From the beginning of his career, he had also been keenly interested in international politics, thus not limiting his inquires to the Indian political space. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, his brush followed United States Presidents, too—from the black-and-white period through to the new digital revolutions enabling convenient glocal connections.

As Chatterjee said, to create new expressions and movements for his constant experiments with truth, Puri drew from a variety of forms. He responded keenly to Hindustani music, both vocal and instrumental. His friends recalled with relish some of the “music” stories he would relate to them in his lighter moments. His love for the khayal singing of Ustad Chhote Ghulam Ali Khan, who hailed from Kasur (now in Pakistan) like his illustrious senior Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, was integrally connected to his concern for the underserved. Making a connection with the larger world of human expressions, Puri informed his work not only with his knowledge of politics and art but also of cinema, music and sports—football, tennis and boxing.

Puri’s disillusionment with and anger towards Indian politicians were remarkably captured in his weekly column on December 13, 1999, five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid: “Last week’s grand bash in Mulayam’s house to celebrate his son’s wedding provided some indication. The leaders all made peace while the people were getting killed.” Puri held that politicians could not be exempted from the accountability for the slaughter of innocents and the looting of the Indian nation and its natural resources, and he hit at them all, regardless of their affiliations.

For us, even after his passing, his work emerges as a relentless monitor of democracy, reminding us of the power of simple lines and words, of the historical uprisings of the common people against repressive regimes. In his last piece, which appeared on October 13, 2014, in The Statesman , he wrote of a Modi mukt (Modi-free) Bharat. It is his disenchantment with the political world that surrounded him that made Puri look back at Gandhi so poignantly in one of the essays in India: The Wasted Years : “It is tragic that since Independence a generation has been brought up in India on tales of Gandhi the man, and has been denied access to Gandhi the revolutionary. The man was killed by his enemies, and the revolutionary has been buried by his followers....’’

Puri’s life and works, like Gandhi’s, were an earnest experiment with truth. At this juncture, a sudden twist of memory takes one to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People , where Jack tells Gwendolen: “Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?”

One is starkly reminded here of that curious thread which connects the most courageous and the most fearful: a keen awareness of their lethal locations. Shaping opposite responses to the same dreadful context, one becomes the original, and the other, a mirror image. And, Puri was an original, almost terrifyingly earnest.

His life as a cartoonist had indeed been about the importance of being earnest, about the need to go beyond appearances and arrive at the truth of the historical moment, and it perhaps presents a rare comedy for serious people but certainly not a trivial one. It first etches for onlookers the most unique features of its objects of concern, instantly revealing their philosophical truth, and then, in the most contemporary manner, puts together its comic body. The Indian cartoon world without Rajinder Puri looks almost identical to the cartoon he had done on Jawaharlal Nehru’s death: “The Void”.

Rizio Yohannan Raj is a bilingual writer, educationist and governance thinker. She is the founder and executive director of LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives, a cultural think-space based in Delhi .

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