This, that and other cartoons: Prabhat Kumar


I wish to intervene in the ruckus over usage of Shankar’s cartoon in the NCERT’s political science text book. At the outset I want to clarify my personal impression (although inconsequential!) of the book and the cartoon therein. I feel the textbook in general is pedagogically superior to the previous ones for it does not infantilise young students as lacking critical ability. I also believe, as Aditya Nigam has rightly pointed out, it has accorded Ambedkar the status of a leading political and intellectual figure so far ignored. The cartoon in particular, both in the context of the narrative of the textbook as well as of its production in 1949, is not attacking Ambedkar the crusader of Dalits’ rights.

Having made my personal position explicit, I shall drag the discussion in a direction which may throw some light on the peculiarity of this art-form popularly called cartoon, its reading or misreading and, if possible, on political significance of cartooning in a democratic society. (Sadan Jha in his reply to Aditya Nigam’s post has briefly commented on this.) As a student of history of satirical production in colonial India I have learnt that satire (whether verbal, literary or visual) is a form of humorous discourse; a discourse which simultaneously draws upon many pre-existing narratives and fills them with a well known subject matter which are often multifaceted and contested; it carries and communicates multiple meanings without being bounded by the normal rules of linearity. Structurally, a satirical text is unlikely to remain closed; it is mostly open. It defies closure and mostly remains inimical to communicating a singular meaning. I shall substantiate my arguments on the basis of two cartoons, both made by Shankar. First one is “Constitution”, which we all have seen. The second is “Varnasharam”, which most of us have not seen and is not in high circulation now. It features Ambedkar and deals directly with the question of caste. Let us first read these two cartoons closely.

The cartoon “Constitution” without any accompanying explanatory commentary, needless to say, is easily recognisable to its viewers. For this was a well known and widely discussed subject: the making of Indian constitution and alleged delay in its completion when the country is eagerly waiting to become a sovereign republic. Shankar captures this issue with all its complexity and contradiction. Invoking and drawing from the imagery of the famous phrase “snail’s pace” the cartoon depicts a huge snail named constitution. This snail is like a huge carriage in itself on which a driver is sitting holding a whip and a bridle. A man from behind is also whipping. An ocean of men, women and children, by extension, the entire Indian nation is amusingly looking at this spectacle.

Clearly, Ambedkar, the chairman of the draft committee of Indian constitution, holding a whip and a bridle in each hand and gazing at the snail’s head is shown as the person who like the driver of a (horse or bullock) cart is trying hard to drive fast. Nehru, the executive head of the interim government, is shown as standing beside the snail with a whip in his hand. Nehru’s action has an element of ambiguity. One reading could be that he is gazing down and whipping at the beast with full force. Action of Ambedkar and Nehru together invokes one of the most common sights of driving a cart with lazy or tired horse or bullock not ready to move further and faster: One person sitting on the cart and trying to control the beast while another standing and whipping at them to move ahead. In another reading (if we do not give any significance to Nehru’s gaze and body-action), Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, is driving the slow-moving cart of constitution and Nehru (the executive head) whipping his subordinate. In the first reading, then, the nation is laughing at the desperation and failure of Nehru and Ambedkar together on the completion of constitution. In the second reading also nation is laughing but here a desperate Nehru is whipping his subordinate minister who is himself trying hard to finish the drafting of constitution. In both the readings what is consistently important is that constitution is like a snail. In the language of the cartoon ‘constitution as snail’ is the organisational principle which holds the cartoon together. In this language what is implicit and insinuated is that a snail cannot move faster even if someone whips it or its driver. If we pay attention to the size of represented object (as size is often crucial in the art of cartoon making which frequently relies on the techniques of exaggeration and diminution), representation of constitution as disproportionately huge snail becomes significant. It adds yet another layer of meaning in the cartoon. For its size is simultaneously suggestive of the irony of the megalomaniacal project. The task of drafting a document like Indian constitution is huge and thus is bound to move with snail’s pace. An Ambedkar or a Nehru could hardly speed up the matter on his own, no matter how much an enthusiastic and impatient nation smirks. Shankar’s “Constitution”, thus, encodes this complex political reality in a single visual frame which remains open in communicating more than one meaning simultaneously.

This cartoon was first published in ‘The Hindustan Times’ in 1933 and was later republished in the Telugu newspaper ‘Krishna Patrika’. Courtesy: Young cartoonist Unnamati Syama Sundar’s Facebook wall. See his M.Phil. dissertation on Telugu cartoons in colonial India submitted at JNU, New Delhi.

Likewise, in the second cartoon Shankar depicts the caste politics with all its nuances and complexities. On the broad and solid foundation of Varnashram rests the sculpture/deity of Hinduism. Riding on the foundation stone are M. K. Gandhi and M. K. Acharya. While Acharya, the orthodox Hindu leader, is shown as painting the deity of Hinduism with dark colour, Gandhi, the reformist Hindu leader, is shown as cleansing its face. Ambedkar, on the contrary, is shown as standing away and hitting at Hinduism’s foundation stone Varnasharam with a hammer. A British man is happily watching this spectacle from a distance.

Varnashram” renders a political subject matter in the language of architecture. Shankar depicts so aptly a constellation of ideology and politics around differently shared sociological reality –Hinduism exists on the huge foundation of varna/caste hierarchy. Needless to say, this view was shared by reformists, conservatives and radicals alike. Difference only lay in their prescription to solve social problem around this issue. In the cartoon each one is shown to be active according to his political conviction. The organising principle of the cartoon is obviously Varnashram. Size of the foundation is vividly depicted as broad and rock-solid which not only withholds the edifice of Hinduism but also placates leaders like Gandhi and Acharya. Gandhi is shown as sanitising Hinduism against Acharya’s opposite attempts. Both are standing on the foundation of varna-heirarchy. Their spatial location in the cartoon is suggestive of their ideological position. Both in their own ways not only had refrained from questioning but had justified the ideology of varnashrama. Ambedkar, who stood for annihilation of caste, is portrayed as hammering at this very rock-solid foundation. His action thus shown, has all the potentials to destroy the discriminatory ideology. (I say potential because, as the graphic shows, his blow has created a jolt but has not yet been able to break it.) Moreover, the cartoon insinuates that as a consequence of his action the edifice of Hinduism is bound to be affected. The visual also instigates another layer of meaning if we relook at the positions of various protagonists in the cartoon. At both the levels, literal as well as symbolic, political action and stand (on varnashrama) of people like Gandhi or Acharya is fragile and threatened by the action of Ambedkar. The British man, by extension the colonial state, is shown to be outside the activity zone. But he is not portrayed as a disinterested bystander rather as the one who is involved with and amused at this spectacle. Varnasharam, thus, simultaneously illustrates a variety of political positions, their mutual relationships with all contradictions on a contested issue of caste and Hindu social reform in humorous manner.

The point of doing a close reading of the two cartoons is to highlight the significance of the art of cartooning which captures a slice of historical-political moment with all its complexity and contradiction and lays bare the multiplicity of positions and polyphony around an issue, without falling prey to linear narrative’s compulsions which communicates a singular and fixed meaning.  In the wake of current controversy what has happened is that the cartoon has been read selectively by privileging one meaning over many others and there has been a refusal to appreciate the fact that critical polyphony is the characteristic feature of the humorous art of cartooning. In principle it is easy to say that critical polyphony, which is and should be so central to the democratic praxis, can only be perceived as dangerous and thus attacked by the practitioners of a politics which is undemocratic and intolerant of differing voices and alternative readings. The matter becomes more complicated in the present context over the reading of the first cartoon “Constitution”. There is no political or moral merit in defending the actions of the votaries of populist Dalit politics (they have been given genuine rebuttal by many Dalit and leftist intellectuals like Hari Narke, Harish Vankhede, etc. I also do not see any good reason to entertain those who clearly infantilise the young students and refer them as impressionable minds. I do want to engage with and pose questions to the intellectual position which has come from a section of Dalit activists like Anoop, and a group of leftist-democratic student and academics (of which I also assume to be a part). In effect, both the groups have basically argued to reconsider its inclusion in the text book (read withdrawal) but not without reasoned discussion and deliberation. Both concede that this cartoon’s original intent in its both contexts, when it was made in 1949 or they way it is reproduced in the text book are important to consider, yet that is not the prime issue now. To phrase it differently, a cartoon may want to speak something but what is important is not the text but its reception. It does not matter what and whether a cartoon can speak for itself, but how certain sections of people may receive or have received it, especially those who have been historically marginalised muted and discriminated and continue to remain so. (Needless to say, reception by right-wing formations, can be comfortably and legitimately dismissed both at moral as well as political level.)

According to the first argumentative position of concerned Dalit activists, thus, the prime issue is not the critical awareness of context and complexity of the cartoon in its entirety but the fear of its selective reading (Ambedkar, the Dalit, is responsible for delay in the drafting of constitution and hence is being whipped by Nehru, the Brahmin) in the extended context of classrooms dominated by upper-caste ethos which may denigrate Ambedkar the icon of lower caste people and cause humiliation of lower caste students. For the second position of left-democratic students and academics too, which acknowledges the context of aroused political consciousness of Dalits and heartily welcomes their ability to make their own assent or dissent in matters of their representation, the prime issue is not the critical awareness of context and complexity of the cartoon in its totality. It fears the same selective reading and reception (even beyond the context of class room) in the additional context of wider public sphere, where anti-Dalit prejudice is so common. Without dismissing this predicament of fear, I cannot help but to think aloud further. Is the authorial/editorial context and intentions of (re)production of cartoon so fragile and redundant that we assume that a reader can only see what h/she wants to see as if the author is dead? Is multiplicity and ambiguities of meaning encoded in the text of cartoon so difficult to be processed by its reader? We all agree over this that the text book does not spoon feed readymade gyan; it encourages critical ability of the students to think on their own especially on matters of caste and gender; it highlights the significance of Ambedkar’s action and ideas. Are we, then, assuming that Dalit students of class XI may lack critical faculty and cannot appreciate the complexity of cartoon and its context; and so will be unable to counter the ridicule of prejudiced upper-caste fellow students in the classroom? Instead of exposing them to counter the unreasonable prejudices on their own, aren’t we being overprotective? How is this stand different from those who undermine or even question their capacity of reasonable thinking? What is the entire point of teaching social sciences? Isn’t it to question the received common sensical understanding and inculcate the ability to fathom the complexity of a subject matter including a deep understanding of multiple entangled and messy contexts of any issue? If this is so, aren’t we doing the opposite and being inconsistent when we brush aside the question of context and intent? Are we also (unconsciously) playing to the gallery of Dalit-populists which is reducing Ambedkar’s critical and radical ideas to a farce?

(Prabhat Kumar is a PhD student, Department of History, SAI, University of Heidelberg.) The article was first published on KAFILA

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