For 80 years, Parsee Punch was the scourge of the pompous and powerful. How we need that subversive spirit now, says Geeta Doctor
DO LITTLE people laugh the loudest? Is there a hierarchy of humour that traditionally allowed minority communities to mock and mimic their superiors? In medieval Europe, the festival of fools had marginalised individuals parade down the streets, wearing the emblems of priests and princes as Victor Hugo’s famous story The Hunchback of Notre Dame portrayed with Quasimodo, the hunchback.
Looking through the pages of black and white cartoons culled from the pages of the Parsee Punch that started publication in July 1854 and survived all the way to the 1930s, with an erudite commentary by Mushirul Hasan, one is struck by how sharp and pointed some of these barbs could be. Even Mr Punch would be booed off the pages of today’s politically sensitive media. As portrayed in these pages, he not only looks like a caricature of your stereotypical bawaji, he could easily be called Mr Punchboy Jokerjee; he sports a pronounced hump, as exaggerated as the hooked nose under his black Parsee pugree.
The resemblance is not only to a Parsee, given the Indian context, but also to that archetypal outsider, the European Jew of the Middle Ages, immortalised by the Shylock image. It makes us ask, was The Merchant of Venice to be read as a comedy in which the now tragic figure of Shylock would have been jeered off the stage by a Shakespearean audience conditioned to bigotry? What’s interesting is to note that members of both communities, the Jews and the Parsees have been on the forefront of taking on the establishment in print, on the stage and in films, creating a role for themselves as the fast-talking irreverent fools and jesters of modern society. In the context of the uproar caused by the debate on the Ambedkar cartoon, who can forget the larger-than-life presence of a Piloo Mody in the Indian Parliament, throwing darts of infinite wit and sarcasm at the ‘topiwallas’ as the Congress was known in those days? Compared to the level of engagement on politically sensitive issues of the Parliamentarians of that era, today’s shouts and roars of exaggerated abuse appear to be more like the jeering of street mobs.
As Hasan observes, the cartoon works at different levels, much as fairytales and legends do. There is an obvious immediate reference to a given situation, as in the case of the Ambedkar cartoon.
What is also of immense interest in the collection is to notice how far and wide the subjects ranged from the affairs of the Khedive in Egypt, to those of the last emperor in China, not to mention the sad state of affairs in Afghanistan and the annexation of Burma with the help of Indian soldiers.
To quote from the Parsee Punch: “A comic journal plays a good part in the development of the political and social reform of a country and it shall be always our aim and desire to advance that end.”
One has to be wise before one can be witty.