The subtle art of political satire in news media

Three leading cartoonists speak on political cartoons in an age of contempt

political satire
A political cartoon by E P Unny, chief political cartoonist at The Indian Express. Copyright E P Unny

Pictures speak more than a thousand words. The same holds true for cartoons. But has the relevance of cartoons or political satire diminished in Indian news media with the decline of print and the advent of digital? Cartoonists feel the good old political satire still holds fort amid the rise of new formats such as gifs and memes, and the community refuses to bow down to threats, trolls, and court cases.

Indian Printer & Publisher correspondent Priyanka Tanwar speaks to three leading cartoonists – E P Unny, Jayanto Banerjee, and Nituparna Rajbongshi – who shared their views on India’s evolving cartooning landscape.

Political and social satire existed in India’s multiple cultures long before printing and cartooning came, says E P Unny, chief political cartoonist at The Indian Express. “Humor won’t go away with changes in technology. It is grounded in our cultures. As for the cartoon, it has only found new platforms with the advent of the web. The cartoon is an eminently portable art. It can adapt,” he says.

Seasoned cartoonist Jayanto Banerjee agrees that visual art such as cartoons will never die. As social media and the internet are growing stronger, the forms have evolved into memes and emojis. They brighten up the day. They tell you a story in a jiffy which 400 words can’t do.

Assam-based Nituparna Rajbongshi, who has been drawing cartoons since 1997, says if we compare to the previous periods where print media was in full bloom, then the relevance of cartoons in print has naturally diminished.

“Nowadays, only a very few print media houses with a strong spine to stand against the establishment are publishing cartoons. But, earlier, cartoons formed a major part of a newspaper or a magazine as editorial satire. The advent of digital media, increasing political pressure on the media houses on the pretext of business, and advertisements are major causes of this diminishing relevance. However, at times, we see independent digital media houses taking a strong stand in terms of political cartoons, thus keeping the hope alive.”

Political cartoons – a powerful tool or just decorative pieces

There was a time when RK Laxman’s common man was the first to be read on the front page of a newspaper. The cartoon was a powerful tool to bring to light serious topics or take a dig at wrong policy decisions. But with the advent of digital media, cartoons and caricatures seem to have taken a back seat.

The great RK Laxman was from an era when TV was not there, and newspapers dominated the news platform, Banerjee says. “We are still quite like his common man. Even today, a lot of young dynamic cartoonists are doing a super job. But their work gets diluted in the glut of news and social media. But even then, cartoons and caricatures are not just decorative pieces,” he says.

Rajbongshi strongly believes Indian cartooning and cartoons are still following the footsteps of RK Laxman and have not turned into decorative pieces altogether. There are many cartoonists carrying out their responsibility of showing the truth to society through their art, he says. No doubt, sometimes we do come across cartoons that are superficial and done for the sake of it or for propaganda. But, irrespective of that, many cartoonists are doing their job with utmost sincerity – defying all odds and pressures, he says.

When a news property in print or web features a cartoon consistently well, it gets quality attention. And it works as well as it did in the days of Laxman,” adds Unny.

Relevance in today’s age

India has had a rich culture of humor and satire. During the best of times, the cartoon made sense only to the literate and the politically literate, argues Unny. “Those readerships also had other forms of satire and humor to choose from. Theater and cinema offered their own brands of slapstick and sarcasm. In places such as Tamil Nadu, hard regional politics was promoted through cinema. Mime artists and street artists have had a great appeal in many languages. Slogans and graffiti were common means of political propaganda. Cartoon, at all times, has existed in competition. It still does.”

Banerjee agrees that the political cartoon will always have its place in media, whatever the medium is. “Lots of political satires are visible as movies on OTT platforms. Things are changing but the value of satire is still precious for some. A lot of young people these days don’t read the print editions but keep themselves entertained via social media”.

Today’s youth, no doubt, are accustomed to using GIFs and memes; but simultaneously, they read, observe and share cartoons too, when it comes to serious social issues, Rajbongshi says. They often request cartoonists like me to draw on issues that affect them, which include education, unemployment, societal restrictions that prevent them from expressing themselves, their identity crisis, especially in the case of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.

“Not only that, they are quite serious about burning issues. I have seen my cartoons being used by students, and young generations from various reputed educational institutions from the Northeast during various protests and demonstrations. They have even conducted studies on cartoons and used cartoons in their research dissertations too. Today’s generation is serious about their issues, and society’s issues, provided they see honesty, truth, and sense in dealing with them. So, they can be attracted only through honest representations,” Rajbongshi asserts.

Challenges in creating political cartoons

Doing political satires and cartoons itself is a very challenging task, admits Banerjee. “I guess every cartoonist tries to be politically correct. It should be like that only,” he says.

With changing the political landscape and government regimes, there have been increased cases of bigotry, hatred, different sorts of propaganda, and injustice to common people in many ways along with the suppression of the freedom of speech, Rajbongshi says. “Under such circumstances, the atmosphere for cartooning has definitely become negative amid pressures from people in power as well as their blind and obliged fans and followers. There have been direct or indirect, sometimes sugar-coated threats (of course in the guise of advice and well wishes) to cartoonists across the nation.”

As a political cartoonist, I have faced these challenges too, he says. The print media in my state (Assam) avoided publishing my cartoons because they are anti-establishment. “I have received death threats on social media for my cartoons with some saying I should be sent to Pakistan. My family members have been targeted without any fault of theirs.”

Rajbongshi recollects a disturbing incident during the CAA movement, where many of his cartoons were shared across social media platforms and used during protests. “At that time, I started getting threats from people in power as well as their supporters. There have been sugar-coated threats from ‘concerned well-wishers’, who happened to be part of the administration, to take down some of my cartoons against CAA/CAB. My cartoons were reported on social media platforms by their agencies. Even police personnel came to my home to inform me that there has been pressure from people in power to arrest me,” he says.

“However, in those hard times, I got support from sections of the public as well as from the Cartoonists Rights International Network. Their voice against such suppression helped me a lot during that period,” he says.

Promoting cartoons in Indian news media

The Indian news media should revive the place and importance of cartoons to their previous stature, Rajbongshi asserts. The freedom of speech and editorial importance must be brought back to the print media cartoons, he says. “Cartoons should be a regular feature, like that of the editorial. Cartoonists should be given their due respect, importance and a free hand. The Indian news media must learn to explore new-age media platforms to promote cartoons.”

Unny however, says there is no need to promote the cartoon art. “It is enough if editors and publishers run cartoons, possibly in greater variety. We could have sports cartoons, business cartoons, and our own comic strips. India is a large country and we still have only Laxman’s Common Man as a nationally recognized comic icon. He needs company as we mature into a bigger democracy,” he concludes.

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