30 October 2015
Modernity and difference in a recent book on political cartoons in India.
Ritu Gairola Khanduri’s book Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World (2014) is a pioneering study of the rich and complex history and artistic concerns of the newspaper cartoon in India. Consistent among its multiple objectives – part history, part ethnography and part personal journey – is an attempt to map an alternative historiography of the nation by archiving cartoons. The author applies the terms ‘tactile’ and ‘tactical’ to refer to the humour and politics associated with cartooning. These terms describe a way of understanding lived experience. In the postcolonial world, Khanduri seems to imply, the universal structure of capital is only available as caricature. The author sees in this the potential for oppositionality, a reason that is visceral, where we are able to make use of all our senses. This allows everyone to become an expert critic.
There are two key questions regarding the role of humour and caricature in the Subcontinent, which Khanduri’s book does not raise directly and yet forces us to ask: first, the question of labour or class relative to vernacular agency (derived from notions of a communitarian identity) and, second, the fate of difference or alterity in an age of global capitalism. The book assumes that the rich and diverse modalities of being in the Subcontinent cannot be explained through class analysis. Her important contribution to the study of Indian humour brings out key questions of difference and totality in understanding cultural and social opposition, helping to elucidate what is at stake in the debate between Marxist and postcolonial theories of culture.
Khanduri uses some unconventional sources to map the field. A large part of her archive is non-traditional and emerges out of her research process. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s extensive paraphrasing and translation of English cartoons for his South African Indian Opinion and Gujarati publications, and the vernacular press reports on the many Hindi Punch versions (regarded as a source of colonial anxiety for its ‘insurgent’appropriation of the content of the British Punch), may be seen as the traditional, textual archive. The research was conducted over ten years, and the bulk of the sources emerge from wide-ranging interviews with cartoonists, fans and activists, gossip, and a discussion of cartoon controversies – a project impossible without the direct intervention of the ethnographer-author.
Khanduri presents herself as an interpreter rather than a translator. While translation implies the possibility of finding the same meaning in another language, interpretation leaves the field open to speculations since exact correspondences are not necessary. Self-reflexivity becomes a useful tool to navigate this untranslatable field, as one can say things without being held accountable to objective truth, while yet being able to gesture toward a shared cultural ethos. Khanduri seems to be both at home and not quite at home in this. For instance, she tells of how she brings packets of sweets to the homes of the people she interviews, showing herself to be actively complicit in representing their worldview, and creating bonds of familiarity and friendship. Such personal accounts, while seeming sometimes random, foreground her subjectivity, and are also calculated to show that things are always mediated by the unique codes and conventions of a culture. However, the fact of mediation is not without individual agency. Khanduri is keen to show that these mediated responses are a testimony to the enviable autonomy with which people approach life within a market. Mediation then becomes something akin to bargaining skills.
The book frames its argument through visual-culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff’s formulation: as a collision, intersection and interaction between visuality 1 (“capital’s picturing of the world”) and visuality 2 (“that which cannot be commodified or disciplined”). Visuality 2 stands for a counter-hegemonic interpretive community, rendering the liberal ideas of Europe partial and parochial. In other words, while the abstract and the everyday may be seen as separate currents, the two are in a critical dialogue, the latter always poised to consume and destroy the former.
In tandem with this consuming/consumerist thrust, Khanduri conceives of cartoons as a cluster or ensemble that affords a tactile and tactical viewing, generating “laughter, hurt, and political thought”. Cartoons as an ensemble might provoke a tactile reception, but the form of the 20th century newspaper cartoon, especially the front-page pocket cartoon, with its political commentary, is perhaps unique among the many forms of visual mass culture in eliciting an intellectual response, one that demands a level of abstraction not necessarily required when one is browsing through other items of the newspaper. So in the midst of a distracted reading of the newspaper headlines, the cartoon stands out for its almost auratic presence. Much like its counterpart in the comic medium, its abstract figures and economy of words constitute a unified language striving towards a conceptual legibility. Khanduri’s use of the phrase ‘tactile modernity’ tends to emphasise the sensuous dimensions of the world in which the cartoon is placed, at the expense of the self-contained and modernist form of the cartoon itself.
Tactical modernity, inspired by the French scholar Michel de Certeau, reveals the methodology for negotiating this extended world of the cartoon. It highlights the ingenuity of the consumers who are able to decode the newspaper cartoon by going against the grain of its modernist core. Both tactile and tactical modernity thus refer to oblique modes of approaching an artwork, from aspects other than its formal coherence. At its heart is the affirmative principle of native agency or artistry, applicable to both the cartoonist as well as those who read cartoons. At the same time, this ability of the native to have a laugh is mediated by a negative understanding of ‘sense of humour’; in the colonial view, Khanduri argues, having a sense of humour is regarded as a sign of modernity, and natives are thought to be low on this particular faculty. The colonial view is countered not by positing native humour in its place, but by subverting the very notion of ‘sense of humour’ itself. A sense of humour is then revealed to have a liberal provenance, a form of cultural capital that tyrannises the non-Western or vernacular world with the anxiety of living up to a universal gold standard.
The book’s goal seems to be to raise a vigilant eye on determined ways of seeing, which have historically been discriminatory towards a group or community. While humour is viewed from the vantage point of questioning privilege, we do not come across any instances in the book where the intersecting lines of humour/privilege between different communities actually become entangled, disrupting a reified understanding of ‘Dalit’, ‘woman’, etc.
Even as Khanduri champions the paradigm of the particular or situated knowledge, we find that it is hard to escape the universal, especially when the discussion inadvertently turns to formal aspects of the cartoon. For instance, when Gandhi tries to educate his vernacular readers by paraphrasing various cartoons selected from the British Punch, his purpose is to impart something more than the mere content of the cartoons. He wants to convey the secrets of the British colonial mind hidden in the gestures, affect, and disposition of the figures of generals and politicians. This attempt to paraphrase, of course, provides an extra interpretive layer. But it can also be seen as trying to grasp a total meaning, like a total translation. Despite the disavowal of translatability, this need to nevertheless grasp the immanent whole resonates through Khanduri’s readings as well.
R K Laxman, a firm believer in the modernity of the cartoon form, rejects the idea of cartoons as vernacular: “You have to be literate to understand [cartoons], I don’t see vernacular cartoons.” Presumably in his understanding an illiterate or semiliterate vernacular audience can access visual messages only in a subliminal manner, whereas the language of cartoons is incomplete without verbal mediation. His cartoons moreover represent a negative worldview in which, as he puts it, “sense of humor does not give hope. It has nothing to do with it.” Khanduri finds Laxman’s negativity ironic since his anti-official discourse is celebrated, not proscribed, and paradoxically for her, he becomes trustworthy only through depictions of public distrust. Khanduri sees this contradiction as expressive of a corrupt logic, in which the negative will invariably turn into its opposite. While this twisted logic confirms Laxman’s status in the vernacular culture, it also offers negativity as something to be wary of.
Even though extra license is granted to cartoons by the Press Council of India (PCI), cartoons cannot escape their institutional locus, and tend to function very much within protocols of self-censorship and civic decency. As a result, humour turns into a self-contradictory vantage point, which, while allowing the cartoonist the right of critique, also fosters the need to blunt that critique, by drawing attention to itself as a joke. To my mind, it is not Laxman’s negativity that fails, but the fact that he is not negative enough. It is definitely not the case that he is successful or assimilated because of his negative vision.
Again, Khanduri’s case for the vernacular cartoon constantly shifts between different logics. It signals compromise (with the universal) in some instances, heroic agency (despite the universal) in others, and a reverential attitude (seen as ultimate rejection of the universal), in still others. For those male iconic cartoonists such as K Shankar Pillai and Laxman, who espouse a universalist language of modern scientific nationalism, it is shown as compromise all the way down the line. For Khanduri, it is their self-avowed modernity that makes them vernacular. They have to ultimately rely on the gap between the aspiration to development and the miserable fate of development in the periphery to make their visual puns. Despite being governed by the structures of modern media houses, their careers assume idiosyncratic patterns involving mentorship by a senior cartoonist and patronage by the political leadership whom they caricature. Their cartoons express both this dynamic of dependence and hard-won autonomy.
However, in the chapter on women cartoonists, even as it begins with questions of affect, and the women’s alienation from the male cartoon fraternity, we are unexpectedly confronted with their situation in terms of sheer labour. Labour time for a cartoonist is akin to free time or the time needed to accumulate political information. One crucial form of prepping for work consisted in reading several newspapers all day and “thinking in the afternoon”. The women cartoonists’ lack of free time with which to nurture their political wit often cost them their jobs. As such, women cartoonists’ condition is shown by Khanduri to be too precarious, diminishing their worth as cartoonists. Yet, despite provoking the question of women’s labour, Khanduri elides it immediately by invoking the spectre of female autonomy and translating it into a problem of creative labour.
Manjula Padmanabhan voices this autonomy by referring to her multiple allegiances as cartoonist, writer and comic artist. This flexibility is an outcome of necessity, rather than self-contained autonomy. Almost all the big male stars in the cartoonist firmament shared these multiple roles as cartoonists, artists, and writers as well, but they didn’t need to showcase all of them. Their primacy as political cartoonists gave them control over their subject matter allowing other artistic practices to take a comfortable secondary position.
The interpretive community of female cartoonists is shown to have a very different ethos, since they do not go through the same apprenticeship process or mentorship-patronage relations. There is freedom, since they are not working under the anxiety of any direct artistic or stylistic influence. Maya Kamath, Mita Roy and the other female cartoonists make wonderful copy in which the domestic and the political seamlessly flow into one other. Their feminist wit is shown to subvert long respected hierarchies between the social and the political cartoon. Their inclusion in the vernacular club then becomes a matter of transgression and agency.
This problem of what defines vernacular agency is then constantly bypassed and swept into a problematic of contesting or multiple vernaculars. The Hindi, Tamil or Marathi cartoonists similarly lack the time required for acculturation. To start with, there are fewer regional newspapers with a dedicated cartoonist. The cartoons in these vernacular media are seen as not caricatural, but illustrative; not critical, but reverential. Judging by the Hindi cartoonist Kaak’s remark – “All our [Hindu] gods and goddesses are cartoons” – we have a third definition of the vernacular, which is neither compromise nor heroic, but driven by reconciliation to the darshan modality of the Hindu sacro-scopic regime. Techniques of exaggeration, the grotesque and bestial elements, are an intrinsic part of this visual imaginary. In fact, this reverential disposition could be generalised as the one aspect of the vernacular cartoon that crosses linguistic, gender and regional borders, since almost all the cartoonists at their very different levels, cite caricature as a gesture of reverence, a form of tribute and compliment.
The hagiographical bhakti mode of cartooning however is only referenced, not discussed. It poses the problem of having to consider a postcolonial aesthetic without the necessary coda of subversiveness. The difference is there, but it is not subversive or insurgent unless the worship mode is to be regarded as the sign of a radical autonomy. But let us leave that possibility aside for a moment and probe the meaning of subversiveness or agency, as something that is not only different, but capable of making a real structural difference.
Alterity in globalisation
With globalisation, we are in a situation where there is no clearly discernible master object or singular mediating style. Instead there is a mélange of styles. This lack of a formal coherence shifts us to an analytic in which cartoons are more than ever to be understood in terms of desires thrown up by the market. The tactile turn, or recovering the phenomenological excess of art objects current in media studies and art history circles, probably corresponds to this ubiquity of the market in the art world. By this logic, questions of meaning and integrity are to be replaced by an analysis of the contradictory ideological units that make up the pseudo-coherence of an art object.
Then again, is there something in the nature of modernity in the periphery – the fact that the social content of reality is always swimming up to the surface – that makes it more difficult to separate appearance from truth? In other words, is what is seen, heard and felt really what it is? How do we differentiate the ideological content of the art object in the global marketplace from the social truth of the periphery? The question of modernity’s difference in the periphery then becomes absolutely paramount.
As with the Marxist thinkers who accept that modernity in the centre and periphery are coeval (the advanced state of the former is in temporal sync with the underdevelopment of the latter), Khanduri too challenges the argument about the imperfection or incompleteness of modernity in the periphery. But the argument takes a very different turn.
The PCI (described as “a quasi-judicial body that monitors the Indian press and adjudicates petitions against the press”) refers to the newspaper editors charged with publishing offending cartoons as ‘ultra-liberal’. By ultra-liberal they probably mean an exaggerated sense of entitlement produced by conditions of extreme social polarity, in which liberalism reverts to the old language of status and hierarchy. Similarly, Khanduri imbues the various interpretive communities and litigating individuals with an obdurate energy, defiantly resisting any pressure to tolerate offensive barbs directed at their communities in the name of universal humour.
The subaltern studies idea of a weak Indian bourgeoisie whose dominance does not amount to hegemony is substantiated here through the presence of a third body in the form of the PCI. Clear class relations are replaced by what seems to be a relationship between patricians and plebeians, who, however, need to be minded by neutral state institutions. This is not a reversion to the past, since the patricians are not generous, nor are the plebeians taking on insurgent peasant postures. The plebeians instead tend to be public minded, exposing the hollow claims of a liberal bourgeois sphere. What is this new configuration and what does it tell us about modernity in the periphery?
Most of the engagements between the new elites and the new subalterns consist of tactical battles on questions of cultural identity or symbolic rights. These are fights that seem to have no substantial material stakes as far as ownership of common resources are concerned. They are fights symptomatic of a deep complicity between the two sides, not the contradiction between labour and capital. We will look at two examples through which Khanduri rejects the validity of the liberal project, concurring instead with the impossibility of fighting for stakes that will be truly transformative. According to her, the subaltern’s refusal to laugh derives from the failure of Enlightenment ideals. But she doesn’t pause to think how this refusal offers a classic example of liberal reasoning.
The ‘common man’ trope is discussed in the book as being widely used by cartoonists across the board to symbolise the exclusion of the common man from common resources. The adoption of Laxman’s common man mascot by Air Deccan (India’s first low cost airline that went bust in about six years) is meant to signal the redressal of asymmetrical relations. Khanduri’s analysis begins by showing how the incredibly low fares facilitate the common man’s transition from land to air travel, disrupting the existing balance of social power. Along with the Air Deccan ads, she believes that some villagers and Dalits might have newly taken to air travel. In the end, she acknowledges that the market that democratises also puts real barriers in the path of equality. However, this way of presenting the argument through villagers and Dalits as common man obfuscates the class dynamics of neoliberalism, which has brought and continues to bring unprecedented wealth to landed, propertied, entrepreneurial and political sections (a minority) of the backward classes. This is not trickle down, but trickle up. The common man in this example represents not a subaltern standpoint but the preservation of subalternity as an ideology to make profits. ‘Common man’ then represents a bourgeois consensus rather than a world in which the bourgeoisie are beleaguered.
In the second example, she concerns herself with the interpretation of global controversies surrounding cartoons produced in Europe such as the offending Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The rejection of the liberal position claiming absolute free-speech rights becomes even more trenchant here. Khanduri is quick to point out that advocating for mediation/adjudication is not an approval of censorship or bans as is evident from the varied, deliberative, and strategic response to the controversy from the Muslims of Southasia. Alongside bans and fatwas, there was a continuity of the Oudh Punch culture of responsible satire and caricaturing. The online weekly from Bombay Milli Gazette for instance refused to participate in the celebration of cartoons about the Holocaust inaugurated by the Iranian president. Similarly, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) refused to support the fatwa issued by the Meerut-based politician Haji Yaqoob Quereshi against the Danish cartoonist.
The racist and Islamophobic discourse would have us believe that the influx of un-modern and immoderate immigrants is a threat to the free speech of the Western world. Khanduri’s narrative, moving from colonial to national to global, approximates this movement, albeit with opposite valences. While the Indian masters are shown to be champions of European liberalism understood as a universal imperative, the late capitalist moment sees a disruption in this universal logic, now seen as Eurocentric and parochial. Globalisation then is not so much a universalisation of capital but a constellation that brings together different particulars. The problem then becomes one of how to differentiate the particular of one from the particular of the other.
Khanduri faces this problem when she is trying to define the competing logic of the desi. It seems the desi could apply to regional language newspapers in Tamil, Hindi or Bengali. It could apply to English-language dailies or national newspapers in the regional centres. It could apply to diasporic communities in the US. It would be possible to extend this cultural relativism ad infinitum in which case the particular becomes equally universal and abstract, and difference loses its incommensurable quality.
This version of difference with a small‘d’ has the potential of bringing Khanduri’s analysis closer to a more Marxist understanding of seemingly endless differences making up the totality, rather than offering a definitive challenge to it. However, the fragment in postcoloniality or visuality 2 posits itself as autonomous from the whole, usually derived from an understanding of the popular or subaltern with roots in residual precapitalist forms. As Khanduri’s work reveals, this claim of autonomy can be quite hard to sustain in the practical sense. Precisely because she is so relentless about working through the categories of the tactile and the tactical, her book reveals both the limits of the counter-hegemonic, as well as the fact that it comes into existence only through a dynamic engagement with the abstract logic of capital.
Despite claiming the inadequacy of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity in the semiperipheral world, these ideals seem far from undesirable in her work. While the intense realism of caricature or the normalisation of incongruities may appear to be the peculiar features of a non-Western reality, one has to acknowledge that these are, and will continue to be, global realities.
While Khanduri may not come to the same conclusion, there is awareness in her book that the subversive talk surrounding cartoons pertains more to tactical manoeuvres or micro politics. This, in my view, amounts to an auto-critique, since it ultimately renders cartoons vehicles of an upward mobility, a way of amassing rather than negating capital. Their progressive aspect lies in the legitimacy brokered for the marginalised and dominated fractions.
Having said that, it is important to note that in its depiction and interpretation of the different struggles over vernacular identity, the book preserves the traces of different historical potentials. While a certain brand of postcoloniality, both as an academic discourse and a form of identity politics, may be said to come into existence only in the aftermath of reconciliation to the hopelessly particular without the hope of any real structural change, the same cannot be said of all struggles from the margins. In its historical sweep and diversity of examples, the overwhelmingly conflictual social content of the periphery is not uniformly subsumed by identity-consciousness. The book undertakes a very difficult task, since the scattered archives available to the author in the first decade of the 21st century, I imagine, would make it very difficult to separate social content from the reified forms that often embrace and make visible these articulations.
~Nandini Chandra teaches in the Department of English at University of Delhi. Her book The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha (1967-2007) came was published by Yoda Press in 2008.