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No laughing matter

Mohammed Rayaan | Updated on June 24, 2021

ILLUSTRATION: MANJUL

Not everyone is amused by satire, as recent attacks on cartoonists indicate. But the humorists stress that their supporters far outweigh their detractors

* The attacks on cartoonists have turned the lens on a genre of art that has thrived in India for years

* Manjul, Acharya and Taneja stress that their works are equally liked and shared by their legions of admirers

* ‘Your hand is not as important as your spine; be courageous and take a stand in your cartoons’

* * * *

The 1984 anti-Sikh violence changed Manjul’s life. Then still in school, the killings after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made him aware of what he calls the “failure in the system”. Curious about political developments, he began to read more and more.

“It’s important to know what is happening around us,” the cartoonist says.

As he started poring over newspapers and magazines, Manjul began taking particular notice of illustrations. “I soon got the urge to draw,” he says. He moulded his career at the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran.

Manjul’s cartoons have since 1989 evoked laughter as well as ire. But he was baffled when he received a message from Twitter earlier this month. The June 4 mail said: “...we are writing to inform you that Twitter has received a request from Indian law enforcement regarding your Twitter account ... that claims the following content violates the law(s) of India.”

ILLUSTRATION: MANJUL

 

Since then, social media has been flooding with remarks and reports on the issue. Fellow cartoonists have expressed their support to Manjul; many critics have panned his cartoons. “When you do such things, you should be ready to face the consequences,” says Manjul, whose illustrations have been critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Choking dissent

Cartoons have often raised the hackles of establishments. In 2012, a Kolkata-based academic was jailed for sharing a cartoon of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. That very year, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in Maharashtra for allegedly maligning the national emblem in his illustrations.

More recently, cartoonists have come under the scanner of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre. Critics of the establishment — not just cartoonists, but activists, journalists, creative artistes and students — have been slammed with legal cases or arrests for expressing dissent.

ILLUSTRATION: Rachita Taneja

 

Clearly, not everyone is amused by satire. In December 2020, Rachita Taneja — known for her popular stick figure comic Sanitary Panels — received a legal notice from the Supreme Court for her cartoons on the apex court. Tamil Nadu-based cartoonist Bala received a notice from Twitter recently for a cartoon on the Babri Masjid. Cartoonist Satish Acharya has been viciously trolled on his Instagram page in recent times for taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his sketches.

But in conversations with BLink over the phone and email, Manjul, Acharya and Taneja stress the need to remember that their works are equally liked and shared by their legions of admirers.

The start of an idea

The attacks on cartoonists have turned the lens on a genre of art that has thrived over the years. India has had a strong tradition of cartoons — led by legends such as Shankar, Abu Abraham, Kutty, RK Laxman, Mario Miranda and a host of others. Political figures were often the target of their cartoons; Jawaharlal Nehru, it is said, featured in 4,000 of Shankar’s cartoons.

So, how does a cartoonist find his or her subject, and hone the art of lampooning? They start, the cartoonists stress, with books. Like Manjul, Acharya, too, grew up reading books and was particularly drawn to Amar Chitra Katha comics and their largely mythological stories in his school days. “The power of illustration to tell a story and take a person to another world felt overwhelming,” he says.

He started following the cartoons of Laxman and Miranda and copying their styles, Acharya adds. “Gradually, I developed my style of drawing and I started sending pocket cartoons to local Kannada magazines as a student. It was more of a hobby that could earn me some pocket money during my college days. Only after I landed in Mumbai after completing my BCom and MBA did I realise that cartooning could be a profession.”

Taneja’s journey as a cartoonist began with doodles, she says. “I would doodle during classes, meetings, calls. I sort of stumbled into Sanitary Panels after drawing a simple comic about students being arrested for criticising the government,” she says. “Friends and family liked it and thought it was funny, so I kept making them.”

In a recent sketch, she had re-designed an emergency fire extinguisher box. “In case of dissent, break glass,” it said, with the glass box holding a paper that read UAPA.

“I realised that people were looking for forms of expression that reflected how they feel about the unravelling of our democracy,” she says.

News and views

Every cartoon takes an immense amount of research, imagination and time. A powerful one-liner is something that can make a cartoon succeed — or, in this era of social media, turn viral.

Manjul believes that cartoonists should have “an open mind” to bring out new ideas. For Acharya, a cartoon always starts with a piece of news. “You visualise your opinion, draw it on paper or computer and finish the cartoon.”

But, he adds, it is a complex process. “When you read the news, you want to read a little more about the news, the background and sometimes you need to check the authenticity,” he says. “Also you want to learn about different perspectives. After you’re ready with your opinion or comment, you want to draw it in the most powerful way. Visualisation of your comment is crucial. The final part of drawing is very easy once you have your visual ready in your head.”

But where do the ideas come from? That, Acharya replies, is a 5-trillion dollar question. “Sometimes it’s spontaneous, sometimes it’s evasive. There are so many elements which could promise an idea.”

Taneja agrees that the most important part of the process is the idea. “In most cases, I just approach it as if I’m coming up with a joke to tell my friends,” she explains. “So I’ll practise it in my head over and over, and try it in different ways with different punch lines and expressions until I feel like it lands — until it’s funny and hard-hitting.”

Might of the pen

But problems arise because the targets of satire — or their supporters — are often offended by the work. Manjul says cryptically that in the last few years cartoonists have been getting “hints” on how it is prudent not to draw cartoons critical about “such and such” person.

But, he adds, he has never crossed the line. “I have always made sure to draw cartoons that are under the rules of the freedom of speech, that is, cartoons which aren’t inflammatory or communal against any people of faith,” he says. “That’s why I was surprised when I got the notice from Twitter. People also argue that I only criticise the current government but that’s not true. I have drawn cartoons on different governments for so many years.”

Often, it is not the subject of a cartoon who is offended but his or her supporters. “Trolling and threats of legal action or physical violence are common tactics to silence journalists, cartoonists, activists, students — anyone who questions the government,” Taneja says.

How do threats impact the work of the artists? “We continue our work. What else can we do? Just give up? No,” Taneja stresses. “For every troll, 100 people are supporting my work — and unlike the troll cells, my supporters aren’t getting paid for their comments and shares,” she adds.

The artists point out that the trolls often do not understand the cartoons they attack. “Many of them are paid trolls; they are paid to do a hit job. They will never understand the intricacies of editorial cartoons. If you get affected by trolling they win,” Acharya says.

The role of social media

There is also growing concern about the government’s contentious IT Rules, which seek to force tech giants such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to dilute their encryption policy which could severely affect the privacy of netizens.

“This gives the government so much power,” Manjul says. “I worry that even if some other party comes to rule, they will be reluctant to withdraw it [the rules].”

Social media platforms also play a dual role. While many share the cartoons, they are also the platforms which lambast the artists for their work.

“Social media can be a powerful tool for people’s liberation, but these platforms are almost all controlled by billionaire men sitting in Silicon Valley, whose main goal is to drive ad revenue and amass wealth,” says Taneja. “So free speech is often just a matter of PR, rather than a driving principle for these companies. These takedown requests from the government are illegal, unlawful violations of the constitution, and if platforms care about free speech at all, they need to stop giving in to the whims of the government.”

Sharpening the pencil

Cartoonists continue to get threats from people in power. But they carry on with their work. How do they do that?

“I can’t think of doing anything else,” Manjul says with a laugh. “This is the only work I know.” He adds that since receiving the notice, he has been losing his clients. “I am a freelancer and it is of concern when such things happen. If the government says you are a lawbreaker, people will be reluctant to work with you. No government likes a critical citizen but when they start listening to them, there is so much to achieve.”

He is, however, hopeful about the future. Manjul’s new cartoons on rising fuel prices and the economy continue to be well received. “I have been getting an equally positive response from so many people on social media,” he says.

Acharya believes that cartoons will flourish as long as people stand by them. “Support them so that it not only gives cartoonists huge confidence but also sends a strong message to the government.” Taneja adds, “Political cartoonists hold a mirror to authority. And in a healthy democracy, the more power one holds, the more their actions should be scrutinised...”

Anybody, Acharya adds, can draw a cartoon after making some effort. “But your hand is not as important as your spine. Be courageous and take a stand in your cartoons. Don’t be scared to question the mighty government. If that scares you, please take up some other safer profession.”

And, as important, do not leave the battleground to the trolls, he adds. “They want to enter your head and stop you from drawing your next cartoon. But I defeat them by drawing more powerful cartoons.”

Published on June 24, 2021

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