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Political Cartooning: Footing into a New Ground

Online platforms are full of editorial cartoons… the era of newspaper cartooning is over. Indian editorial cartooning has entered the world of online platforms.

 Sorit Gupto | New Delhi |

Political Cartooning: That was somewhere in the early 90s. There was a panel discussion held in the Boimela or the Kolkata book fair where a number of famous Bangla cartoonists were invited for discussion. The topic of the discussion was ‘Relevance of cartoons in the newspaper’. Well, besides cartoonists other panel members included a senior journalist associated with a popular Bangla daily and a cartoon collector.

At that time the newspapers, both Bangla and English, stopped appointing cartoonists except one. In other words, most of the speakers of the panel discussion – the cartoonists – were essentially jobless. The only cartoonist associated with a newspaper was absent because of some health issues. These details are necessary because what was supposed to be a panel discussion on ‘Relevance of cartoons in the newspaper’, rapidly transformed into a grievance redressal event of the (jobless) cartoonists. There was a general agreement among the cartoonists that for a long time newspapers have simply stopped publishing editorial cartoons but they were clueless (almost) about why? But someone had to be blamed. Imagine who was held responsible for the joblessness of cartoonists? Bapi Chanachur (a dalmoth/mixture brand)!

Now, one may ask how a humble brand of dalmoth/mixture has anything to do with the art of cartooning in the first place. Well, according to the panel of the speakers (the cartoonists) it was this dalmoth/mixture brand whose advertisements were eating up the space for the cartoons!

Not only the viewers, even myself – as a young person struggling to become a political cartoonist – this was one of the greatest mysteries of the known universe. However, it’s also a fact that the speakers were once famous cartoonists but now they are unemployed.

What went wrong with the profession/art of political cartooning?

The answer is a little complicated because there is more than one factor associated with the absence of editorial cartoons in the newspapers. There are a hundred ways to tell this story. This one is mine.

Printing in general and printing of daily newspapers, in particular, is a European concept. The oldest direct handwritten news sheets circulated widely in Venice as early as 1566 carrying information on wars and politics in Italy and Europe. The Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, printed from 1605 onwards by Johann Carolus in Strasbourg, is often recognised as the first newspaper.

In India and even in Asia things were different. There were royal chroniclers or royal historians but the concept of the news presented in printed form for the consumption of the masses is completely an alien thing to Indian society.

The British brought the concept of Newspapers in India. Published for two years, between 1780 and 1782, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser, an English-language weekly newspaper published in Kolkata (then Calcutta), is claimed to be the first newspaper printed in India.

Newspaper, radio and film are considered to be the basic means of modern communication but there is a huge difference between newspaper, radio, and film. Take for example the technology of motion pictures. In 1888 England, Louis Le Prince of Leeds, Britain, filmed Roundhay Garden Scene, believed to be the first motion picture recorded and within fifteen years we had our own motion picture Raja Harishchandra.

The first voice and music signals heard over radio waves were transmitted in December 1906 from Brant Rock, Massachusetts (just south of Boston). In June 1923 the Radio Club of Bombay made the first ever broadcast in the country. The gap was just seventeen years.

But for the newspaper, we had to wait for more than a century. Why? Because of the widespread illiteracy. You don’t need a literate person to enjoy a radio programme or a film but for a newspaper, a literate person is a basic necessity.

Since the art of editorial cartooning is closely associated with the newspaper, one can’t expect an editorial cartoon without a newspaper. However, there were some art forms like Kalighat paintings where that ridiculed the contemporary social hypocrisies but their reach and influence were minuscules compared to a newspaper for all practical reasons.

Political/editorial cartooning was an integral part of a daily newspaper from its inception and it had its own reasons. Most importantly the reasons were purely technical. Nowadays we can’t imagine a big story/news in a newspaper without a photograph but historically things were completely different.

As a part of the content of the newspaper, the pictures are latecomers. To put things into a perspective, although publishing since 1664, the newspaper from Mantu (Italy), Gazzetta di Mantova is the oldest living newspaper in the world the first-ever photograph appeared in the newspaper on July 1st, 1848. The name of the newspaper was L’Illustration, a French weekly periodical that published a photograph that showed Parisian streets barricaded due to a worker’s strike known as the June Days Uprising. In other words, the newspapers had to wait for roughly two centuries to print a photograph. This late entry of a picture in a newspaper was due to undeveloped (printing) technology.

But again the all-text newspapers were simply boring to the readers. At that juncture, the art of cartooning came to the rescue. Unlike a photograph (having halftones) cartoons were essentially line drawings and that’s why it is much easier to print. The first cartoon appeared in Ben Franklin’s newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754 entitled “Join, or Die,” depicting the eight colonies as a snake divided in eight pieces.

As a matter of fact, editorial cartooning had served two purposes for a newspaper. Being an image it broke the monotony of the text-heavy page and at the same time being an art form innately capable of ridiculing the powerful it had a popular demand among the readers. Soon cartoons became the most important content of the front page of the newspapers and the readers got cartoonists like Honoré Daumier, Rube Goldberg, Thomas Nast, James Thurber to name a few.

The high stature of the editorial cartoonists continued for the next one hundred and fifty years or so. Not a small time for any profession at all. Isn’t it? However, this profession saw a number of challenges. In India the most severe attack was the emergency when even newspapers were banned let alone publishing cartoons. But the irony is this was the time, India witnessed some of the finest editorial cartoons of all time.

But this scenario was about to change soon after the last decade of the twenty-first century and the onslaught came not in the form of some ‘chanachoor manufacturer’ but from the advancement of the printing technology combined with a number of softwares. By the last decades of the 20th century, we got a number of graphic software and offset printing which enabled us to print pictures easily. First, it started with black & white pictures and thanks to the rapid development in printing technology newspapers were able to print colour pictures within a decade. It was like a revolution and like most revolutions it was a bloodbath for a section of the newspaper professionals.

With the revolution in the technology in the newspaper something very untoward (or the obvious thing) had happened. The editorial cartoonists who were ruling the roost were suddenly shown the door. Though it was very unexpected for the cartoonists but equally obvious for a newspaper. Why?

The new technology enabled the newspapers to print pictures which enhanced the news value of the story. Can we imagine a sporting event without a picture? No. It’s true with any other subject. A picture is much more desirable for the newspaper. If it costs the job of a cartoonist it would be a very little price for the newspaper and they were more than ready to pay the bill. Interestingly, the software that put an end to the profession of the cartoonists also ate up other professions associated with the newspapers like pesters, page makers, and proofreaders to name a few. Nonetheless like any revolution in history it also created something absolutely new. For the first time we came to know someone named designers, creative directors, creative heads, etc. Till the last decades of the twentieth century, the design of the page was the last thing to consider but thanks to these software and the ability to print colour pages, availability of different fonts, etc. the aspect of the design and the look of the newspaper took the centre stage.

Though it’s a different story altogether. Let’s return to the profession of cartooning.

We know that the first massive attack on the Indian press was the emergency, but we seldom acknowledge the fact that the time of emergency was one of the finest time periods for the art of cartooning. We experienced some of the boldest and most beautiful cartoons during turbulent times of emergency. The momentum Indian editorial cartooning gained during the emergency continued till the last decade of the twenty-first century. The decade of the 90s is a watershed moment for modern history. This was the decade when we experienced the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the cold war and changing of world politics from a bipolar world into a mono-polar world with a hegemony of the US as a nation. The market economy established itself as the only ‘economic thought’. That was the time when the end of history was declared.

In domestic politics in India, the 90s was the era when after a series of political turmoil, economic liberalisation was introduced. It was also the decade of the destruction of the Babri Masjid which unleashed a new paradigm in Indian politics. The profession of cartooning thrives in the vibrant political scenario and needless to say every big change in the political canvas both on the national scale and the international scale eventually resulted in a new scope for political cartoonists. Going by the development mentioned above one may assume that the 90s onwards was the golden period for political cartooning in India but sadly the reality was completely different on the practical ground because during the last decade of the 21st century new technology and design software were introduced and soon the cartoonists were dethroned.

Soon cartoonists were transformed into ‘endangered’ species if not ‘extinct species’ like their pester, type-setter and proofreader colleagues.

However, this tide was changed with the advent of online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and last but the most important gadget the smartphone. There was a time when a set of technology devastated the art form of editorial cartooning, but it is another set of technology that has given a new life to editorial cartoonists. Now, they don’t have to get approval from an editor to publish their cartoons. With just a click of the mouse, s/he can share the cartoons with the whole world. Besides this, there is another advantage with this art form, that is, different cartoonists may develop a cartoon on a common topic but no two cartoonists will come up with the same idea. Moreover, no two cartoonists will draw a character, any politician the same. Every cartoonist has his/her own style and own pattern of thinking. These two factors make a cartoon absolutely exclusive. Contrary to Narendra Modi or for that matter any individual will look the same in every photograph irrespective of who the photographer is. That is another reason why social sites are flooded with cartoons nowadays. Social sites also provide no restrictions for a cartoonist, at least directly.

There are a number of Dos and Don’ts for a cartoonist working with a newspaper. Restrictions are sometimes direct and most of the time indirect. Have you ever noticed that the face of the PM is not there in the cartoon anymore? It’s ridiculous, to say the least because it’s the PM or the President of the country who is always supposed to be the prime target of the cartoonists. Strange enough nowadays, these are the Opposition leaders who are getting more and more space in the cartoon than the PM or other leaders of the ruling party. This abnormality is the new normal in the organised newspaper sector. The story is completely different in the unorganised information sector.

This little space is enjoying the freedom of expression like never before. Not only that, common people/readers share these cartoons making them viral. Online platforms are full of editorial cartoons. To cut a long story short, the era of newspaper cartooning is over. Indian editorial cartooning has entered the world of online platforms. However, things are not that easy. We need to develop a viable revenue model. There are some revenue models like subscriptions that are gaining ground.

Only time will tell what will happen in the future, I am more than sure that now no cartoonist (or a group of cartoonists) will blame some Bapi chanachoor for his unemployment. Welcome to the open market of online space. We the cartoonists have managed to get our permanent space in this super big bazaar. Now, we have to develop a strategy to sell our product.

(Sorit Gupto is Chief Cartoonist in Down to Earth Magazine)