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In Conversation with Sadanand Menon

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The interview was conducted by Shruti Ravi in Chennai in 2016

Sadanand Menon: As an observer and a media critic, I understand the working of the mind of the editorial artist in a particular way which is something like this. It is almost akin to the working of the mind of an edit writer in a newspaper. So the newspaper has typically an editor-in-chief or an editor, a team of eight or ten people who write edits on a daily basis. And what they have to write in a constricted format of say, 500 or 600 words or 800 words beyond which they can’t go. So it is like a very tight space in which they are called upon to write and comment. The business of politics, if you examine it historically, is in a strange way, boringly the same. After all what is one talking about? One is talking about the manifestations of power, one is talking about the issues of governance. One is talking about the issues of policies, one is talking about the idiosyncrasies and quirks of those in power. One is talking about the trends and movements. One is talking about path-breaking moments that you know for whatever reason we call path-breaking; it can be violence, it can be something that is extraordinarily uplifting. All these things are the material for the business of daily politics. But there is a boring repetitiveness to it. So, for example, the proceedings in Parliament—how much excitement can you produce in it? How much change can you produce in it? It’s the same set of muttonheads sitting and thinking and speaking the same things again and again and again, without actually producing change. In fact, most of the time obstructing change.


So the task of a political editor, or edit writer in a newspaper, and the political cartoonist, or the editorial artist, I would say, is more or less the same. Which is to track this boring sameness and examine where you can find the excitement which shows you the difference; which shows you, which shows the reader or the viewer of the political cartoon that there is an elephant in the room, or there is a fly in the ointment, or where the punctum is—in photographic analysis you say punctum, something that is short (but important). It is not the intention of the leader to speak in that particular manner, and yet when he spoke, something came out. Which is like, going against the grain of what he is saying. So it is up to these trained political journalists—some do it with the word, some do it with the line drawing—to catch that moment to witness in the administration of power. So this is the daily task or function that the editorial artist performs. And in that sense tracks the slow ineffable moment of history, the movement in history and how it’s changing day by day. So what looks like the same thing, something immovable and unchangeable, changes the way the interpreters of that do it through, either through their words or their drawing. So for me a successful political cartoonist or editorial artist is that person who is able to find that transition and change day after day.


I can give you an example. There was a time when I was working in The Economic Times as a senior editor. We had another editorial consultant called K. Subramaniam who was, before he came into Economic Times as an editorial consultant, the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of Government of India. He was a great advocate of the nuclear bomb. So even then he was persuading the Government of India to make the bomb and, you know, how it is important for India’s security; all this thing called strategy analysis and stuff. So India needs to be a power in the combative nations; America has a bomb, Russia has a bomb, China has a bomb, UK and France have bombs, we must also have a bomb, and then you know, that kind of argument. So when he moved from a bureaucratic position and came to the newspaper as a consulting editor, almost every day he was writing articles in the paper advocating the bomb. So around that time, the management and the editorial decided that all these serious articles in the paper should carry little illustrations, not a photograph but an illustration—something that defines the basic theme of the article. So our special consultant was everyday writing about the need for bomb. We had an in-house cartoonist—Unny (E.P. Unny) was also there in those days—but there was another guy who used to illustrate these things. His name was Salaam, I think he is still there. So, Salaam’s task was to illustrate these little things for the edit page. So after Mr Subramaniam started writing for Economic Times, all of us started calling him Bombu Mama ('Bomb Uncle') because really he was going, bomb, bomb, bomb. And Salaam, was repeating the bomb in small illustrations. And he was trying every day to find a new way to draw a bomb. It became a fantastic joke between us. I don’t think Mr Subramaniam caught it, but Salaam was taking his trip, by drawing the bomb in all kind of crazy ways, in all kinds of funny ways. In that period of roughly one and half years when Mr Subramaniam was the consulting editor of the paper, he must have written probably 250 pieces on the bomb. And Salaam dutifully drew 250 bombs, but each one was different. Now that’s what the political or the editorial cartoonist would do, you know, the same thing, but find a different way of stating it, so that either the ludicrousness of it, or the importance of it, or the unviability of it, whatever comes is exposed. So basically the edit writer and the edit artist are people who uncover through their work— through words or drawing— that which somebody is trying to cover. And where the editorial artists who would speak in mere cartoon terms, where an editorial artist is not able to do it, he or she remains then an illustrator. You don’t call them editorial artists, they are only illustrators. They will just be descriptive. But when your political acumen actually (is sharp) and  you know, years of experience doing this again and again, you are actually able to put the finger on that which is slightly problematic in the issue there you become a full-fledged political artist. So in the Indian media scene today you don’t find too many of them. Most of them are illustrators. They produce a laugh. There is an imagination that editorial artistry is about humour, about creating some laughter, but in my understanding, humour comes last. The first and primary task is to find that knife, know the weak point where you can strike that knife, and then not just strike it but twist it so that some blood comes out. Good political artists are vicious animals, they are dangerous people, you really have to be wary of them, because they can catch your soft spots very easily, because they are trained to do that.


R.K. Laxman, one of our important editorial artists—whom the historians and analysts of cartoon have critiqued for being a not-so political cartoonist. That he was very mild, and that he did not go the whole hog. But even he found a way to speak a political language when L.K. Advani started his Ratha Yatra which began from Somnath temple in Gujarat and went up to Ayodhya (1990). He had this ludicrous thing of a matador van decked up like a ratha, and imagined himself to be the Arjuna riding the chariot. He was going to the masses and in his aftermath, everywhere he stopped and spoke, after he left, there would be communal violence. And he was deliberately provoking it. So the day our man started the Ratha Yatra, R.K. Laxman, as a front-page box window cartoon, drew a funny image of the matador van looking like a ratha and Advani like Arjuna with a full crown on his head, and bow and arrow, and ready to, you know, embark on his ashwamedha yagya or whatever it is. It took almost three or four months for the ratha to reach Ayodhya. In fact it was stopped as the court orders said you can’t go there. Every two days R.K. Laxman drew one aspect of the Ratha Yatra. Interestingly, if you take that bunch of cartoons that Laxman drew—must be about 35 cartoons probably—of Advani in the Rath Yatra period, in the first cartoon like I said, he is a proper Arjuna with a tilak and a mukuta (crown) and a sharas and the baan (bow and arrows) and all that. In the second cartoon, the head has got a little larger and the crown has got a little smaller. In the third cartoon the head has got a little larger and the crown smaller, and so on it goes on, till around the time the Rath Yatra was stopped, Advani’s head is like a big balloon and the crown is one peanut size sitting there. So this false pretension of being this great Hindu warrior or a Hindutva warrior is exposed just through this little trick. He (R.K. Laxman) doesn’t say a word, he doesn’t criticize Advani, he doesn’t criticize the Ratha Yatra, but the visual every day is showing how this man’s ego is getting larger and larger but his ambition of being the crown prince is getting smaller and smaller, because it is only creating violence and it is not creating any harmony, and it is probably creating anti-Hindu antagonism. It is a fantastic act of editorial artistry. So for this you need of course the skill to do it, but you also need the particular skill, the conceptual skill of reducing this political process to a set of understandable and very comprehensible visuals.


So you know basically these are the moments when the editorial artist becomes a political persona and is able to sort of leap over the circumstances. So for me it is not those big moments, it is not the Emergency, it is not Babri Masjid, it is not Gujarat, you don’t need the big moments. Big moments will produce their own responses from the edit writer and the edit artist, but it’s the day-to-day material that is really difficult. On a day when no big thing is happening, what do you do, what is your material then? But the editorial artist has to remain politically alive even during that time. Then there are some editorial artists whom one would call having some kind of a futuristic sense, who are able to see politics in anticipation. And they are very special people. Where you are not just dealing with the day-to-day, but you are looking at what is happening today, and already predicting what might happen five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later. For me one the greatest examples of this is one of India’s outstanding and important editorial artists called O.V. Vijayan, who was also one of the greatest writers in the Malayalam language. So Vijayan at one point was an extremely potent and fierce political cartoonist for The Hindu. I think it’s a period soon after this party called the Jan Sangh is formed. And the Jan Sangh’s election symbol is a lamp, something like the Aladdin’s lamp. So in the election that was coming up in 1976–71, I think, or the year before, I may not be very accurate with this date of mine, but Vijayan drew one particular cartoon for The Hindu which sticks in my memory; I mean I’m not a cartoon historian so, I’m just going by what I have observed and just as a media critic what I have quickly seen and quickly commented on. So the elections are coming up, he draws a ballot box, and on the ballot box, he draws the BJP’s symbol, which is the lamp and he writes below, ‘Mine Lamp Full’; which is an echo of Mein Kampf and he was doing it in the early '70s, when one wouldn’t even imagine that these guys who were such marginal elements in Indian politics, who had no seats anywhere, in fact they were being ostracized by every other party because they were RSS gatbandhan and so on. This prediction would come true 20 years later. The Mine Lamp would actually happen, a Fascist party which actually practised Fascist policies would get majority and get to rule and be the dominant political force. So that’s an act of, you know, some kind of visionary quality, and a cartoonist could spot it. So there is a political reading inherent here, where the birth of a party signifies a future danger for the nation etc. So I think the editorial artists have this kind of perspicacity. They are able to spot something that is going to come in the present politics that is already pregnant with the future.



Shruti Ravi: How have political cartoons influenced your worldview? How have they been present in the spaces between your reading and your engagement with politics?


S.M.:  Well, they have influenced me to the extent that I have been a voracious consumer of the cartoons in The Indian Express. From the time I remember, my interest in the media, which was probably around the time when one was 15, 16, something like that, just about entering college, that when my interest in all this began and I started to read newspapers, I have also been always tracking cartoons, and in one sense schooling myself to look at it more carefully and examine it more carefully. Nobody asked me to do it. There was no school where I went to which told me to do this. It was just personal interest. Then soon after I finished college, I entered the media and got closer to the practising cartoons—O.V. Vijayan was living in Chennai, and Unny was living in Chennai, both working for rival papers, and then for some time Unny was with The Hindu before moving to The Indian Express. Later I got to meet in Delhi a large number of cartoonists like Ajit Nainan Matthew, Abu Abraham—Ajit is Abu’s nephew, Ajit was in college with me, he was my junior—meeting Sudhir Dar, meeting Tailang (Sudhir Tailang) I mean, one just got to meet all of them as part of the fraternity of journalists. So it was just at that level. But when I became a senior editor at The Economic Times, specially handling the arts pages—I was the Arts Editor for about six years—I tried to create several spaces for the political cartoon, not as individual boxes of window cartoons, but as full pages. So like making a commentary on what the cartoon is able to do, where the word is failing. Normally we think the word is superior to the image in the world of media, but sometimes the cartoonists are able to say something which overtakes the word, and is probably more successful in creating that argument. So one of them was when soon after Jayalalitha came to power in Tamil Nadu, she imposed an unwritten censorship on the press. Many journalists were attacked, many were put in jail, many were threatened with jail etc. So a very good friend of mine K.P. Sunil was being chased by the government for certain things that he wrote—he was a writer in those days for one of the most popular weeklies called the Illustrated Weekly of India which came from The Times of India's table—and both the Government and the Tamil Nadu Assembly, where the AIDMK was the majority party, were after Sunil and many, many journalists were getting threatened at that time and they were very liberally using the sedition clause. At which point in The Economic Times we carried a full page on a Sunday, with just a 50-word intro. that I did—there were maybe 14 cartoons by different cartoonists across India in different papers who had lampooned and severely attacked this tendency of this chief minister, and each one was a gem. All these known cartoonists—Unny, Abu, Ravi Shankar—were there and that one page created more of an impact on this subject than 100 editorials could have done, because in one shot each cartoonist is getting to the essence of the business, of the illegality of it, the violation of the constitution implicit in this, the violation of ideas of freedom of speech implicit in this, the excess use of brute police power in this and so it was just very crystal clear and in a lampoonish kind of sense where it also provokes some kind of laugher, but immediately you pause and say, hey, this is not a laughing matter, this is very serious, fundamental rights are at stake and so on. So from that point then I started using this method for other issues and then post-Babri Masjid movement, post December 6, 1992, there was a stunned silence among the intellectual class of India. Of course people spoke out and said this was all completely barbaric and should not have been done and so and so forth, but beyond that what could one say.


And that was a glorious moment for editorial cartooning, and somewhat as the Emergency moment when many of them beat censorship through all kinds of devices. Some of them got, of course, the hard end of the stick from the censors, Abu Abraham certainly, R.K. Laxman certainly, they were all censored, but they also managed to slip in a lot of things—which was the success at that point. In this case, there was no censorship but there was an atmosphere of fear. Cutting through that fear, the courage and the clarity with which the editorial artists came out, and made their voices heard was very special. So within a year, in association with this body in Delhi called SAHMAT, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, a big exhibition of the cartoons was organized. It was called 'Punchline', and I wrote the main essay for that. And all the important artists who had spoken out at that point were displayed in that exhibition, and again I did a full page in The Economic Times celebrating this fact, 'when the line overtakes the word'—that was the headline of the page, and it was very clear, the moment you see that page, you know that this is what it is about. So I think the potential of a cartoon to speak at a level of truth is very, very special.



S.R.: Yes, do you think space for the political cartoon, at least within newspapers, is it shrinking or is it being used in a different way now?


S.M.: Yes, well, that the space for the cartoon is shrinking is debatable. I mean you would have to do a proper audit of the media’s pieces available for this and come to a conclusion on this, but interference is increasing—editorial interference and proprietorial interference. So across the board, barring one or two major exceptions, the cartoonist is now being almost ordered to be an entertainer. So we don’t want a sharp particular angle from you but we want something that creates laughter, something that creates a titter, something that is 'humour'. So this is being ordered, so whether you will be politically savvy or not is hardly a demand being made. Across the board the political cartoonists are no longer invited to sit in edit meetings, which used to be a regular practice earlier. The morning edit meeting happens and the editor-in-chief and the editors are all sitting and discussing what to do for the day, and to come to this would be like being an honoured member of that club, but slowly they have been pushed out of that. So this has led to the cartoonist being a kind of performing flea, let us say, who just shows off certain kinds of skills, creates a little laughter and you know everything is hunky-dory. So, that entertainment has entered the media scene in a big way. So in this space the cartoonists feel suffocated; the only oxygen in which the editorial artists can thrive is the oxygen of a hands-off policy: to leave them be once you appoint them as your chief political cartoonists. Take your hands off them, let them deliver on a daily basis, and not breathe down their neck and, a) tell them what to do or b) tell them what not to do, and even worse, ask them to perform for a sort of mass consumption. So these are the limitations happening. Many proprietors now—that almost 80 per cent of Indian newspapers do not have proprietor editors. The proprietors who become their own editors. Then they decide what they want to be, where the cartoons should appear, where what should appear. So the so-called designated spaces, so called ‘holy spaces’ for the cartoon have been tampered and played around with. But at the same time, one has also noticed another trend, for example in The Indian Express certainly and The Hindu certainly, where the editorial cartoon comes on the edit page; and that’s a very important position, you are giving it the same weight and the same dignity as the edit writer is given. So, Unny’s cartoons come on the Edit Page once a week, and on The Hindu it comes every day. In most the papers it is never on the edit page, it is somewhere else.


Certain very prominent political cartoonists like Ravi Shankar have become writers and they have sort of stepped down from the daily cartoon business, so all these kind of changes are happening in the media landscape. So that is part of the larger change in the media environment, it is nothing specifically to do with the cartoon per se. The same thing, to use a stronger term, dumbing down is happening to the editorials also, and to the edit page articles or the OpEd page articles also. They are getting softer in nature, not across the whole landscape—there are always exceptions—but largely this is the trend that you see and in that trend, certainly the editorial artist will also be a victim along with many others. Like a photograph, the photograph in the Indian newspaper is such a debased thing today. If you take the Indian newspapers of the 1980s, '90s, you would find an extraordinary use of the photograph. First of all the photo was politically strong, the photographers were strong politically themselves, but today it’s just become an illustration for something that happens, an accident or the Prime Minister inaugurating something, or a visiting dignitary. There is no specific dignity afforded to the possibility of the photograph to speak for itself you know. People like Raghu Rai, or Sandeep Shankar, or Prashant Panjiar, or Pablo Bartholomew, they all proved it in the daily pages, but now that kind of dignity has been taken away both in the newspapers as well as in the illustrated magazines. The photograph is just an appendage, it is no longer an independent media device which speaks for itself. So that has happened to the political cartoon also.



S.R.: I was thinking about what you said about humour, and especially what R.K. Laxman said about humour, and he said, ‘Humour doesn’t make the situation more hopeful, that’s, that’s almost irrelevant’, and the author of this particular text found it interesting that it was the fact that he expressed public distrust in his cartoons that in fact made him trustworthy to the viewer, he also says that he doesn’t think that cartoons can necessarily be interpreted as vernacular at all, because one needs the word with the image, it's not a zero-sum game in that sense. I wanted you to comment on what constitutes the vernacular in Indian cartoons?  


S.M.: Yes, well, I mean, I am not very comfortable with the concept of this word vernacular. I would say that the English press in India too is vernacular, particularly the visuals in it, the people who are drawing in it, they bring with them not an international or a global or a western sensibility. They bring a very strong touch of the soil that they represent. They may use an English caption, but if you read the visual without the caption, it’s certainly a vernacular moment. So I would like to therefore categorise one section as vernacular which represents Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi and all that, and another section, as small vernacular which is English. I think it is a problematic reading of the visual. Language yes, but the visual is in a different category. Mario’s cartoons for example; no cartoonist from any other part of the world can reproduce that kind of visual, or Rajinder Puri’s are impossible to create.


The other aspect with language media, except in Malayalam, if you take any other language—Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, Hindi certainly, Urdu—these are cultures which are short on the fuse, and in fact, have a problem with certain kind of humour, particularly if it is a lampooning humour, they get prickly very fast, particularly the 'power' structures in these languages. They come down very heavily on someone who is ridiculing, who seems to be ridiculing. Unlike the English-reading audience which has a little more, you know, distanced idea of democracy, a little more tolerance of criticism, little more acceptance of free speech and all that. Whereas in most of the languages, they are like Khap Panchayats, they can get at you back very, very fast for anything that seems like outraging them, critiquing them. So the politicians therefore are very thin-skinned in these languages. So you find a cartoonist in these media, either they are almost not there, or if they are there, they address only social issues. They don’t go to political issues, and when they do, they are very good.


So when you go to the so-called vernacular, in the sense that you mean, then I think you find far sharper social comments. I remember one extremely, I mean I really enjoyed that. It was the famous Tamil magazine called Ananda Vikatan which in fact was fine with the idea of ridiculing and lampooning politicians and the elite and so on, and it has a lot humour and short stories and a large number of cartoons. So there is one (cartoon) which appears soon after the famous wedding that Jayalalitha conducted of her foster son with the actor Shivaji Ganesha’s granddaughter. The mega wedding, the huge amounts of money spent, public display, conspicuous consumption, and the way they had organized it. The procession for the wedding begins in a particular temple in an area called Adyar and over 800 to 1000 women, ostensibly belonging to both the families and their friends and well-wishers, in all sorts of finery, all sorts of silk sarees, very showy, zari borders and jewellery and a golden thali with lamps on it, golden lamps and all sorts of gold, walking across the bridge, the Adyar river bridge, up to the wedding point, which is about two kilometres away, so from the temple to that. It was a public procession, meant for the world to see, with well-known musicians lining the bridge, stationed at vantage points playing their nagaswaram or violin, all very well-known musicians lining the way, all of them commandeered for doing this: a huge show, huge tamasha. So what stood out was this extraordinary jewellery that everybody displayed, so the week after that, the Ananda Vikatan has this very interesting cartoon, and in the same week there occurred a full solar eclipse. There is that one moment when the earth is just moving away from the sun and that little glow comes first which is called the diamond ring—when there is a full solar eclipse, everybody waits for the diamond ring and then you can photograph it. So two days later the papers were full of images of that diamond ring in the sky. So there is this cartoon of Jayalalitha standing arm-in-arm with Sasikala her partner, whose nephew Jayalalitha had adopted as her foster son, whose marriage it was. And both of them were dripping jewellery in the cartoon. We see them, their backs are facing us, in the visual. Jewellery here, jewellery here, jewellery here, jewellery on the floor. They are watching the full solar eclipse, and the diamond ring is coming out, and Sasikala tells Jayalalitha, 'Akka, Akka, if you love me so much, get me that diamond ring'. So I think it makes its point. You don’t need to, after that, have an essay on the vulgar display of wealth, it makes its precise point. In Tamil language the cartoonists are adept at this thing, you know, catching the social nuances, but they won’t stray into a political area that easily because they know that they will get bashed up and attacked.


S.R.: Yes, and speaking of cartoonists who could merge the social with the political, I read that Maya Kamath could and a few others. Can you tell me about the work of women political cartoonists, primarily because one sees very little of that, of women working in the single panel space? There’s plenty in comics now, there is no dearth of that anymore, but I find that there are no women working in the political cartoon space. 


S.M.: Earlier this year there was a symposium in the Asian College of Journalism on cartooning. Well-known practitioners of the form had come, and this issue had come up, why there are no women cartoonists. You have Maya Kamath who is no more, and Manjula Padmanabhan who is not a full-time political cartoonist, she moved from that to strips and other types of drawing. So I floated a theory. The rhetorical question was, ‘Is it because women lack a sense of humour?’ A sexist statement, but on second thought, you can turn it on its head, by claiming that what we consider humour in our social context is almost all patriarchal. And the biggest guffaws come at the most sexist of statements. So for example when I said this, 'Is it because women lack a sense of humour?', the entire audience there in the room laughed. And I said, ‘This proves my point, that obviously it is a ridiculous statement that women lack a sense of humour, it is a sexist statement, but you laugh at it, you laugh uproariously at it. If I said men lack a sense of humour nobody will laugh, but moment I say women lack a sense of humour everybody laughs, so what, what is so funny about it?’ Because it is sexist, and sexism in humour is what makes it funny for a patriarchal society. Which is what keeps women away from that domain, you don’t catch women cracking jokes all that easily, narrating jokes all that easily, because almost all jokes have a regular sexist content. Even a Santa Banta joke is often sexist. So until change happens in patriarchy you won’t have a large number of women cartoonists or women humorists coming up.