No laughing matter: The politics of satire     

Ketaki Varma reviews an exhibition of political satire in India examined through the lens of four graphic illustrators from colonial and independent modern India

Cartoon by Gaganendranath Tagore
Cartoon by Gaganendranath Tagore

Ketaki Varma

In an interview, Ing F. Salaba re-narrates his friend Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s words from the film Confession (1972): “The more I wanted to keep politics aside in my life to devote to art only, the more the life of this country used to return me again and again into the arms of politics”. For Chittaprosad, the inextricable link between politics and art enabled him to identify his practice as a tool for socio-economic critique.

This idea of art being a medium for political commentary forms the crux of Common Course, an exhibition of political satire in India examined through the lens of four graphic illustrators from colonial and independent modern India – Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938), Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978), K.G. Subramanyan (1924-2016) and RK Laxman (1921-2015).

Curated by Roobina Karode, the exhibition reflects on the evolving role of the political artist through a selective display of lithographs, books, prints, illustrations, newspaper clippings and posters from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art collection. While each artist follows a distinct typological aesthetic, their works are a powerful representation of the social, political, cultural and economic injustices of their times.

Their practice challenges the rigidity of these perversities. Satire is used as both a creative technique and a storytelling device: absurd caricatures and exaggerated narratives become tools for presenting a subversive visual chronicle of India in the 20th and early 21st century. The title of the exhibition, then, seems to be a literal nod to the artists’ common cultural legacy, as well as to the assertion and collective rise of the ‘common people’, specifically the marginalised.

Aptly, the exhibition opens with Gaganendranath Tagore’s Adbhut Lok (Realm of the Absurd), (1917), a series of folios that demonstrate an incisive critique of discriminatory social practices and the dominance of the upper classes in colonial Bengal. One frame, for instance, is cleverly titled Nuisance of a Wife. It caricaturises an obese Bengali babu leading the way, irritated with his wife who is trailing behind carrying the burden, both literally and symbolically, of domesticity and her husband’s needs. In Purification by Muddy Waters, a grotesquely distorted priest is pouring holy water on three women, even as he holds a sack of money in his other hand.

This categorisation of holy water as “muddy” is a direct dig at the impropriety of Brahminical hierarchy. Drawing his ancestry from the satirical traditions of the traditional Kalighat patachitras, Gaganendranath’s visual aphorisms thus relies on an artistic exaggeration of protagonists that represent the inherent contradictions within orthodox structures – the greed of the wealthy, the insensitivity of the caste system, the hypocrisy of patriarchy, and the vulgarity of organised religion.

As such, Adbhut Lok is both a “montage of fine artistry, wry wit and expression strung with razor-sharp commentaries” as well as an important historical portrait of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the early 20th century.

Following Gaganendranath, the exhibition neatly segues into the revolutionary starkness of Chittaprosad’s drawings, arguably the most dynamic section in the curatorial framework of the exhibition. The display contains an assortment of Chittaprosad’s works spanning his lifetime, thereby capturing the tempestuous moment of Indian Independence from British rule, as well as the following period of nation building.

His practice contains the voice of ideological resistance: as a Communist, he devoted himself to demystifying capitalism and exposing its repressiveness, while simultaneously acting as a sociological documentarian for the less fortunate. Notably, his seminal book, titled Hungry Bengal (1943), was a provocative chronicle of the Bengal famine. The works in this exhibition, however, provide an overview of his works; they range from journalistic sketches representing poverty and illness, to untitled paintings and collages urging the political leaders of independent India to build a nation that is secular and equal.

Not only did he condemn British imperialism, he was also unafraid to highlight State injustices in his own country – specifically the silence around Partition, control over Kashmir, foreign relations with Burma (now Myanmar), and more generally the inefficacy of war and the subjugation of workers. His works seem to carry two core ideals – the mission to uncover “buried truths” – revealing the hypocrisy that governs social hierarchies - and in doing so, make an appeal for collective movement towards a possibly utopian future.

While Gaganendranath and Chittaprosad used each illustration to ironically comment on socio-political moments or traditions, K.G. Subramanyan identified himself as a visual storyteller, calling his pictures “playful and spontaneous”, and creating regular links between them. On display is The Tale of the Talking Face (1989), an assemblage of text and images prepared as a series of forty-three framed collages. Subramanyan’s book is a fictional tale narrated through verse, thereby giving it a certain rhythmic quality.

In the exhibition, reading each frame within the spatial configuration of a museum space makes it a work to be visually experienced first, and then lexically read. Importantly, Subramanyan’s work is an allegorical comment on the period of Emergency in India, from 1975-1977; it weaves a tale that warns visitors about the danger of absolute political power and totalitarianism in a democracy like India. It provokes viewers to consider the aftermath of such autocracy — the political decadence that is left in its wake. When seen against the backdrop of India’s crisis of democracy today, Subramanyan’s stories still hold relevance, and must be seen as a rousing call to action.

In his introduction to Unnamati Syama Sundar’s recent volume on the depiction of B.R. Ambedkar in mainstream political cartooning from 1932 to 1965, Suraj Yengde writes: “Satire without ideological backing remains a hollowed punctuation”. One cannot help but consider this statement when viewing the works of R.K. Laxman — the fourth and final artist in the exhibition. His works are an important journalistic chronicle of life in India, from the 1950s onwards.

Best known for the daily cartoon strip You Said It in the Times of India, and the creation of ‘The Common Man’ – a bespectacled Indian man, with his distinctive checkered coat and dhoti, from whose eyes we witnessed the shifting dynamics of Indian politicos and their ideologies. Laxman’s protagonist was a sarcastic observer, the eyes of the layperson, commenting on everyday news with what became his signature wit.

Unlike his peers, however, such as Malayali cartoonist O.V. Vijayan, who was known for his caustic tone, there is a certain ambivalence and lack of provocation in Laxman’s work. While this may have been a necessary strategic device to distinguish him from any single political affiliation during his time, it stands out in the context of this exhibition. In his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time: An Autobiography (1998), he clarifies: “I deal with satirical concepts strictly on the familiar level of everyday life. I followed the standard rules of perspective, draper and anatomy; when I caricatured a personality I exercised controlled distortion.”

The exhibition contains a sizeable cross-section of his practice, including sketches, newspaper clippings and colourful illustrations, and this “controlled distortion” is apparent in the display of his series of portraits of renowned political and cultural figures, including L.K. Advani, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Ustad Bismillah Khan, George Harrison, Imran Khan, Dilip Kumar, among others. The portraits are not a critique of the work of these figures, nor are they a more ideological comment on the nature of power itself.

They are simply illustrations, and in seeing them alongside the radicalism of Gaganendranath, Chittaprosad, and Subramanyan, one cannot help but question if Laxman can derive his legacy from this particular lineage, or further add to it through his wit and criticality.

Common Course is a small but necessary homage to the discursive act of popular political illustration. At a time when political authoritarianism is on the rise and free speech is under attack, it becomes doubly crucial to highlight the importance of dissent in a democracy.

Yet, while one experiences the works as a semi-historical trajectory of protest through culture, the exhibition fails to contemporise the individual artistic commentaries within the context of today — the responsibility of making those linkages are left to the viewer. Additionally, there has been no attempt to problematise this artistic trend.

As a result, the exhibition leaves several questions unanswered: Does religious privilege play a part in the gaze of these artists? What can be said of public perception of their art during their time? What has been the role of women in political cartooning? One hopes that this exhibition is a preview to a larger showcase in the future, where these questions can be explored in greater detail.

(The title of this piece is from Unnamati Syama Sundar’s, No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932-1956, published by Navayana, 2019. The exhibition is on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi till October 25, 2019. This article was originally published by Critical Collective)

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