Like the Shakespearian jester in the royal court, the art of cartooning has been a quintessential disruptor in the symposium of fine arts. However, the cartoon has created a parallel path outside mainstream art history with its simplistic tools of visual communication and courage to confront with humour. During the advance of print media and independent publishing, cartoons attracted a lot of artists and made an enthusiastic audience base due to their popular appeal. In the colonized Bengal, with the uprising of the independent presses, political cartooning emerged as a vital tool on the onslaught of a socio-cultural and political revolution. Starting from the caricatures published by Harbola Bhand and Basantak in the 1870s, the art form flourished through the journey of Bengali periodicals and newspaper editorials.
In his 1997 essay 'Cartoons of the Raj', Partha Mitter mentions that a cartoon published in the Bengali newspaper Sulav Samachar in the 1870s stirred Bengal's political air significantly. The cartoon highlighted a glaring display of oppression, making a case for poorer Indians assaulted by the colonizers to the extent of meeting their death. "The cartoon shows a dead coolie with his wife weeping next to him. A European doctor conducts a perfunctory post mortem while the offender stands nonchalantly smoking a cigar. The cartoon, with its suggestion of collusion between European authorities and the offenders, was one of the seditious pieces that provoked the Raj into imposing vernacular press censorship in 1878." (Mitter quoted in Basu, Chowdhury, 2021)
But despite such impositions, Bengali cartoons rose to further prominence, with cartooning becoming an act of resistance. Professor Subhendu Dasgupta who took up the large project of retrieving the history of Bengali cartoon, writes, "Bangla cartoon begins with a fight. A fight of art against the oppressor, a fight of political art, a political fight. We should not forget this part. Why am I saying so? Because nowadays I think we often confuse cartoon with simple humour'– here prof Dasgupta draws a line between simple funnies and political satire where humour serves a higher purpose to reveal a truth guarded by power. In Bengal, as history speaks, the cartoon is an art form where we see the boundary between art and activism dissolve. Hence, Prof Dasgupta remarks further, 'Why do we need to see and draw Bengali political cartoons? What is the necessity? There's an ample of reasons…For example, the entire political and economic history of the country has been narrated through cartoons, and we can understand it by a thorough study of the medium.' (Dasgupta, 2018)
A cartoonist is distinguished by their dual role as an artist and a dissenter. Through a cultural synthesis of art and activism, cartoons gained their popularity as mass media. Starting from mid 19th century and continuing till the early 20th century, backed by independent print media, cartoons occupied a significant portion of Bengal's cultural conversation.
The Tagore family, whose exceptional contribution spearheaded Calcutta's cultural scene, also bestowed Bengal with its first cartoonist, Gaganendranath Thakur (Tagore). His cartoons blur the boundaries between the comic and the grotesque, the sublime and the ridiculous, the profound and the flippant. Gaganendranath's humorous take on 'westernization attempts' of Bengali elite, religious corruption, gender issues, colonialism, etc., reflects the early birth pangs of a self-reflexive nationalist cosmopolitan." (Basu, Chowdhury, 2021) Gaganendranath, who was a sympathizer of Anushilon Samiti of Bengal, in one of his cartoons, depicts the comprador nature of the Indian religious nationalism to the British Raj; this reveals Gadanandranath's discontent against the British political and Hindu religious hegemony over Indian society.
Prafulla Chandra Lahiri, the cartoonist famously known as Piciel and later Kafi Khan, left his job as the professor of history and civics in Feni College, Noakhali, Bangladesh and came to Calcutta to try his luck as a full-time cartoonist. After the initial struggle, Amrita Bazaar, the leading broadsheet, hired him, and he also contributed regularly to Bengali Jugantar, which made him a household name. He created the cartoons of famous political leaders like Gandhi, Jinnah, Bose, and others with unflinching determination. "One famous example is the cartoon that came out the morning after Gandhiji's assassination, capturing the reactions of various factions surrounding the body. While Muslims in India were shedding copious tears and non-Muslims in Pakistan were filled with despair, officials at United Nations were torn between shock and anxiety." (Basu, Chowdhury, 2021). He also made caricatures of international leaders like Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini, and others, expressing his insight into regional and world politics at its minute details.
Post-Independent Bengal experienced a significant influx in the number of cartoonists who consistently voiced the heated contemporary political issues. Amongst them were Ramkrishna Bhaduri, Sukumar Raychaudhuri, Reboti Bhusan Ghosh, PKS Kutty, Chandi Lahiri and Amal Chakraborty, each made a substantial mark on Bengal's cultural history with their unique brand of witticism. It is a period that can be compared with the burning of firewoods litting up to its maximum potential just before dying; the simultaneous presence of these cartoonists also manifests the widespread dissent in the pan-Indian political landscape.
However, the one hundred and fifty years history of political cartooning in Bengal is now on the verge of its disappearance. From the 1980s onwards, with advertisements engulfing the space in the independent periodicals and newspapers, Bengali cartoons too have become an element of the nostalgic past, an interest of the cultural anthropologists. In the early Independent years, the predominance of Indian cartoonists reflects the nation's political reality through their works. Historically speaking, the gradual eclipse of cartoons as a means of reflecting the nation's political reality points towards a sovereign space where the freedom of mind and speech are restricted. Today, such a rich legacy of Bengali cartoons lives through the work of Uday Deb, editorial cartoonist of Times of India, who repeatedly questions the hegemony of the dominant group and resist the gradual subjugation of freedom and democracy.
Dasgupta, Subhendu. (2018). Banglay Rajnoitik Cartoon niye du charte elomelo kotha. Cartoon Pottor. Kolkata
Dasgupta, Subhendu. (2017). Gaganendranath Thakurer Cartoon-e hindutwabad. Boipottor. Kolkata
Basu, Rituparno. (2018). Banglar Shilpi (6) Profullachandra Lahiri Rebotibhushan Ghosh. Udvas. West Bengal. India
Basu, Rituparno. Chowdhury, Sayandeb (2021). Caricature colonialism and 19th Centuty Bengal. Illustrated humour in bengal. Ambedkar University. Delhi
Basu, R. and Chowdhury, S. (n.d.). Illustrated Humour In Bengal. [online] humourinbengal.info. Available at: https://humourinbengal.info/practitioners/ [Accessed 9 Feb. 2022].
Image credit: Illustrated humour in Bengal
Acknowledgement : Rituparno Basu ( Cartoonist, writer based in Kolkata)