From law to laughter: How Haridas Balakrishnan's cartoons critique Indian politics

But what has been happening in the country over the past decade is something that caused me worry, especially about the challenges democracy was facing,” he says.
Haridas expressed himself through sketches that denote the political twists and turns the country witnessed.
Haridas expressed himself through sketches that denote the political twists and turns the country witnessed.

KOCHI: Cartoonists are kind people. Since life is otherwise hard, they try to be kind to it. Unless, of course, they feel someone, somewhere, deserves to be mocked. And once they find them, their kindness makes way to stinging satire and their hands work up lines and sketches that speak a thousand words. The outcome is an idea that slices into the system like a sharp knife and lays bare views that may present a stark, very different picture. Art happens, just almost as accidentally as leaders, even prime ministers, are made.

Advocate Haridas Balakrishnan’s tryst into cartooning was one such accident. His hat has many feathers — a professional lawyer, a writer, a columnist, and someone who dabbled in art when in college. His poetry has found its way into Sahitya Akademi’s magazine. Yet cartooning was nowhere in his scheme of things though he had written extensively about famous cartoonists in his columns and followed them ardently for their craft, their views, and the political developments that could have prompted them to be legends in the field.

However, in the period between the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections and till the results were declared, the artist felt the need to express himself through sketches that denote the political twists and turns the country witnessed. “I was always following political developments. But what has been happening in the country over the past decade is something that causee me worry, especially about the challenges democracy was facing,” he says.  

This apprehension turned into his first cartoon that hangs in his Nanthencode home in Thiruvananthapuram. “It shows a prison cell where democracy is jailed. I have felt this is certainly the case in the country in the past 10 years,” he added.

Further he said that it was not a new experience because I have been following the works of veterans such as Abu Abraham, Shankar, and Laxman. They, including my favourite O V Vijayan, have always voiced criticism that shone a light on the state of affairs in the political and social milieu. I have found that to be more revealing and constructively critical than any amount of writing. I have been writing columns and articles in newspapers and publications on these very topics. Yet when the need to express my overriding feeling of the state of affairs in the country dawned on me, I felt strokes and sketches of a pencil could do it best.

The sketches and strokes occupied most of his time for the next two and half months, and he ended up creating 54 works on different political situations in the country. Narendra Modi and his many faces seem to be his fetish, with most of his work centring around criticisms of Modi’s “double standards” (he refers to speeches of Modi on secularism and those where he “spews communal venom”), and his references to Mahatma Gandhi during his political rallies. Some works also reflect Haridas’ concerns about judicial delays on the SNC Lavalin case and on how the NCERT is allegedly tampering with history in its textbooks.

General concerns, too, form part of his sketches with one that shows how Google Map proves to be a damp squib at times and how the environment suffers with a bird finding its nest under a solar panel foisted on top of a street lamp at LMS junction in Thiruvananthapuram. The traffic signal that finds space in the frame shines red, indicating a danger in the offing in ecology’s sphere. A robot finds its stride in power and rigour in one of his sketches, albeit captioned ‘AI creates everything except common sense.

His cartoons were exhibited recently at the Lalitkala Academy Gallery at Vyloppilly Samskrithi Bhavan, which according to him, is probably the first such exhibit of unpublished cartoons in the country. Fifty-four cartoons were displayed there. The exhibition was dedicated to O V Vijayan and his works, which according to Haridas, have inspired him since his student days. 

“People may say I criticise Modi more. Maybe I do, but I do not have any political affiliations to criticise anyone in particular. I have also made cartoons on Pinarayi Vijayan and his famous tirades. My latest is on Suresh Gopi’s take on Indira Gandhi, where I have fashioned the actor-MP as Hanuman who carries a mountain that is Thrissur,” says Haridas, who fancies himself as an impartial, keen observer for whom editorial cartoons are a way to show the society and its leaders a mirror.

“Political cartoons may be less relevant now in the changed media context. This reflects the questions looming large over media freedom and objectivity rather than the obsoleteness of editorial cartoons. Today, criticisms cannot hold much ground in a newspaper, some of which neither have nor want to have editors because commercialisation has become the key. But that does not mean political cartoons are off the radar. Theur value will never die out,” he says.

Haridas, however, feels advances in technology will only aid or bring about new forms of cartoons that can be visually reproduced much like the satirical shows on TV channels or YouTube. Even animations, much like the way the Japanese Manga cartoons have been digitally transformed, are a total welcome. 

“But whatever comes or goes, nothing will affect the interest and demand for traditional sketching of cartoons and their reach and depth. That is here to stay,” he says, reaffirming his resolve to go for the art in depth to expand his body of works and to reach out to a wider, interested audience. 

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