Pictures and pictorials have successfully grabbed eyeballs since time immemorial. We may remind ourselves that even before the formation of words, the description of the day-to-day life of the people of the stone age on rocks and caves, certainly does find similarity in the structure of representation, to today’s cartoons. In terms of learning about the world and things going on around us, we subconsciously rely on cartoons, commercials, or otherwise.
Cartoon by R.K. Laxman (May, 1967)
According to a popular blog, cartoons act as icebreakers given the childhood association with humor, happiness, and fun, which in turn unites the audience with the message of the communication. The fact that one doesn’t have to be literate to understand an illustration, makes it a medium that is accessible to a much wider mass.
This intriguing medium of communication of the socio-political-economic issues has impacted its audience a great deal. Most of the political cartoons are around the socio-economic issues of the country, such as poverty, gender, inequality, health, and the environment to list a few. It is the cartoonist who summarises the current issues through satire, without taking sides.
The cartoon strips that we often find in most newspapers are more about the political agenda or government plans and programmes that have social as well as economic effects on the people of the country.
Historically, the first person to experiment with a caricature that gained widespread interest was Leonardo da Vinci. Glen Bushinski, a professor of political science, notes how Leonardo “experimented with physical appearance to capture the elements of beauty and in the process used outward appearance to emphasize or relay inner qualities of the personality.”
Indian cartoonists like R.K. Laxman, Satish Acharya, Abu Abraham, K. Shankar Pillai, and Maya Kamath, to name a few, have carved out brilliant cartoons/caricatures, hinting at, and sometimes directly addressing their political stance on various socio-economic issues. The following list of cartoons are some of the famous works of these genius personalities:
1.R.K.Laxman (1921-2015) In India, the words cartoonist and R.K. Laxman, are almost synonymous. His comic strip, “You said it" in Times of India gave birth to the much adored and relatable ‘common man’. In his biography, The Tunnel of Time, R.K. Laxman mentions how he used to derive inspiration by observing the mundane things of life, like objects he would see outside his window, from dry twigs to lizard-like creatures and crows in various postures. His art was uncommonly common, through his attention to these details.
RK Laxman's Cartoon showcasing Mahatma Gandhi in a Post-Liberalized India
Although there are numerous works by R.K. Laxman that are thought provoking and mostly amazing given the genius that he was. One of the caricatures that caught my attention, being a student of economics, was about the LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation) era of the early 90s. The socio-economic issues of the poor through his illustrations were eye-opening to say the least.
RK Laxman's cartoon on Indira Gandhi. This cartoon reflects the India of 1978 when Gandhi won elections despite the negativity around her.
2. K. Shankar Pillai (1902-1989)
Popularly known as “the father of political cartooning” in India, Shankar Pillai started working as a cartoonist in the 1930s and his work included satirical caricaturing of political leaders to viceroys of India, to cartoons for children. His weekly publication, by the name “Shankar’s Weekly” famously published some 4000 odd cartoons of the then prime minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.
Cartoon by K. Shankar Pillai
One of his works in his weekly which was shut down after the declaration of emergency shows a caricature of Indira Gandhi, who was the prime minister at that time asking for vote with a rather impractical dream, that now in hindsight could only be described as the truth of vote bank politics.
3. Abu Abraham (1924-2002)
Abu Abraham is mostly known for his works during the emergency period of 70s in India. When most of the cartoonists refrained from portraying their political views, Abu went on to get his works published. The most controversial and famed cartoon was that of the then president of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, in a bathroom signing, what could be imagined, the ordinance of emergency. During the emergency period all kinds of cartoons were censored, but somehow the following cartoon missed the censor’s eye and managed to be published.
Cartoon by Abu Abraham
4. Satish Acharya (1971- present)
A contemporary cartoonist who has self-taught the art of caricaturing quite ardently represents the political cartooning of the 21st century. His works have been published in reputed publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
Below are his current caricatures on the social and political state of the country under the new government:
Cartoon by Satish Acharya on Modi Government
Cartoon by Satish Acharya on Covid-19
5. Maya Kamath (1951-2001)
This list cannot be complete without the proper representation of women, the legacy that Maya Kamath has left behind. As the only female cartoonist during her time, she deserves a special mention for being a political cartoonist competing with such established cartoonists of the opposite gender. With only 15 years of work to show she indeed has displayed her talent with her cartoons depicting the rights that women in India had been denied, or their unfortunate social and economic background which made women to be considered as “frail”.
Below are some of her works:
Cartoon by Maya Kamnath commenting on the apparent 'frailty' of women.
Cartoon by Maya Kamnath
Cartoons were often made as a stance on a system of law or policies of the government and the outcomes that could lead because of such erratic decisions. However, with the advent of both producers and consumers of political cartoons nowadays, thanks to the ever present online social media, some of the cartoonists have lost the essence of the art. The vulgarity and the tastelessness of the illustrations, propagating wrong notions in the name of humour and freedom of expression leads to serious repercussions.
A cartoonist speaks out for everybody, through his art of saying everything and revealing nothing. Hence there are occasions in history which state the fact that cartoonists all over the world have been suppressed but they have continued to work in spite of threats and warnings and some have even lost their lives.
The incidents of suppression and attacks on cartoonists from the past make it very clear that cartoonists are not taken as lightly as the chuckle that their creation evokes. One must realise that the small corner in the newspaper with illustrations, keeps democracy alive in the hearts and minds of people, and it comes with great responsibility when you have the mighty power of a pen.
Pratha Content Writing Intern