A History of Times We Did Not Laugh

[The following is an invited post by Ritu Gairola Khanduri. Ritu is a cultural anthropologist and historian of India. She is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Texas, Arlington. In addition to her research on media, she is currently completing a book on Gandhi and material culture. Research for Caricaturing Culture in India has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright Foundation, the Institute for Historical Research-Mellon Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s prestigious Carley Hunt Postdoctoral fellowship.]

These past months have seen carnage of unimaginable magnitude. But none has attracted the outpouring triggered by the Charlie Hebdo killings. What have cartoons got to do with this?

For many, but not most of the world, the experience of freedom is now salient in speech and expression. In this struggle for freedom and rights, and its maintenance, cartoons have become the severest testing ground. We reprimand cartoons. We summon cartoons. We make demands on cartoons.

This generative force of cartoons is at the heart of my book Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and the History in the Modern World.  It is a story of how cartoonists became central to newspapers and politics in India. It is also a history of why cartoons provide a new context for offence and the refusal to laugh.

Cartoons protests reveal a spectrum of politics. This jostle over cartoons is what I have called in my book, a “tactical modernity.”  It can also tell us a thing or two about other worlds of cartoons.

Avadh Punch
One of many Indian iterations of “Punch”

In the 1870s several “comic newspapers” with the famous moniker “Punch” appended to their title circulated in colonial India. This titular choice established kinship with the popular British humor magazine, Punch (1841). Published in the vernacular with circulation figures in a few hundreds, the colonial Indian Punch incarnations provide the first glimpse of “cartoon talk.” This talk surfaced during my archival research of the colonial British government’s weekly surveillance reports of newspapers and magazines.

In 1910 a prominent newspaper the Agra Akhbar wondered aloud at the displeasure of British officials when they saw vernacular cartoons mocking colonial rule. The newspaper editor illustrated his point with the official scorn received by a caricature in a Bengali Punch. From one perspective the caricature looked like a bulldog, but from another it resembled a British official.

What happened to British liberal humor that appreciated such visual tricks back home in its revered humor magazine Punch but not in the colonial vernacular Punchs? Colonial officials accused such vernacular punches of impertinence.

Such anxiety over the cartoons meanings did not end with colonial rule in 1947. As cartoonists got absorbed into independent India’s print journalism, newspapers began to boast of staff cartoonists. Cartoons were front-page news. This brought considerable attention to popular leaders, such as India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. “Don’t spare me Shankar”—Nehru’s jovial quip to his favorite cartoonist Shankar (1902-1989), is the lore of cartooning in India.

Cartoon depicting Nehru and Ambedkar
Copyright Shankar / Children’s Book Trust / NCERT

Soon after India’s independence, the new democratic government was busy crafting India’s constitution. Columbia Law School graduate, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was the architect of this constitution. In 1949, reflecting on the slow pace of finalizing the constitution, Shankar published a cartoon depicting Nehru and Ambedkar. This was among several cartoons that tickled readers and lampooned politicians in the popular weekly, Shankar’s Weekly.

Few would have suspected that more than fifty years after its first publication in 1949, Shankar’s cartoon would bring the Indian Parliament to a standstill in 2012.

This happened because Shankar’s Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon was included in a new social science textbook issued as part of a series of curricular reforms in 2006. Dr. Ambedkar is a celebrated leader of India’s Dalits (contemporary term for historically oppressed communities marginalized in India’s caste system). Shankar’s depiction of Nehru whipping Ambedkar, who in turn nudged with a whip the snail1 on which he was seated, raised an outcry for hurting Dalit sentiments.

The fracas over the publication of Shankar’s 1949 Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon in a social science textbook, and its subsequent excision from the textbook is a reminder of how cartoons do not just travel across space. Cartoons also travel across time. These shifting contexts of space and time make political cartoons provocative archives.

To the self-declared guardians of India’s young minds, the cartoon’s inclusion in the social science textbook, a sacred pedagogical space, smacked of conspiracy.

Undoubtedly other politics were at play too. If historical social prejudices and inequity so deeply concerned the elected members of the Indian Parliament, why do they not wage this battle in their policy and against the day-to-day violence experienced by Dalits?

This displacement of an ideological battle, from Dalit reality at the ground to the representation of an admired Dalit leader in a cartoon, is “the dance of democracy.”

However, charting a finer chronology of cartoon talk, protests and the refusal to laugh in India leads to the complex nature of such protests. Activists complement their tireless advocacy against social discrimination by also being vigilant about representations, and they don’t spare cartoons.

Their protests, by demanding a transformational role for cartoons, implicitly  acknowledge the power of cartoons.

These humor sensibilities emerge from particular ideological positions that bring to the surface the everyday manifestation of social inequities.

The Charlie Hebdo attack performed a logic of sacrifice, one that allowed cartoonists, police personnel and the terrorist to become martyrs. They all died on duty. All bound by violence and the ritual of sacrifice.

To assert that Charlie Hebdo “attacked religion [only] when it became political” is a clever display of ignorance. Ultra liberalism?

Cartoons have become the scapegoat. The violence Charlie Hebdo displaced on to the cartoons, the terrorists restored to the body.

So what can we do? Archiving a history of times we did not laugh can forge solidarity.

Drawing lines of empathy can provoke us to transcend obsession with the self and become the other. It might also compel us to acknowledge our vulnerability—our inability to transcend and to empathize. This failure can burden us with guilt. Even with guilt, one can protest violence, forging new forms of solidarity in the process.

  1. This cartoon raises question about what is actually being depicted–was Nehru whipping Ambedkar or the snail? But I think the cartoonist was contrasting Nehru’s impatience and Ambedkar’s patience, hence Nehru’s menacing whip and Ambedkar’s limp version. 

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