The Power of a Pencil Stroke


Stuti Bagrecha and Sandra Phillips say cartoonists mould essential public debate

IF PICTURES say a thousand words, cartoons do more — they garner attention. A beautiful and witty way of expressing thoughts, ideas and opinions, cartoons are both adored and abhorred. Adored because they give a reason to laugh freely and abhorred because they have the power to criticise the government and society. Not only democracies but dictators too fear the strokes of the cartoonist.

Often, a fine comic stroke can accomplish what an editorial of a 1,000 words cannot. India has had a number of intelligent cartoonists who were also brilliant editorial and creative writers, such as Shankar, OV Vijayan, Abu Abraham, Kutty and Rajinder Puri. We might have adopted the art of political and social satire from the British, but have gradually developed our own style. In this context, the Late K Shankar Pillai can be considered the father of Indian cartooning.

A country’s freedom can be judged by its cartoonists. Cartoons have the ability to mould public opinion. It isn’t just about tickling the funny bone, but about directing attention to the follies of our leaders and of society. Critical political events have been covered through an image and a telling comment. Abu, through his cartoons in the Indian Express in the early 1970s, expressed the steady transformation of Indira Gandhi from an innocent entrant to the fearsome authoritarian of the Emergency years. RK Laxman traced the trajectory of LK Advani from the moment he got on to his van tricked up as a rath in 1989 to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.

Of course, cartoonists too have to be careful. Cartoonists and journalists all over the world face threats of torture and even death for voicing their opinions a little too blatantly. And then, there are the pressures of marketing. Still, cartoons often present hard truths in a palatable form. Who better understands the joys and agonies of the Indian in the street than RK Laxman’s ‘Common Man’? The character has animated the stark realities of our society. As the quote goes, “a cartoon helps us to laugh at ourselves, to look into our tribulations and thus happens to be a mirror of the society we live in”.

Bagrecha and Phillips study at the Amity School of Communication,
Amity University.
E-mail: [email protected]