Abu Abraham: The man who had the last laugh

An ongoing exhibition in Kolkata shows how cartoonist Abu Abraham threw stones at giants—and got away with it

Abu Abraham's portrayal of BJP stalwart L.K. Advani (Images courtesy: Gallery Rasa)
Abu Abraham's portrayal of BJP stalwart L.K. Advani (Images courtesy: Gallery Rasa)

Shreevatsa Nevatia

Wanting to counter the optics of opposition MPs holding copies of the Indian Constitution while taking oath in the 18th Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to X on 25 June, and reminded his followers that this was the date on which Indira Gandhi had imposed an Emergency in 1975. “Those who imposed the Emergency have no right to profess their love for our Constitution,” he tweeted.

To remember “the determination of those who had opposed the Emergency,” Speaker Om Birla demanded that the Lok Sabha observe silence for two minutes. In her address to Parliament on 27 June, President Draupadi Murmu referred to the Emergency as “the darkest chapter”. History is, of course, a convenient fig leaf for those wanting to hide hubris.

Unlike Parliament, where the Emergency has become a stick that the government is using to beat a resurgent Congress with, the perils of those 21 months seem more apparent and tangible at Gallery Rasa, an exhibition space in Kolkata, which from 29 June to 21 July is hosting ‘The World through Abu’s Eyes: a Centennial Celebration'.

Amongst the several political cartoons on display here are a handful that Abu Abraham had drawn for The Indian Express at a time when civil liberties had been suspended and Indira Gandhi was ruling by decree. One of the Emergency’s most vocal critics, Abu kept his spine straight while others bent theirs out of fear.

On 4 July 1975, Abu drew a cartoon of a politician marching with a placard that says ‘Smile!’ He captioned this image with the line ‘Don’t you think we’ve got a lovely censor of humour?’

Like several of his other cartoons from this time, this one, too, carries a ‘not to be published’ stamp, which has been signed by a Government of India censor. Not one to give up, Abu next takes aim at fellow journalists. This time the caption reads, ‘What do you think of editors who are more loyal than censors?’

Later, on 10 December, Abu publishes a cartoon that perfectly highlights the absurdity of the Emergency and the expanse of his talent. Signing a document from this bathtub, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed says, ‘If there are any more ordinances, just ask them to wait.’

Abu Abraham: The man who had the last laugh

Abu’s dissent makes his courage conspicuous, but, interestingly, he wasn’t taking potshots at Indira Gandhi and her government from the outside; he was very much an insider. It was the late Mrs G who had nominated Abu to the Rajya Sabha in 1972, and it was during his six-year tenure as MP that he repeatedly caricatured her by making her nose pointier, and her hair electric.

One of his more biting critiques sees a group of Congressmen standing with folded hands in front of an Indira Gandhi portrait. The question they ask—‘Madam, madam on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?’—is a reminder of the sycophancy that persists even today. Our Prime Minister is again larger than life.

Abu Abraham: The man who had the last laugh

Though many of Abu’s Emergency cartoons necessitate the “history repeats itself” cliché, some of his other works answer a question that Gallery Rasa visitors are bound to ask: ‘What would Abu have made of the political quagmire we struggle in today?’

Abu depicts L.K. Advani in some cartoons on display here. In one, the early architect of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement shouts the word ‘Hindutva’, which then comes echoing back to him as ‘Ayodhya’.

In another, he is seen writing the first chapter of ‘The Story of My Experiments with trisul’, and in a third, he asks a hirsute Hindu monster, ‘This is an opinion poll, Sri Frankenstein—if there’s a general election tomorrow, which party will you vote for?’ Surprisingly, Advani once wrote to convey his ‘sincerest appreciation’ to Abu, confirming that the giants he threw stones at first had to laugh.

Most journalistic expression comes with an expiry date, but Abu’s work, one feels, was also for posterity. The warmth of his humour and the ferocity of his wit often transcends the time and space in which his cartoons were created.

In one particularly scathing parody, Jyoti Basu asks, ‘What are we going to tell the workers about our collaborating with monopolists and multinationals in Bengal?’ His communist comrade E.M.S. Namboodiripad replies, ‘We’ll say we’re trying to wreck capitalism from within.’

Abu Abraham: The man who had the last laugh

A potbellied politician tells a group of villagers, ‘Brother and sisters, the election rules don’t permit me to promise drinking water, so I ask you to remember my promise of five years ago.’ Sometimes, Abu’s humour is altogether black. Two cops stand over a bullet-ridden corpse. One tells the other, “If he’s dead, he must be a Naxalite.’


Several of the cartoons that ‘The World through Abu’s Eyes’ displays appeared in the pages of The Indian Express between 1969 and 1981, but the exhibition also puts on view works that came before and after.

While the cartoons he syndicated between 1981 and 2002 show how Abu merged his political and philosophical sensibilities, his output from the years he lived in Britain (1953–1969) helps us see how he created a visual idiom that was straightforward in its style and international in its reach. Time abroad made his drawing unflinchingly humanistic and humane.

Born Attupurathu Mathew Abraham on 11 June 1924, Abu would first sign his cartoons with his surname, ‘Abraham’. When the Observer invited him to become its first-ever staff political cartoonist in 1956, David Astor, the newspaper’s editor, asked if he could opt for a more neutral pseudonym.

At a time when Israel was attacking Egypt during the Suez Crisis, ‘Abu’, Astor felt, could be more unbiased than ‘Abraham’. Though this change in nomenclature was pragmatic, Abu was never impartial to suffering. In the sketches of Palestinians he draws after visiting a UN refugee camp in 1967, we see a resilience that, sadly, continues to feel familiar.

In one cartoon, Abu depicts former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir as a chicken who has laid a bomb-shaped egg named ‘TERRORISM’. There is, of course, irony in what Meir says—‘Israel won’t talk in the face of terrorism’—but doubly relevant is Abu’s quip: ‘Which came first, chicken or egg?’

The exhibits we see in Kolkata are also artefacts. With tabs and styluses having substituted paper and pen, cartoonists no longer need the whitener Abu once so liberally used. But our shift from analog to digital also seems to have resulted in other far-reaching consequences for the political cartoon itself.

Rather than look for satire in rectangular newspaper boxes where cartoons once fit, we today rely on reels and memes for our daily dose of political parody. In an age where the function of cartoonists is being performed by YouTubers and influencers, the economy and restraint of Abu’s drawings has been replaced by humour that’s more in your face.

Abu once said, “Without freedom, a cartoonist won’t be able to really function. You will only produce second-rate work.” In the 22 years since his death, the freedom cartoonists once enjoyed has become a distant memory. In September 2011, Harish Yadav was arrested in Madhya Pradesh for a cartoon that showed Narendra Modi wearing a skullcap. A year later, Aseem Trivedi was jailed after his anti-corruption cartoons were deemed ‘seditious’.

In 2021, the Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings against Sanitary Panels creator Rachita Taneja for a cartoon in which she criticised Supreme Court judges. This repeated persecution has forced Abu’s successors to tread with caution. It is a pity that cartoonists are being made to pay a price for repurposing as farce tragedies our rulers must be accountable for.

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist. This centennial celebration of Abu Abraham’s work will run at Gallery Rasa, Kolkata, till 21 July)

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