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Can Humour and Anger Coexist?

More than a laugh, a good cartoon should provoke thought.


N Ponnappa writes:

On 29 October, G Bala from Tamil Nadu was arrested for drawing a cartoon showing three naked men, albeit one sporting a tie, another a cap, and all three covering their genitals with small wads of currency. By their feet lies a child, face down, supposedly charred, some flames still burning across its back—similar in a sense but gorier than that of the refugee child Aylan Kurdi washed on to the beach, dead, by the Mediterranean in 2015. The cartoon is based on a suicide bid by a daily wage labourer who burnt his two children, his wife, and himself in front of the Tirunelveli district collector’s office. Unable to bear harassment by a moneylender against whom he had complained six times to the district collector via petitions, the man took this step.

Bala posts his work on social media, has a large following and is obviously quite popular among this group. Two translations of his comment in Tamil below the artwork of the cartoon, from two different reports from the print media, read as: “Oh yes ... this cartoon was on top of the aggression,” and: “Yes ... I drew this cartoon at the height of my anger.” Translations seem to be tenuous in their tone, invariably no two being quite similar. Yet, more than a “laugh,” a good cartoon should draw out “thought” in its readership. Humour has many aspects and sadly “anger” is not one of them. “Humour” and “anger” cannot walk hand in hand, not even in a cartoon. The artist accepts that he drew it in anger.

Tragedy is an extremely difficult subject to portray as a cartoon. It has to be subtle if portrayed at all. Bala’s cartoon in question here is direct. He has shown the child, a victim, burning. The cartoon shows three officials, warts and all, nude, covering their private parts with tiny amounts of cash, hopefully new demonetised notes. This is a no-no as far as cartoons go.

Now, usury is the art of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest. Harassment by the moneylender led to this unfortunate turn of events, as well as the execution of this work of art itself. Yet, the moneylender, pivotal in this episode, is nowhere in the picture. If, perhaps, the artist had devoted more time and thought to his work, he could easily have woven that obnoxious character into his rendering with either apt or inept strokes that might have mollified the three unclothed members of officialdom. That in itself would have saved the unnecessary embarrassment for Bala of being dragged out of his abode and secretly bundled into a cell in the dark of the night, a full three weeks after the officialdom woke up with the serendipitous knowledge that they were shown naked.

The cartoon went viral on the platform where freedom of speech and expression dance with unabashed abandon, the social media. Social media panders to such stuff. It is an “anything goes” attitude, where censorship that in the print media comes under the watchful gaze of the editor is essentially missing. Bala, as he himself stated, has drawn a cartoon in anger and in doing so has overstepped the limits of decency and obscenity. Neither freedom of expression nor freedom of speech, important as they are within their own limits, have played any significant role in the creation of this cartoon.

Posting cartoons directly on social media is a different, and new kettle of fish. The comments and retorts, criticism both constructive and mindless, are immediate. The followers need not necessarily be kind and appreciative. It is a free-for-all situation. No holds barred. While there is far more freedom on social media than in print, there is also considerable danger for a careless cartoonist, and rightfully so.

Looking at the larger picture, one notices that there was far more openness in the print media and tolerance in the appreciation of cartoons in the past. If one had to reprint the cartoons published barely a few years ago, one would need a hard and careful rethink. More than a polarity of thought, a far wider spectrum of audience has to be gauged and looked into. The cross-section of the people of this country in the present time has broken up further into smaller segments and it is easier now to advertently or inadvertently rub some or many the wrong way.

Essentially, there are different ways a cartoon can or may be interpreted than the particular way the cartoonist would like it to be read. Simply put, in these times, more thought has to be processed in the making of a cartoon than before. The print media is safer for the cartoonist because of the editor. He or she can stop a cartoon from being published. Some decades ago, a cartoon published in the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan showing members of the legislative assembly in bad light got the editor in trouble. The cartoonist got away. The usefulness of a good editor cannot be underestimated!

N Ponnappa is a well-known cartoonist, and contributes Last Lines for EPW’s Postscript.

Updated On : 13th Nov, 2017


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