Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Beyond Words - Ramp on Ground Realities

By Surabhi Pudasaini

Turning a spotlight on a ubiquitous but often ignored genre of journalism: dispatches from the first Southasia Cartoon Congress.

In the minds of many, cartoon is a word synonymous with funny. This is not an unreasonable linkage; readers’ first responses to an effective cartoon is often, hopefully, laughter. At the same time, however, there needs to be some distinction drawn here with specifically editorial, or political, cartooning. After all, to simply label the editorial cartoon as amusing is to do it a great injustice.

Certainly, humour is an integral part of the editorial cartoonist’s craft, thriving as it does on mocking the absurdities of political leaders, laws and social norms. But scratch the surface, and it becomes difficult to distinguish who exactly is the victim of the joke. At first glance, the politician is the injured party, parodied by the cartoonist’s brutal pen. In fact, though, it is the common citizen who suffers the consequences of, for instance, communal violence, economic meltdown and government corruption. It is the leaders who allow these events to occur, either purposefully or otherwise, and it is for this that they are lampooned. Editorial cartoonists entertain by giving tragedy a comic spin; but all the while, readers are really laughing at their own pain.

While a picture may be worth a thousand words (at least with reference to images used in visual media), this would be an understatement for the editorial cartoon. Through its many layers, rife with ideas communicated through symbols and metaphors, a cogent cartoon offers sharp commentary on and critique of the politics and issues of the day. But despite its power, cartooning remains an understudied genre in Southasia. It was with this in mind that, during mid-November, political cartoonists were brought together for the first time by Himal Southasian. The Southasia Cartoon Congress, held on 14-15 November, brought to Kathmandu 36 cartoonists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The idea was to meet, talk, perhaps lampoon each other, and put under the microscope this omnipresent but little-studied world of political cartoons.

As cartoonists are wont to do, throughout the two days of the meet, pens scribbled on sketchpads, with the conference participants busily caricaturing their colleagues across the table. Funny as some of the illustrations were, it was clear that the role of the cartoonist is that of a critic, rather than that of a comic. Also clear was the fact that cartooning in Southasia continues to occupy a stepchild-type position in our journalism. As Sabir Nazar, a cartoonist with the Friday Times in Lahore and one of the Cartoon Congress participants, put it, journalism has always been and remains a field marked by the “supremacy of words”. Many participants reported the experience of having their cartoon reduced to a minuscule size in order to accommodate an article’s text or a late-coming advertisement. Meanwhile, on slow-news days, the cartoonist is essentially called upon to fill up the print space.

There has, however, been some progress in recognising the cartoon as a serious medium for critique and commentary. Sadanand Menon, professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Madras, shared a story about the first cartoonist to make his way onto an Indian newspaper’s edit page – the sanctum sanctorum in print journalism – as a tangible example of how to bring the cartooning stepchild into the family. In 1992, the well-known cartoonist E P Unny was in the process of joining the Indian Express, where he continues to work today. Testing the waters, he asked that his work be included on the edit page, a request that was surprisingly granted. This happened to be the time of the Babri Masjid incident in Ayodhya, when words seemed less able than drawings to grasp the complex public sentiment. Unny’s work grabbed the imagination, and today a number of other cartoonists, such as Keshav at The Hindu, are to be found on the edit pages across the Subcontinent.

Like the editorial writer, who has more leeway on subjects, the cartoonist is asked to continuously comment on highly sensitive contemporary issues. Drawing a balance between incisively parodying a situation and not causing offence becomes a daily tightrope walk. That a cartoon has the ability to stir deep emotions and ignite passions has been proven time and again. According to Keshav, “Visuals have a turbulent impact on the reader; they tend to remain in the mind for a very long time.” The cartoonist thus has a great responsibility, and ingrained in the process of drawing is the divide between what can and cannot be expressed. As such, it is somewhat unsurprising that the muzzling of the press, whether by governments or armed groups, has often prompted creative methods of subversion, particularly among editorial cartoonists. To take one example, Nepali cartooning entered its most inventive phase after a strong censorship regime was imposed following then-King Gyanendra’s seizure of state power in February 2005. The monarchy, previously a largely off-limits subject, suddenly became a subject of study and ridicule, and the fact that Gyanendra had decided to run the government became fair game for cartoonists. Caricatures of the king mushroomed, his dark glasses, jowls and dour demeanour becoming signatures, and cartoonists helped to turn the political tide. In the process, cartooning became dramatically more important in the Nepali context.

The raw nerve
When discussing editorial cartooning, however, the conversation about freedom of expression and censorship cannot remain solely one of good against evil. In touching on inherently sensitive subjects such as religion or ethnicity, nearly all cartoonists are forced to rein in their muse and engage in a certain amount of self-censorship, simply out of respect for the sensitivities of particular communities. For instance, when the Sri Lankan cartoonist Gihan de Chickera portrays the ethnic conflict on the island, he sticks to lampooning political leaders and key decision-makers. “It is not acceptable to target ethnic groups as a single entity in a negative light,” he said. A supporting argument for self-censorship is that cartoonists should be mindful that they occupy the public sphere, and that their reaction to events should come, as Keshav suggests, from “the mind rather than the heart”. Still others feel that the mind, at times, needs to be prodded. Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly Nepali Times, argued that “because of intolerance and chauvinism, cartoonists and columnists are not using the full freedom given to them by their constitutions.” Speaking specifically on the Nepali context, he observed that even though ‘ethnic politics’ is highly charged and so much a part of the national discourse, few, if any, cartoonists are currently using this thematic area, thus suggesting that an important potential for the political discussion of the day is being lost.

The reality is often somewhere in the middle, with cartoonists forced constantly to find ways to reconcile the call for restraint without surrendering to restrictions (imposed or otherwise) on free speech. A case in point comes from 2004, when the strongly nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Sinhala Buddhist monks’ party, was formed in Sri Lanka. The situation presented a conundrum for the country’s cartoonists. With monks held in great esteem by the public, portraying them in a negative light had always been taboo; yet with the JHU’s growing influence in Colombo, a political commentator could certainly not afford to ignore them. De Chickera talked of how he worked around the problem by using a conch, the symbol of the JHU, in his illustrations. This allowed for a critique of JHU leaders and policies to proceed, but without any direct reference to the clergy itself.

Still, despite the many successful ways of walking this line, there is an ever-present, in-built danger that the cartoonist’s attempt to expand boundaries will touch an overly sensitive nerve, instigating anger and violence. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the fact that cartooning flourishes on stereotyping and exaggeration. Boldly drawing prominent leaders with elephant ears, generous pot bellies or as a frog (as with former Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao) certainly does not endear the cartoonist to those individuals, nor to their supporters. While there are even situations in which politicians are distressed when they are ignored by the lampoonists, it is on the commentary on sensitive issues that cartoonists face challenges. Many cartoonists in Southasia have suffered threats on their lives, in addition to interrogation, detention and torture, for their drawings.

Several of the participants at the Cartoon Congress had experienced threats from a range of groups, while others had experienced arrest and abuse. The best-known recent case is that of the Bangladeshi cartoonist Arifur Rahman. In his allegedly offensive cartoon published in the satire magazine Aalpin in 2007, an old man asks a young boy his name. When he answers, the old man reprimands him, saying that ‘Mohammed’ must be added before all names. Later, the old man points to a cat, asking its name. The boy replies, “Mohammed Cat”. Rahman was arrested for blasphemy after the cartoon’s publication. Ironically, added Syed Rashad Imam (‘Tanmoy’), the same cartoon, which is based on an old joke popular in Bangladesh, received little attention when it was first published in 2002, testifying to the growing religious intolerance in the country. After narrating his story at the Congress, Rahman deftly drew a cartoon depicting his arrest.

Malik Sajad, a cartoonist with the daily Greater Kashmir, reported of numerous instances of harassment. His cartoons have been burned in Srinagar, and he has been threatened with arrest under the draconian Public Safety Act. Such experiences beg the question: why are cartoonists specifically targeted for harassment? Manjula Padmanabhan, a Delhi cartoonist, suggests that one of the reasons for this might be that while staff reporters are often anonymous, the cartoonist’s product is easily understood and highly identifiable. As it is easier to harass an individual, rather than an idea, an institution or an editorial position, the cartoonist is inevitably targeted.

Whose voice?
Suspended between being an artist and a columnist, the cartoonist communicates through a visual language based on metaphor. This optical dialect transcends language, often rising above the need for words, and thus making the genre of cartooning available to much larger spectrums of readers than print reportage and analysis. The power of the visual was illustrated by Sadanand Menon, who described the strategy of master cartoonist R K Laxman while dealing with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L K Advani. Laxman depicts Advani’s growing authoritarian ambitions as the BJP’s fortunes expanded in the course of the rath yatra of 1992 by showing his head becoming bigger and bigger, as the crown upon it becomes smaller and smaller. Another very interesting process was displayed by many Indian cartoonists following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The rightwing fundamentalist challenge was represented by the lotus, the BJP’s symbol, and converting that very quickly in their visual work into the trishul trident.

BJP party symbol transforms into a trident after the Babri Masjid demolition
At the same time, though, the graphic frequently plays on words and their cultural nuances; somewhat paradoxically, this can work to make the image less understandable to certain readers. For example, when Keshav uses metaphors in his drawings that are rooted in the English language – ‘revolving door’, for instance, or ‘wine glasses’ or ‘whitewashing’ – he takes the risk of many among the average readership not understanding the implied subtext. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the multiple connotations inherent in the language, as well as the social context within which it functions, in order to comprehend the abstract idea to which it is alluding. On the other hand, in Kathmandu, cartoonist Raju Babu Shakya (‘Sarab’) draws a daily cartoon that is included in both the Nepali daily Kantipur and the English Kathmandu Post. There are naturally some technical difficulties in translating the Nepali captions, usually replete with common idioms, into English, but he said that the symbolism of the visual message was generally strong enough to communicate to the audience.

Even without captions or text, however, the visual language is often treated differently in the English-language versus the language press in Southasia. In all of the countries of the region, English-language publications have a smaller audience than, for instance, the Hindi, Bangla or Urdu ones. English-language papers are also, for the most part, read more often by the privileged, and therefore are not always the best means of gauging the public mood. On the other hand, newspapers published in Nepali, Tamil or Malayalam are often more attuned to local sensitivities. Speaking of the English versus the Urdu press in Lahore, Sabir Nazar saw the two languages as having a different character altogether. Broadly speaking, Nazar saw English as the language of “science, investigation and research” and Urdu as that of “decorative emotion, poetry and fiction”. Though the cartoonist is less constricted than the writer by this distinction, it is a difference that cannot be wholly ignored. Although there was some disagreement with Nazar’s classifications, Muhammad Zahoor, from the Daily Times in Peshawar, agreed that some of his cartoons could not have been published in an Urdu newspaper.

Dealing with different groups of people inherently means different political considerations, as well. In the Pakistani context, the real reason behind the cartoonist being more restricted in the Urdu press has more to do with political considerations than with inherent differences in language. Keeping in mind the wider reach of the vernacular press, authorities control the content of the Urdu papers more than that of the English-language media. Similarly, Partha Borah, with the fortnightly North East Voice, spoke of the grave threats faced by the media, particularly what he called the ‘dialect’ press, in the Indian Northeast. Caught between the Centre, the state government and the numerous militant underground groups, cartoonists face constraints from all directions, with the non-English press nearly always at greater risk. It was generally agreed that cartoonists faced the most physical threats from ‘non-state actors’, including insurgents and communally oriented militants.

Local vs global
Given the cartoonist’s task of packaging political events in a visual format that is relevant to the reader, variations arise in the level of non-national news in every country. Provided that the graphics are not obscure or overly specific to a particular area, the visual language of the cartoon is understandable across the often fiercely guarded borders of Southasia. Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are close enough to be relevant to Indian readers, and therefore are close enough to be subject to parody. For example, Nepalis and Indians would share a laugh at Sudhir Tailang’s parody of Nepal’s Gyanendra as a blind dunce, or Rajesh K C’s drawing of Manmohan Singh dipping his toes in the Mahakali River on the Nepal-India border. On the other hand, what happens in Bhutan is less relevant to even nearby neighbours, such as in the Indian Northeast, because of the lack of day-to-day coverage of Bhutanese politics. As the region becomes smaller in the minds of Southasians, however, this trend could easily change, as coverage of societies increases across frontiers.

As difficult as it is to illustrate national events for the wider world, it is at times more challenging to analyse global politics for the local audience. Nevertheless, the cartoonist’s commentary of these world events carries more punch when localised. Recently Ismail Lahari, of the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, amply proved this possibility. In Indore, the term barik is a somewhat derogatory term for the children who perform such jobs as taking tickets on a bus or serving tea at roadside stalls. When commenting on the US elections, Lahari drew President-elect Barack Obama with the caption, “Barik, you try too.” With this clever word play, Lahari underlined the significance of Obama’s win for the local audience, without resorting to lengthy explanations of American history. Cartooning is a profession by which the far-away can quickly become immediate: through simple yet dedicated strokes, a message is passed on to the reader.
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