Chapter 3 of “In Those Days There was no Coffee: Writings in Cultural History” is called ‘Caricaturing the Political’ and is about cartoons in pre-independence Tamil journalism. ‘Tamil’ cartoons, (well cartoons are just pictures and cannot be classified by language, but what I mean is cartoons that appear in Tamil magazines) have been a regular with magazines like ‘Ananda Vikatan’, ‘Kumudam’, ‘Kalki’, ‘Mangayir Malar’ circulating between the ‘mamis’ of Rajajinagar. Most of the times, it used to be kids like me who used to be the errand boys to deliver those magazines to another house and get the exchange set. Exchanges also used to take place at vegetable shops. Since I was (and am) illiterate in Tamil, the cartoons used to be the only thing that I could understand. Sometimes they used to come with dialogues, which I would ask mom or grandma to read out.
But this particular chapter is about pre-independence cartoons which would mean tremendous focus on the British, freedom fighters and the like. This chapter is a quizzers delight with names of many firsts dropping off nearly every paragraph on every page.
The author attributes the English magazine ‘Punch’ as being the inspiration for all Indian cartoons. Read this extract,
“However, as Partha Mitter, the pioneering historian of art in colonial India, has rightly pointed out, “no single humorous publication made a deeper impression in colonial India than the English magazine Punch. A riotous procession of its offering greets us in the second half of the last century”1 –and it is perhaps from here that one should begin a history of cartoons in India. A series of journals, evidently inspired by Punch proliferated across India: the Delhi Punch, the Punjab Punch, the Indian Punch, Urdu Punch, Gujarati Punch, Hindu Punch. Parsi Punch, Hindi Punch and even a Purnea Punch.”
1--> Partha Mitter, “Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations”, Cambridge, 1994, p. 138
The pioneer of cartoons of cartoons in Tamil journalism was Subramania Bharati. The novelty of cartoons can be gauged by the following notices in the Tamil publication India.
“A New Development in India: Readers would know that ours is the only magazine in Tamil which publishes cartoons. However, from the coming week onwards, we propose to add another adornment. Apart from the cartoon on the title page, we propose to publish other drawings and pictures to illustrate important news items. Such an arrangement is unknown in the Tamil, English, Telugu and Kannada language journals of South India. It is we who are introducing this novelty. Initially we can proceed only little by little. But in the coming days further embellishments will be made.”
The second notice was in English, though ‘India’ was a Tamil magazine, “A Weekly Tamil magazine on modern lines. Published every week with cartoons.”
Bharati’s typical style included the usage of animals and birds. In fact the author states, “Bharati’s cartoons constitute a veritable zoological garden teeming with lions, tigers, elephants, crows, bulls, goats, horses, dogs, cats, owls, fowls, crows, foxes and rats.”. He also goes on to describe some of the cartoons that Bharati had drawn/commissioned someone else to draw.
For example, England is portrayed as a plump Englishman in a bowler hat who is seen milking the cow (Mother India) dry while the small children (Indians) starve.
He then goes on to trace the path that he cartoons took in India,, reaching a peak after the civil disobedience movement. He also states that in the early days, if cartoonists didn’t want to print their name, they started doing so and in the process earned a lot of fame. At this point, the author adds quoting Mannikodi of 10th June, 1934, “Most of the cartoonists do not express their own opinion on day to day happenings. The editorial department asks them to draw such and such an incident and such a manner in order to express such and such an opinion.”
Another important characteristic of Tamil cartoons that the author draws attention to is the “predominance of the political in pre-independence cartooning. When Partha Mitter states that ‘The most popular Bengali cartoons were social’ it does not sound exceptional to the Tamil reader. The hypocritical zamindar, henpecked husband, pompous professor, obsequious clerk, illiterate Brahmin – such caricatured identities are strikingly absent in Tamil cartoons. Tamil cartoonists seem to have stuck to indicting the English.”
How long could the indictment of the British go on? The answer was ‘till 1947’. What after 1947? To quote O.V. Vijayan from Ibid pp 56-57
“the pre-independence cartoonist had simpler challenges to take on. The reality he was called to comment on could be separated into neat sets of black and whites. His characters were not so much precise political personae as they were folk totems. And he himself was not so much communicating as participating in the struggle along with the vast majority of his readers…The nationalist consensus, which made these primal totems viable, collapsed with the post-independence polarization. ..The cartoonist from now on would have to abandon his folk symbolism, and settle for the less apparent but more demanding job of analysis.”
Hmm…post-independence Tamil cartoons would sure be an interesting study. The rise of the Dravidian movement, the anti-Hindi agitation, the emergency, the emergence of MGR, the Cauvery issue with Karnataka, all will be an interesting study. Also, from what I have seen till now, Tamil cartoons have turned the social page………
Also, talking of the issues of ‘black and white’ that a cartoonist has to face, read this blog by Rajdeep Sardesai about The Middle Ground.