Authoritarian leaders like satire like vampires like garlic. Destiny’s dark dolls, they are small men with big stature who have captured power by foul means or fair, and stick to the chair like barnacles in a Tintin comic. They are afraid the most of satire, because it mocks their halos. There is no form of criticism stronger than mockery and cartoons are the Ovaltine of lampooning—the gourmet acid of journalism.
Political cartooning in India went mainstream through the big dailies edited by Englishmen during the colonial era. The most famous cartoonist was Shankar, whose gentle wit hid savage messages in brutal lines. Anglophiles held up the virtues of British tolerance citing colonial appreciation of his cartoons. When he lampooned Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, he was summoned by the peer.
Fearing he would lose his job or worse, jail, he went with trepidation. To his surprise, Linlithgow congratulated him and asked for the original. Then came the urbane Jawaharlal Nehru who famously said, “Don’t spare me Shankar!” But life was not so sparing for regional cartoonists then as it is now.
Sudheer Nath, Malayali satirist and crusader, has identified the editor of Vidooshakan—a Punch clone in the early 1900s—V S Govinda Pillai as Kerala’s first cartoonist. The first Malayalam cartoon appeared in the magazine in 1919. Pillai was the picture of contradiction like most upper middle class Indians, photographed in a three piece suit and tie—a Malayalee Cary Grant with an Oxonian look. But the Englishness stopped there.
Horrified by the famine that struck India after World War I, Pillai drew a cartoon titled ‘Mahakashema devata’ (God of Famine) which portrayed a demonic Briton impaling a starving Indian. Famines in India were largely caused by British economic policies, which disrupted the rural economy to start cash crops for the mills back home. A few decades later, Chittoprasad would become India’s greatest visual chronicler of hunger—his sketches on the Bengal famine were destroyed and the periodicals burned by the British government. But Pillai’s fate was tragic.
Following the famine cartoon, he was sent to the notorious ‘kala paani’ prison in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for political prisoners. He was later released and returned home ailing and broken, until he died in 1932. The British were not so immune to criticism by their Indian subjects as implied.Mainstream political cartooning is now almost extinct in India. It is crucial that it be revived. Democracy needs a weapon against any establishment to remind leaders and their quick-to-take-offence followers that they too are children of men, as flawed and full of follies as the people they rule.