A cartoon published by Kafi Khan (Courtesy: Dr Subhendu Dasgupta in his article ‘Orthonitir Arek Path’, Alumni Association of Calcutta University Department of Economics [AACUED], 2013)

In Conversation with Subhendu Dasgupta on Bengal's Anti-colonial Cartooning: ‘Each Cartoon was a Political Opinion’

in Interview
Published on: 22 June 2020

Srimati Ghosal

Srimati Ghosal is currently pursuing Modern South Asian Studies at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. She has a Masters degree in English Literature from Presidency University, Kolkata. Her interests include pop studies, media studies, visual studies and cultural studies of South Asia.

Dr Subhendu Dasgupta is a renowned economist and a former professor at the Department of South and South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta.

He took an early retirement to focus on his interest in popular art, cartooning and poster making, and turned to the neglected art of Bengali political cartoons. He won two consecutive grants (in 2007 and 2010) under the ‘Bengali Language Initiative’ of the Indian Foundation for the Arts to archive, document and write the history of political cartooning in West Bengal and Bangladesh. His work on the subject and his perspective as an economist helped develop the only existing archival documentation there is on political cartooning in Bengal. He later went on to convene the group Cartoondal which organised several exhibitions on cartoons from various eras in Bengal.

In this interview, he describes his journey as a pioneering academic in the field. He recounts his experience of establishing a long-neglected art form as a subject of academic investigationits joys and challenges. He talks about the untapped intellectual possibilities in the research of cartooning, the methodological approaches and, most importantly, the kind of thematic explorations that one might conduct in these vast archives.  

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Srimati Ghosal in Kolkata on September 15, 2019. The conversation happened in Bengali and was translated into English.

Srimati Ghosal: What sparked your interest to take up research in vernacular political cartooning? How did you relate to it as an economist? Did a form of art like political cartooning change the way you perceive political and economic studies?

Subhendu Dasgupta: I did my PhD in economics, but I taught at the department of South and South East Asian Studies of the Calcutta University. When I was a student, I used to do things like wall writing and poster making, so I had a background in political activism. I have worked on both those things later. While I have not drawn any caricatures myself, they [caricatures] are like posters—cartoons are extremely political. So, having worked in economics all my life, I decided to retire a little earlier at the age of 60 to work on things that were closer to my heart.

I applied to the IFA (the Indian Foundation for the Arts) and they gave me a two-year grant, which they extended with my growing body of work. That was, however, not really my starting point. The [South and South East Asian Studies] department in Calcutta University studied a number of countries like Bangladesh, Philippines, Thailand and Burma, and we were each responsible for one or two of them. I went to Bangladesh and discovered the ‘Tokai’ [a widely popular cartoon character in Bangladesh] cartoons, and when I met the creator of Tokai, Rafikul Nabi, I realised that economics finds a whole new language in cartoons. In Manila, again working with economics, I went hunting for cartoons and cartoonists. I also submitted a short paper to the Bengali Department [of Calcutta University] on cartooning in pre-Partition Bengal. Before that, cartooning was not really considered a subject of academic scrutiny, really. 

Cartoon is sadly neglected in the mainstream Bengali art world. I often compare this to Brahmanism and say that the fine arts are like the upper castes while cartoons, wall art and posters are the ‘oppressed’.

SG: Visual anthropology is a relatively young discipline. While undertaking the archiving process, what were the aspects on which you focussed? How did you organise the project and why? 

SD: There was, to begin with, no institution for studying cartoons. Art appreciation courses in formal colleges rarely study cartoons. Cartoons do not fall under the syllabi, even though the history of cartooning goes very far back, and every eminent artist has drawn cartoons, including Tagore. We published a web magazine called Cartoonpatra.in, where we featured an article on Tagore’s cartoons. Now we are looking for artists who painted in the style of caricature. My point is that cartooning has not been concentrated upon even for the best artists as studied in canons. There has been no coherent history of cartooning at all. Chandi Lahiri, Biswadeb Ganguly, Chandranath Chatterjee [cartoonists in post-colonial India] have made personal attempts to do so, out of their love for the art, but the history has never been a formal subject of study. Historians have largely neglected the history, but the entire history of cartooning can be documented in cartoons. 

As for the methodology, I followed none, and that is primarily because there is a huge technological challenge. The libraries do not have proper scanners, the rooms are poorly lit, and funds are so limited that it is nearly impossible to archive using photographs, since you cannot hire a professional photographer to do that. Much of my work is thus very scattered. I did not have as much experience in digitising either. I could not really sort out the archives even on bringing them back. Technology and fund crunch remained a crippling problem.

SG: The first cartoon published by the Indian vernacular press was in 1872. Do you think the art of political caricature is purely an import of the British Raj in India? Did the subcontinent have any precursor to the art of political caricature? 

SD: It is an import. It started with the British. The first vernacular Punch magazines published in Bengal, Harbhola and Basantak, were published the same year [1872] and these were responses to colonial oppression. They were talking back to the colonial masters who were trying to project us as objects of ridicule. Basantak and Harbhola started off as vocal protests, and cartoons, in my opinion, are always vocal protests. They are not simply lighthearted jokes, as is often perceived. At its very inception, cartooning illustrates a means to mock the establishment. Of course, with Gaganendranath Tagore, it reached an all new high. He started mocking individual British persons and even the anglicised Indian gentry.

If you follow artists like Kafi Khan, Shaila Chakraborty and Revathy Bhusan, you will notice how they bring out all the contemporary debates in the Indian nationalist struggle. You would not even have to read history. Unfortunately, no one worked with Kafi Khan seriously. [New Zealand-born British cartoonist] David Low has become such a sensation but [the similarly anti-establishment] Kafi Khan was largely ignored. As for the style, I do not have much expertise on the matter but I would contend that there is no ‘Indian’ or ‘British’ style. Culture like pata [patachitra] and katkhodai [form of folk art in Bengal] already existed in India, and would you call Gaganendranath Western? I doubt it. They each had a style of their own, but what is important to understand here is that the form of cartooning, speed of production, printing technology and the need to make fun of the subject determined the style heavily. These constraints helped cartoonists become unique.

SG: Cartoons make extensive use of wit and humor to make scathing political critiques of contemporary sociopolitical circumstances. For example, Chittoprasad covers the Bengal Famine in his works extensively. How far did wit and humour become established as political tools in India? 

SD: There were several attempts by the government to repress the art of cartooning through censorship. Why? If one is to assume that the art is not so influential, why would they stop it? Obviously, humour is one of the most effective political tools that exist, but did the political parties use cartoon sufficiently? No! Only political artists and newspapers used the power of this art form, and not all newspapers were run by people directly involved in politics! So, while the government and the newspapers knew of its capacity to influence, it is sad that neither mainstream art nor mainstream politics acknowledged it. I have always felt that cartoons were undermined, especially here [in Bengal]. Think of the way May '68 movement [student protests in France] used cartoon posters. Cartoonists in India worked with leftist inclinations and regularly took up socialist themes, but they remained outside the framework of leftist parties in the country. Even for the Congress, people like Shankar and other centrist cartoonists were never fully recognised.

SG: How would you assess the reach of cartoons as a visual media? Was it limited to the newspaper-reading upper-middle class or did cartooning help the greater masses join sociopolitical discourse?

SD: Cartoon is not only a newspaper phenomenon. It is not only published in many forms of periodicals, but each cartoon also gets reproduced in large quantities of print. I believe cartoons substantiated the news; while the reporter merely describes the events, the opinions are expressed by the cartoonist. You will notice Kafi Khan, Revathi Bhusan and Amal Chakraborty were all published on the very first page of the newspapers along with the headlines, not even the editor censored them. In fact, sometimes, the news article and the cartoon reflect two different opinions!  [Thus,] this [cartoon] was seen as a space to criticise. There were regular acts and laws passed to censor them but there were cartoons even against these bills—there are so many incidents where people lost their jobs because of this. Cartoonists always stood up against despotic tendencies. But then, only a limited set of people read cartoons. Cultivating a readership requires a certain amount of initiation, and cultural and social capital. The readership remained limited to a middle-class audience literate in political and social current affairs. Thus, while it was published widely, it was successfully read by only a few.

SG: Cartoonists were artists required to engage in sociopolitical issues. What were the ideological leanings of these cartoonists? Did the form of art limit the expression of ideological leanings? Especially, while discussing nationalism, did they tend to agree on debates around nationalism?

SD: Gagan [Gaganendranath] Tagore bought a press to publish cartoons. Each cartoon was a political opinion. Each historical event, figure and debate elicited a cartoon from the respective cartoonist. There was a difference of opinion; Shaila Chakraborty and Kafi Khan were, of course, opposed to each other about the issue of communalism, but both undoubtedly held strong opinions. Sufi’s [pen name of Bengali cartoonist Naren Ray] criticism of capitalism reveals a sharp understanding of it and Revathi Bhusan’s series, Byango Boithok dealt in detail with international politics. Gagan Tagore, Jyotindra Kumar Sen, Dinesh Das, all provide serious critiques of the establishment, but I cannot say that they were all indicative of one singular form of nationalism. The opinions were diverse but the criticism of the anglicised Indian was scathing.

SG: In your work Gaganendranath-er cartoon-e Hindutvabad, you specifically pick on the critiques he was expressing against contemporary Brahmanical society. Does this attempt to reform Hindu society form a crucial part of the anti-colonial struggle by the cartoonists?

SD: The Hindu nationalist movement finds a very strong critique in Bengali cartoons. The nationalist movement manifested in a number of ways, and Hindu nationalism was definitely a part of it, but no cartoonist ever really worked in favour of it, except for, maybe Shaila Chakraborty, and his critical reservations against the Muslim League. Anti-brahmanism was, of course, a part of the anti-colonial struggle. Most cartoonists were pushing for a modern liberal state and criticising Brahmanism was a part of that. See, at that point, it was an ongoing movement. It was a matter of practice before everything else, and the nationalist anti-colonial struggle found unflinching support among cartoonists. There were ideological differences, of course—in the Congress, in the Forward Bloc, etc.—but there was rarely ever a communal dispute. Brahmanism, patriarchy, capitalism, they were all critiqued. For instance, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury talks about the Dalit question too.

SG: In the same work, Gaganendranath Tagore highlights the plight of the colonised Hindu woman who suffered both at the hands of the colonial masters and the Hindu society. Do cartoons from colonial Bengal then sympathise more with the women’s plight than the print media?

SD: That is not entirely true. Women have been made fun of regularly. Gaganendranath Tagore and Jyotindra Sen are some exceptions, among others. Women’s liberation is rarely spoken about in these cartoons. Women are stereotyped and ridiculed on various accounts, such as the obsession of dressing up, the tendency to argue, to indulge in gossip, and so forth. The cartoonists did not even reflect on the need to ‘save’ women, not even a messiah complex, it was just plain ridicule. In fact, the radical progressive strain of Bengali cartooning legacy is at its weakest here.