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Culture

You said it, subtly

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In a country that loves to take offence, India's cartoonists are finding ways to disguise their barbs.

A few years ago, Andhra Pradesh governor ND Tiwari was slapped with a paternity suit. A 29-year-old law graduate Rohit Shekhar claimed he was the governor's son. A courtordered DNA test proved that this was indeed the case but the governor continued to insist he was the victim of an elaborate political conspiracy. For cartoonist Hemant Morparia, this biological tangle provided abundant raw material for a tongue-in-cheek illustration. He quickly cranked out a cartoon of a tailor shop called ND Tiwari and Son, selling maternity gowns and paternity suits.

Although Morparia's cartoon was drawn from events that had been much reported in the media, the editor was worried that it might result in a lawsuit. So Morparia suggested removing 'ND' and calling the shop 'Tiwari and Son'. "Why court trouble ?" asked Morparia, who has perfected the art of subtle insinuations over his 25 years as a cartoonist. "It is not about being cowardly because my rights are not fully protected by the state. "

The art of divining the line that separates criticism from controversy was a recurring theme at the Mario Miranda Cartoon Festival in Goa last weekend. It is a subject that has taken on a new urgency in the wake of activist Aseem Trivedi being charged with sedition for his illustrations denigrating national symbols like the Ashoka pillar. The festival, organised by the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts and Literature Live, had sessions on political cartooning, provocative illustrations and pompous politicians, who lack the ability to laugh at themselves. "We felt that with the growing intolerance in this country, cartoonists are becoming an endangered species, " said Anil Dharker, a senior journalist who helped organise the festival.

Dharker pointed out a worrying trend: the country's largest newspapers no longer have cartoons on their front page. According to The New Indian Express's executive editor, Ravi Shankar, this is partially because of a lack of good cartoonists and partially because cartooning isn't a financially viable career. "In the old days a political cartoonist was seen as somebody major, who was a big part of political commentary, " said Shankar. "Today, you look at all these guys, they are lightweights. "

Mario Miranda, in whose memory the festival is being held, stopped drawing political cartoons after a 1950s illustration of Morarji Desai, printed in The Current, infuriated the then chief minister of Bombay State. "He [Miranda] was a man without enemies, who couldn't offend anybody, " recalled Morparia. "Obviously such kind of people by definition can't be good political cartoonists. "

But today, even those who refer to themselves as such, must tip-toe around political and regional sentiments. The Hindu's Keshav, for instance, tries to avoid depicting public figures as animals because many politicians find it objectionable. This visual metaphor is an excellent way to indicate character - a politician with a violent streak, for instance, could be depicted as a tiger, while a rat might insinuate corruption. "If you look at the old Shankar cartoons and R K Laxman cartoons they have drawn people as animals, " said Keshav, "but now we actually hesitate to do that, we are trying to find other means. "

Morparia agrees that tolerance levels seem to be on the decline. "The cartoons I could do 15 years back, I'm not sure I could do now, " he said, citing an example of a Bal Thackeray toon which he published in the early 2000s. And even if a reckless cartoonist were to throw caution to the wind, he says, "the editor won't publish it". Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Shankar feels that editors were far more rigid in the '80s. "I think editors are a lot more tolerant of criticism coming from a cartoonist now than they were before, " he said.

One sure-fire way of side-stepping both editors and sedition laws is subtlety. Morparia, like Trivedi, also compared the Parliament to a toilet but in an oblique manner. His cartoon, predictably, didn't catch the eye of the authorities. "I have been in the business for long and I know what can cause trouble, " he said.

While most cartoonists support Trivedi's right to free speech and agree that the state's overreaction must be condemned, few can find anything to praise about his illustrations. "The visuals that he used were really horrible, " said Keshav. "Mainstream cartoonists would never use the national symbols like the three lions or the Supreme Court or Parliament in a derogatory manner. " Morparia also described Trivedi's cartoons as "obvious", "scatological" and "devoid of humour".

EP Unny of The Indian Express, however, refrained from criticising Trivedi's work. "You don't do content analysis of somebody's work when he is being put in jail for sedition, " he said. He felt that Trivedi's work should be examined from the context of cartooning's evolution from "street art" and "strong, one-sided political propaganda". "If Aseem Trivedi chooses to do a certain kind of a cartoon in a certain way it is his business not mine, " said Unny, "I am not supporting him, he doesn't need my certification. I am opposing the state that took him in and punished him."

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