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A.R. Venkatachalapathy on Cartooning

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The interview was conducted by Sreedevi Arunram at MIDS in Chennai in 2016.

Sahapedia: What are the challenges in archiving cartoons in India?  


A.R. Venkatachalapathy: I think this is a problem with a larger archiving issue in India. Indians are notorious for not actually preserving their documents. And print media itself lends itself to certain problems. For instance the daily newspaper, its value is only for a day. So newspaper gets dated within a day or a journal gets dated within a week or a month. And more importantly the format of the newspaper, its big size, makes it very difficult to preserve. So if you have bound volumes of newspapers, they become very difficult to preserve.


And another is the question of the larger culture, the ahistorical culture that Indians are notorious for. Like the newspapers, the very unwieldy nature of the journals themselves could be problematic. That is one thing. There is no real documentation of journalism in India. All we have basically is this. When commemorative occasions come, say a silver jubilee or golden jubilee of a newspaper or a weekly, they would try quickly to put together some material. They look at their old records and old files. By that time actually the institutional memory is also lost. So whatever is done very quickly is done by journalists, and not by historians. But if you look at the west, all the major newspapers and journals have commissioned trained historians or former journalists who have the time. They are given time to produce histories. So The Times will have a history. The Economist will have a history. The biographies of major journalists have been documented.  There is history of The Times. Then there is a separate history of Times Literary Supplement also. In India we haven’t done that. So what we get are scattered references. You have to look at the biographies of journalists, memoirs of journalists, autobiographies of journalists and from these sources you have to tease out the material.


When it comes to cartooning, the culture in which we have grown up has taught us to value the written word but not drawing and painting. Especially drawings like those in the cartoons, for us it is just some scribbling. When a child draws, we say, he is scribbling something. So that is the value that is attached to drawing except of course when it is oil painting, acrylic and things like that. Otherwise sketches have not been as valued as other forms of journalism.


For my work on Bharati’s (Subramania Bharati [1882–1921]) cartoons, I had to look at a whole range of autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, commemorative volumes over a very, very long period and I have continued to do it even after I published the first version of these essays nearly 20-22 years ago. I continued to find these kind of snippets which I am trying to incorporate into the larger story of cartoons.


Bharati was a product of the Indian nationalist movement and the freedom struggle. His posthumous reputation is based on his poetry as a literary person. But as part of his nationalist activity, his involvement in the freedom struggle, poetry was of course a very personal kind of avenue for expressing both his thoughts and his patriotic sentiments. And also his artistic sensibilities found expression in his poetry. But he was also a journalist. He took his journalism very seriously because journalism, you can say, was also his occupation. What little money he made was only through journalism. His books didn’t sell well at all.


That said, Bharati was editing journals by the time he was about 25. First he edited a monthly magazine for women, but more importantly by 1906, he was editing a very important weekly called India. It strongly backed Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s political line. Within the Congress there were two streams, the moderates and the extremists. So Tilak was the head of the extremist faction which had a very strident position in the anti-colonial struggle. Bharati’s journal was toeing Tilak’s line and there he was trying to make innovations. For the first time you could say journalistic writing had fire in it. The earlier writing by Subramania Iyer and others, even though it was very competent journalism, was not this kind of fiery writing. He was trying to introduce new features and we actually don’t know where he got this inspiration from but he started to publish a cartoon on the front page of the weekly very soon after he became its editor.  


Because of its strong anti-British, anti-government position, first its editor was arrested, and then the journal had to shift its base to Pondicherry. Pondicherry was a French-ruled territory. So the British police could not do anything there. But after Bharati went into exile there and relaunched the India, within about a year and a half the journal was proscribed. So as a proscribed journal, many people did not preserve it.


And another event took place in 1911. The only political assassination during the freedom struggle in Tamil Nadu took place on June 17th, 1911. The Collector of Tirunelveli, Robert Ash, was assassinated by a swadeshi (nationalist). When the police investigated the case, they found that many of the conspirators were carrying Subramania Bharati’s journals and books with them. So Bharati was targeted and in that general wave of repression and witch-hunting, many nationalist sympathisers destroyed their copies of Bharati’s books and journals. Of the three and a half years of the existence of this weekly, issues of only two years have survived. Now every issue of the India magazine had carried a cartoon on its front page. So what has survived is only one copy each of the issues of two years, and they are scattered in various archives.


So this is the larger question of the material availability of the journals. The other is the perceptual. Indians celebrate people. We worship Bharati. But what do we actually know about him? What have we done for him? Practically nothing. This is the case with most of our stalwarts and heroes.


Bharati was especially unlucky in another aspect. He died in 1921. That is before nationalism became, to put it crudely, a profitable exercise. By the 1930s, Congressmen had tasted power. Before that being a Congressman meant actually being under police surveillance and getting imprisoned and having your books banned. So that was one primary reason.


The second reason was that he died unsung. So when he died, nobody knew who he was. So far only two obituaries have been found. The fact is that Bharati functioned at a time when being a nationalist would mean inviting the wrath of the colonial government. Also, he was unknown beyond a small circle. And for 11 years in the prime of his life, he lived in exile in Pondicherry.


So actually the question is, how did he manage to break out of this kind of situation conducive to put people in obscurity. That he actually broke out of this obscurity shows what an amazing poet and genius he was.



S: What do you say about the deployment of Hindu mythology and folklore in Bharati’s cartoons?


A.V.R.: So first we have to clarify one thing. I say Bharati was a cartoonist, but actually he didn’t draw the cartoons. He was not an artist. But in those days what was important was the concept. Bharati published cartoons in his journal. It doesn’t mean that he drew them. It was his idea to carry cartoons when no one was doing it in any south Indian journal. A couple of north Indian journals carried cartoons. Because there was one major influence on Indian journalists. All Indian journalists looked up to the west especially the British journals. There was this very famous journal, comic journal called the Punch. So the Punch had lots of imitators in India. In India there was something called the Hindi Punch, the Oudh Punch, there were lots of Punches. Of course, these Punch magazines never pulled their punches. So I think Bharati was familiar with all these things.


A very amazing thing about Bharati is that he lived practically all his 39 years in Tamil Nadu, of that 11 years were spent in a very small town. He travelled very little. He made one trip to Bombay and Surat. Once he went to Calcutta. He spent five years of his teens in Benares. If you exclude these years, he was not well-travelled. He was not like Tagore. Tagore had gone to England before Bharati had been born. And Tagore was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. And Bharati never had a comfortable life. When he was seven or eight or ten years old, his father went bankrupt. So he lived under very indigent circumstances. But he had a vision. He was widely read. He was a polyglot. Apart from his great expertise in Tamil, he knew English, Sanskrit, Hindi and French. And because of his strong grounding in both Tamil and Sanskrit, he could easily pick up the other Dravidian languages. I am sure he knew a bit of Malayalam because his wife’s home was very near the Kerala border. And he also picked up a smattering of Bangla. And he read journals voraciously. So he read all the journals published from Calcutta. He also read journals published from abroad. So he knew what was happening in the world. I think he imbibed this and he adapted this to his own journalistic and political needs. We have to remember this.


For him, nationalist politics was important. He was very critical of our traditional heritage. He says we have to take only the best from the past. He quotes Kalidasa where he says ‘to say that everything that is old is great and everything that is new is good is bad, it is not quite right’. Bharatiyar says, people talk about pazhamai or antiquity. What is old? What are you talking about? Is it 50 years ago? Is it 500 years ago or is it 5000 years ago? What are you referring to? So then he says, we should not be like those who drank saline water because it comes from a well which has been dug by one’s father. Appan veettu kanaru enbadarkagu uppu thanni ya kudikkindra moodargala irrukku.  You will understand this proverb only if you know the Panchatantra story. He often drew parallels with Panchatantra stories. That is why he was successful.



S: What were the features of the post-Bharatiyar cartooning in Tamil Nadu?  


A.V.R.: After 1910—Bharati’s India stopped being published in early 1910—cartooning ceased to be published in Tamil journals. Bharati dies in 1921. Until Bharati nobody published cartoons in Tamil journals. In 1925 a major nationalist called P. Varadarajulu Naidu launched a daily called Tamil Nad. He began to carry cartoons in it.


And then a very important change came in 1930. So the year 1930 was a very important point in Indian nationalism. This was the second wave of mass nationalism—civil disobedience movements, salt satyagraha, 'Simon Go Back' [in response to the visit of the all-white Simon Commission to review constitutional reforms] and also, although there was the global depression, the Indian economy was getting a spurt and more people were becoming politicised. So this was the time when the print-run of Tamil periodicals increased dramatically. Till that time, a Tamil periodical would sell about 5000-6000 copies at most. But by 1930 you had a new form of journal called the Kaal anna journal. 'Kaal anna' is quarter anna in Tamil. They used to publish magazines sometimes as frequently as three times a week, priced at a quarter anna. So this periodical used to sell in ten thousands of copies. With this new form, cartooning became a very important element in journalism. Of the three quarter anna journals, one is called Gandhi. It was named after Gandhi. The other magazines were Suthanthira Sangu and Ooliyan. These three journals began to carry cartoons on the first page.


Throughout the 1930s all Tamil periodicals published cartoons. And that was the time when the first star in cartooning emerged. Till then, cartooning was actually done by some paid artist. The editor would come up with an idea, tell the artist to draw such and such thing. He would instruct him to draw a donkey and draw a dhobi, call the donkey the Indian legislator and the dhobi as the British government or whatever. So the artist would draw—this is like what Bharati used to do.


But from 1930s it changed. The change happened with the emergence of a very interesting figure called Mahalingam or Mali. Mali was from Tamil Nadu but he had his early journalistic training in Bombay. S. Sadanand was one of the great doyens of Indian journalism, who incidentally was also from Tamil Nadu. His father was a very important journalist who published the journal Vivek Chintamani in Tamil even in the 1890s. So Sadanand first started the free press journal. Then he was also the first to have a nationalist news agency. So a free press journal and free press news agency were some of the earliest nationalist ventures in the field of journalism in the 1930s. He was the one who spotted Mali. So Mahalingam did cartoons in the Free Press Journal and then he was picked up by S.S. Vasan who later becomes the movie moghul of Gemini Studios. S.S. Vasan re-launched Ananda Vikatan in 1928. Within a few months of taking over that journal, he hired Kalki as the editor. Then, in the early '30s, Mahalingam was hired. Mahalingam did two things. He executed the cartoons for which ideas had been given by Kalki. But he was also probably the first to do caricatures. He did brilliant caricatures of politicians, British officials and Carnatic musicians. Mali’s unique style could be noted in these caricatures.


Interestingly, even The Hindu was not carrying original cartoons then. What it was doing was to publish the syndicated cartoons of David Low.  



S: What were the changes in approach in post-independence Tamil cartoons?


A.R.V.: The big change in the post-independence period is that firstly cartoons become a very natural element in all periodicals, journals, weeklies and newspapers and even monthlies. The thing to note is that now cartoons had become so natural that you didn’t have to draw on old mythological stories and animals’ fables. The readers were now mature and could appreciate, in a sense, the national and international protocols of cartoon. So that happened.


But at the same time, acute minds were missing in journalism. You didn’t have the kind of driven personalities of the independence era. You didn’t have a Subramania Bharati or a Varadarajulu Naidu or a T.S. Chokkalingam. The idealism firing journalism took a back seat, and by 1940s, the daily press and the weekly press became money-spinning exercises. The Indian Express and Dinamani were run by Ramnath Goenka. S.S. Vasan becomes a movie moghul. So now it was more a business and less of an idealistic political enterprise.


As I said, the readers were now used to national and international forms. But more importantly, the change was in post-Independence India. All Indians are supposed to be equal. So the common man became pivotal to the cartoons. So all cartoonists created their own images of a common man. R.K. Laxman’s Common Man became the gold standard for the common man but all cartoonists had their own versions.



S: What about the conflicts between cartooning and politics?


A.V.R.: I think it is more an all-India phenomenon. Indians are generally humourless people and especially when you rise up in power, your tolerance limit becomes very low. People can’t stand criticism and more importantly people especially the powers that be can’t stand ridicule. So if you don’t like being criticised, you don’t like being made fun of or fun at, cartoons can’t exist. So that is a big problem for Indians. Shankar got away with it because he was lampooning Nehru who was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. But otherwise politicians don’t like to be mocked, especially Tamil politicians. Tamil politicians, many of them are killjoys. And generally, Indian politicians are not actually real democrats.



S: Why is there an absence of prominent Tamil cartoonists in mainstream media?


A.V.R.: The immediate contrast of course is with Kerala. Kerala has produced a series of great cartoonists. Like O.V. Vijayan, Ravi Shankar etc. So many cartoonists have come from Kerala. In Tamil Nadu no such cartoonists came up for a number of reasons. One, the profession of the cartoonist is not a highly valued profession. The cartoonist always plays second fiddle to the editor. And he is a paid employee of the newspaper baron. So basically he has to carry out the diktats of the employer.


The second is we have not had really acute political minds. What can you expect from a cartoonist who is a typical middle-class Tam Brahm who grew up in Triplicane? Cartooning requires audacity. You have to be audacious. You need to have a political vision. The political vision of Tamil cartoonists has never gone beyond accepted middle class norms. You distrust the mob, you distrust the popular mind, you pay obeisance at the feet of God men, you don’t want to challenge existing status quo. How can you have cartoons then?


I think Kerala has succeeded because of the strong Left tradition which gives a theoretical arsenal to criticise. You should have a political vocabulary to criticise which has been provided by Marxism which essentially a very anti-status quoist ideology. Bengal is a different case because, as it was said, when Calcutta sneezed, India caught a cold. Bengal had the first Indian middle class. The Bengali middle class is at least two, if not three generations older than the Tamil middle class. So the Bengali middle class is about 200 years old, if not a little older. So the middle class has had a very interesting engagement with colonial modernity. And I think the Bengali bhadralok (well-educated Bengali middle class) also have a tradition of being introspective and they are not averse to self-criticism. So if you look at, for instance, Gaganendranath Tagore’s caricatures, they really poked fun at the bhadralok.


Tamil journalists, until the previous generation, all came from the Tamil Brahmin middle class, and the Tamil Brahmin middle class has been notorious for not being introspective or self-critical. Rather they have a sense of being persecuted. So if you feel persecuted, then you are not going to be critical of yourself. That is why you find that the level of humour in the Tamil public sphere is so low.



S: What about the Tamil cartoonist’s take on music?


A.V.R.: So the 1930s, as I said, was the time when Carnatic music comes into its own. It is able to successfully rid itself of the stigma of the Devdasi tradition. Carnatic music and dance is completely taken over by the Tamil Brahmin middle class. The turning point is December 1927, when the Congress conference was held in Madras, Chennai. The Music Academy is set up and Carnatic music as we know it now actually gets formed through the 1930s. The form of the concert, the repertoire sung by the artists, the relative hierarchy of the musical instruments, everything is defined in the 1930s. So as I said, that is the time also when Tamil periodicals become quite popular and Ananda Vikatan spearheads this movement which gives great scope and space for Carnatic music.


So Mali was the one who drew all those caricatures of the various musicians. And I must also say that the 1930s musicians were also a very colourful lot. The kind of standardisation that has come now was still not there. We had a great range of colourful personalities and there was also a transition from the old Devadasi traditions of chinna melam, periya melam, nattuvanars etc. The 1930s saw the fag end of such traditions and the new middle class with BA’s emerged. You know G.N.B (G. N. Balasubramaniam) was a graduate. Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer too was a graduate. So this was a new class of people. They created new persona for themselves. They wore beautiful silks, took great care with their coiffure. They became personalities, and in this process the caricatures also came up.


And also, for the first time, the audience was being represented. Until then there was no gap between the performer and audience. This was not a proscenium medium. There was not a dais and an audience. Earlier performances used to be in temples, people would come and go. So the performer and the audience were within the same space. But by 1930s’s of course performances were in the auditorium. So there was a distance and it gets represented in the form of caricatures of the audience. Music is about taste and this taste is also about marking out. How do I differentiate myself from you? It is by demonstrating that my cultural tastes are more refined that yours. That is a very middle-class form of distinction. In the temple, nobody would have tried to show that I was better than you because of my cultural taste. The man who wanted to drool at the beautiful dancer would drool. The person who wanted to watch the adavu would be watching it. The person who wanted to watch the abhinaya or mudras would be watching it. There is no question of trying to have a hierarchy. But the middle class then wanted to show that I was superior to you. You listen to your MS (M.S. Subbalakshmi), I am a D.K. Pattamal kind of person. I want heavy music. I want to have intricate theory. Now just listening to some bhajan and some devotional music is what lower people would do. That marker was there and Ananda Vikatan especially played on it.