Republished: Sudhir Tailang, political cartooning in India

Ati Metwaly from Delhi, India, Tuesday 15 Apr 2014

Prior to his exhibition opening on 17 April in Cairo, in his home in Delhi, Sudhir Tailang, renowned Indian cartoonist talks about art of cartoons, its history and positioning in today's India

Sudhir Tailang
Indian cartoonist Sudhir Tailang in his home in Delhi. 15 January 2014. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

One day in the 1990s, Murli Manohar Joshi, India’s minister of the Union Human Resources Development, called the country’s renowned cartoonist Sudhir Tailang to tell him how upset he was. “Why are you angry?” Tailang replied, puzzled. “I didn’t draw any cartoon of you today.” The politician breathed. “Precisely the problem,” he exclaimed. “I haven’t been in your cartoons for six months now. Have I become so insignificant in India’s political life?”

Anyone interested in the work of this fascinating Indian cartoonist must have heard or read this story. Sudhir Tailang cited it repeatedly in newspapers and on television. Nevertheless, it illustrates an important point. Taken from the 1990s perspective, Joshi’s attitude is—the surprise of surprises—perfectly natural, though in the second decade of the 2000s, India’s politicians may no longer be as eager to see newspaper readers chuckling at artistic recapitualations of their deeds.

Unlike many countries, India is a place where for generations politicians actively enjoyed seeing themselves in cartoons; so much so that entering the cartoonist’s office implied gaining a certain kind of social validation. That decades-long honeymoon is more or less over now, but the power of this disobedient art is still felt  in a country with dozens of languages and even more cultural colours.

Egyptians will be able to have direct contact with Tailang during the India by the Nile festival in Cairo, scheduled to take place in April 2014. They will not be so lucky as to have the unforgettable experience of visiting the artist at his home at the posh East Delhi residential district of Mayur Vihar. To reach the apartment from the western part of the city, I drove with Ritu Sud from Teamwork, the company that organises India by the Nile, for almost an hour. We  crossed the holy Yamuna River, a goddess and India’s pride. Even after crossing it, I could not stop thinking about the waters that travelled all the way here from Himalayas, greeting along its banks pilgrims, worshipers, idyllic forests and fertile fields, and continuing their journey to one of the world’s greatest wonders, the Taj Mahal, 250 km to the south, before merging with Ganges some 450 km further.

As we reached the low buildings in Mayur Vihar, I was overwhelmed by the omnipresence of small works of art decorating windows and gates. Colourful, geometrically shaped rangoli (special-occasions designs thought to bring good luck) adorned floor of the staircase. We were greeted warmly, offered masala chai (mixed-spice tea, with milk), sesame-based gajak and crispy rewri cookies. It didn’t take long for Sudhir Tailang to enter the room... Thanks to his exceptionally friendly attitude, occasionally tinged with an equitable sense of humour, I could hardly tell when an official interview with one of India’s eminent cartoonists, who for almost 20 years published daily on the front page of the Hindustan Times – India’s largest by circulation – turned into an enjoyable chat about his art and its role in India’s social and political life.

Sudhir Tailang
Cartoon by Sudhir Tailang (Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

From the Land of Kings...

Born in 1960, Tailang published his first cartoon when he was only 10. “I was born and raised in Bikaner,” a city in the state of Rajasthan in northern India. “I started drawing like all young children do. You see, children always have something interesting to say and as they grow, unfortunately they unlearn the art of drawing. Parents and the education system push us in different directions, always trying to make responsible citizens out of us. Maybe I decided not to become a responsible citizen and continued to draw. When my drawings were published in a national newspaper I felt very motivated,” Tailang recalls the beginnings of his artistic career.

His first works depicted school, the interaction between teachers and students, family life, friends playing. Following his first two cartoons, Tailang was asked to produce more, this time for money. “I was commissioned to make five cartoons, each for five rupees. INR25 was a big amount for a 10-year-old kid. I decided to buy a pair of sunglasses with my money. I went to see a movie with my sunglasses on and though, of course, I didn’t see much of the movie I was very proud of my first purchase,” Tailang recalls laughing.

“As a child I wanted to be a cinema gatekeeper. Actually my father had good access to many cinemas and their owners. I had an opportunity to watch some movies from the projection room. I feel that Cinema Paradiso,” the 1988 classic by Giuseppe Tornatore, “is somehow the story of my childhood.”

Curiously, Tailang did not graduate from an art school. “I am a self-taught cartoonist; I also observed other cartoonists... Art schools help in forming thousands of cartoonists each year, in India and in other parts of the world. But how many of them become cartoonists? The interesting thing is that in India at any given time you can count the leading cartoonists on the fingers of one hand, and most of them have never been to art school. The same applies to cartoonists around the world. I feel there is an advantage that I’ve not been to art school. I am not governed by some strict executive rules of drawing; I can be more spontaneous, natural.”

Tailang obtained his BSc in biology and an MA in English literature, in Rajasthan. “As a young person I never thought of becoming a professional cartoonist, it was just a hobby. As I matured I wanted to be a doctor. However, by the time I was in college, I already had several hundred cartoons published.” Upon his graduation, Tailang was offered a job as a cartoonist. He started producing regular cartoons for the Illustrated Weekly of India, Mumbai, in 1982; a year later, he joined Navbharat Times in Delhi, the city that would become his home.

In his four decades of cartooning, Tailang dedicated a good portion of his career to the Hindustan Times, occasionally also drawing for the Indian Express and The Times of India. Currently he works with Asian Age, where he holds the post of Associate Editor and Political Cartoonist. He is also involved in social issues. On his blog we read that he “formed a voluntary group to raise funds for the 1984 Bhopal disaster victims by drawing on-the-spot caricatures... sold his Rajasthan drought sketches and raised money for the drought-affected people.” He also auctioned cartoons to raise funds for children’s organisations. Tailang held several exhibitions of his cartoons and has seven books to his name. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest Indian civilian awards offered to people for remarkable contributions in their respective fields.

Sudhir Tailang
Cartoon by Sudhir Tailang (Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

Cartoon as political commentary

With such experience, Tailang has a lot to say about the craft and it’s positioning in India:

“A political cartoonist stands on the bridge between journalism and art,” he explains. “Maybe it’s even more journalism than art. People like cartoons due to their political content, not because it’s a drawing. I would say that the drawing part constitutes only 30 percent of the cartoon, while 70 percent lies in the idea behind it. Cartoon is exactly the opposite of the portrait. While the portrait makes the person beautiful, the cartoon underscores all the flaws and reveals the sins. And though one of the crucial personality characteristics expected from a political cartoonist is sense of humour, cartoons’ main aim is not to make people laugh. In fact, many cartoons are more tragic than comic, but hasn’t the line between tragedy and comedy always been very thin? And since we find ourselves in a country that is going through a transitional phase with people questioning the ways that our democracy is run, challenge the dynasties which are ruling this country – whether the whole India or different parts of it – for the last 65 years, and a new crop of young politicians make their mark, political cartooning is also changing.”

With its rich history and the recognition it commands, Indian cartooning used to play a fundamental role in the country’s democratic transformations. India’s cartooning glory years span the decades between the 1950s and 1980s when the finest cartoonists published their works across most of the India’s newspapers.

“The cartoonist always reacts to the news. We do not produce news. There are different facts, people and moments that one chooses to portray. Every day I sit in front of a blank sheet of paper. By seven o’clock in the evening I must have my cartoon finished. The cartoon has to say something; it has to be a clear political commentary.”

Tailang’s cartoons comment on the daily political events of India but also react to major international news. As such, among thousands of his cartoons we find a few interesting comments on the Egyptian revolution.

Sudhir Tailang
"Indian PM Dr MM Singh has the habit of instituting a GoM (Group of Ministers) for every problem. This group then sits on the files and never finds a solution. There are a few dozen GoMs already there," Tailang clarifies his cartoon created as response to Egypt's January 2011 revolution. 2011. (Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

By the 1990s India’s glory years when Nehru laughed at himself and Indira Gandhi praised the work of the country’s iconic cartoonist Shankar were already becoming a history. “We had a whole generation of politicians who were highly democratic in their values. They never opposed the cartoons, in fact they appreciated them. Nehru for instance asked cartoonists not to spare him,” Tailang comments. In the early 1980s, Indira Gandhi wrote a noteworthy foreword to Shankar’s book which included over 400 cartoons presenting Nehru: “Cartoonists have become an integral part of the intellectual life of a modern society. Some draw without intent to draw blood; some remove masks and hold a mirror to the face of society.”

Having commented on India’s ten consecutive prime ministers, Tailang identifies his favourite personalities, including Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi who served as the Prime Minister of India (1984 – 1989) and P V  Narasimha Rao (1991–1996). “I was only beginning my career when Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. He was too handsome to be caricatured and too innocent to be attacked. I thought, ‘my career is finished!’. But in political cartooning we realise that no prime minister remains ‘good’ for more than six months. Within six months Rajiv Gandhi transformed into one of the finest subjects for cartoons: he gained weight and he got himself into some of the biggest scandals that this country witnessed."

"As for Narasimha Rao, he is my absolute favourite; he is a politician designed for cartoons, not only due to his incredible features but also his political developments. Though I continued to criticise Narasimha Rao for five long years, he did not oppose it. He even attended an exhibition which included his cartoons and made a positive comment about them.”

Sudhir Tailang
Cartoon commenting on Egypt's January 2011 revolution, by Sudhir Tailang (Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

India's politicians losing sense of humour? 

Decline set in in the late 1990s, and particularly at the start of the 2000s. Cartoons in Indian newspapers began to shed their glow. This decline is attributed to two parallel phenomena, the one fuelling the other. On the one hand, the corporate houses started exercising control over many papers, with new corporate owners expressing their interest in business relations rather than media objectivity. On the other hand, the new generation of politicians are of a less tolerant breed when it comes to being criticised. For the cartoonists of the 21st century, life is rather more difficult.

“You see, the core character of cartoon is not supportive; cartoons do not support anyone. A cartoonist cannot be neutral, he has to take sides. If I draw something it’s either to attack a personality or an idea, and this is problematic to many business-oriented paper owners. There are many holy cows in many newspapers. Papers are cow-shared now,” Tailang cannot hide his wit.

The press being in the hands of corporations has in fact led to a vigorous debate in the country’s intellectual circles where people point to the media organisations’ growing partiality. During “India at the Crossroads,” one of the panel discussions at the Jaipur Literature Festival (17-21 January), an Asia-based journalist, the author of Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, stated: “I do not worry about censorship. What I do worry about, in this context, is corporate ownership of newspapers, people who aren’t primordially elected and control their peers within the newspapers.”

During the same debate, Louise Tillin, a political scientist and the author of Remapping India pinpointed this same phenomenon, saying, “It is a question about objectivity in reporting as well as fear of taking certain positions.” In his turn Sunil Khilnani, the acclaimed political commentator, pointed to the many democratisations, or lack thereof, that occurred over the past 65 years in India. “In all those years there has not been any democratisation of offence,” he said. “So everyone now has the right to be offended and is able to make a sort of public disturbance out of that. This is how the space of free expression and free speech meets constraints. There is a necessary battle that we all have to play out.”

The battle is being fought by everybody, writers, creators, cartoonists. Over the past years, however, the restraints exercised within the Indian press shifted cartoons from the front pages to inside and the number of pocket cartoons (editorial, political cartoon commenting on current events) decreased. Needless to say, as a result of such lack of “democratisation of offence”, there are far fewer politicians like Murli Manohar Joshi, who would be angered by not appearing in cartoons or would call the cartoonist to praise his work and ask for an original drawing.


Sudhir Tailang
(Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

While the map of cartooning changed over the past five years, the class of politicians who want to be drawn is rapidly diminishing.

“There are still a few politicians who realise that only important people become subjects of cartoons, to them cartoon is a certificate.  You may read the rise to fame and decline of many politicians by looking into the cartoons,” Tailang even points to a school textbook he came across a few years ago that presents the history of modern India through a selection of cartoons.

“On the other hand, there is a growing number of new politicians who not only reject criticism but also fail to provide any valid argument about the cartoon’s content. In 2012, India’s politician and Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had renowned cartoonist Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra arrested for releasing an online cartoon that she found derogatory. This is very frustrating... In one of my public appearances I asked Banerjee to arrest me as well since I made even more critical cartoons of her. She never got back to me and I’m still waiting...” Tailang giggles.

It is obvious that intolerance among new politicians in India is growing. In 2012, young activist and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who opposed corruption by depicting the Indian Parliament building as a toilet was charged with sedition for insulting national emblems. In her comment, Ambika Soni, former Minister of Information and Broadcasting, denied the government exercised any censorship but called on cartoonists to “self regulate” their works and avoid national symbols as their subjects. According to press reports, in response, Preeti Menon, one of the members of India Against Corruption, the country’s budding movement, outraged by Trivedi’s trial, commented crossly: “Whoever raises their voice against corruption is termed a seditionist, an anti-nationalist and a Naxalite.”

Sudhir Tailang
(Artwork courtesy Sudhir Tailang)

Tailang is equally concerned. “For insecure politicians, it becomes difficult to laugh at themselves. And the cartoonists’ job is to find flaws in the government and politicians. The cartoonist is like this little child who has courage to tell the emperor that he is not wearing any clothes,” Tailang refers to Hans Christian Andersen’s famed tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The fear that preoccupies some Indian politicians is quite ironic since, as Tailang points out, “in the history of the world, no government has fallen because of a cartoon. No politician has been arrested because of a cartoon. And over the past 65 years in India, no politician has changed, even a little bit, because somebody has drawn a cartoon on him. Yet cartoons play a very important role in the society, the role of the opposition, spokespersons for the common people. Cartoonists also help people to form opinions about the politicians and over the years people start questioning the politicians. Further on, people begin looking at the politicians through the prism of a cartoon. Often in the people’s sub-consciousness cartoonist becomes a hero who bashes the villain-politician. That’s the secret of cartooning and is what politicians fear the most.”

So far, Tailang did not receive any direct threats for his often daring cartoons, yet he is aware of the rules of the game. “No doubt cartooning is becoming increasingly dangerous in this country. Many very powerful people do not like to be portrayed through a critical eye. Though so far we manage to survive, it’s becoming more and more difficult for cartoonists to function. This is also one of the reasons why there are very few young cartoonists coming to the scene.”

Tailang recalls that back in the late 1990s, he had a security person assigned to protect him 24 hours a day. “There was this gunman taking care of my safety for six months. Then I refused to take it. It was ridiculous as I realised that nobody would waste a bullet on a cartoonist. There are more deserving people to be killed in this country,” Tailang’s tragicomic observation is so characteristic of his personality and his work.

Despite challenges and restrictions, Tailang remains positive. “I think that cartooning is still the freest form of expression in India. It’s a mixed bag of democracy and growing challenges. My cartoons were never censored; however, many times, there were trials of suggesting directives for my works – through emails, phone calls I received from different people: publishers, politicians etc. This is part of the game and you have to take it with a right spirit without being afraid of anyone. I still draw and I go on national TV and say everything I want to say, as no one can stop it in a live broadcast programme. Even if, as cartoonists, we still enjoy 80 percent of democracy, it’s enough to be happy.”

Leaving Tailang’s apartment and his room filled with books and papers, many thoughts were bobbing in my mind. I could not help drawing comparisons between Tailang’s world and the one we live in, in Egypt, in the Middle East... But there will be a chance for discussion in April, when Sudhir Tailang visits.

Sudhir Tailang
Sudhir Tailang in his home in Delhi, 15 January 2014. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

17-19 April
Aba’ad Gallery, Egyptian Modern Arts Museum, Cairo Opera House grounds
free entry


This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

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