Grimness of laughter
By Ravi Shankar
15th September 2012 11:46 PM
Lord: You’re telling the people nothing but a parcel of lies, sir.
Comedian: What do you keep me for? Lord: To speak the truth, sir.
Comedian: That’s another lie.
Thomas Gueulette, 18th century writer of parades (comic plays)
The powerful hate being mocked. It deflates their self-importance and reduces their stature in the eyes of those they govern. When they allow themselves to be satirized, it is good public relations. Humour, however, does not have PR in its repertoire. Cartoonists who go to jail for lampooning a symbol protected by the law, or for portraying a politician in dishabille, use such imagery as a comment on how he understands the world. It may not necessarily be the accepted view, but it is his view. There is no comic philosopher more solitary that the cartoonist. That is why the impact of his opinion is stronger than that of the written word. Laughter is not the primary objective of a political cartoon. Comment as criticism is. The cartoonist is a visual critic who uses exaggeration to make a point by distorting reality—as dark fantasy peopled by contemporary demons or elegant farce that mocks, like that of the great 20th century British cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould, who preferred to “etch with vinegar and not vitriol”. How the world understands the satirist is another matter. It depends on the sensibilities and tolerance of a culture and the times.
When a cartoonist visualizes Parliament as a toilet, he expects his scatological imagination to find favour with his audience. When he draws Narendra Modi in the nude, backside hidden by a crescent and a star, the cartoonist hopes to find approval for his outrage. The justification for all this is being explained through the American cartoonist’s broad licence to lampoon, which can take liberties with vulgarity. The American public may chuckle at the White House drawn as a commode, but then America is an irreverent society. India is not. In India, faeces are not mentioned in polite society. In the West, the dog is a subject of affection and even the lapdog is perceived with soft contempt. In India, to be called a dog is an insult.
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who drew the national lions as jackals—with corruption as their motto—had dipped his nib in vinegar. It reflected public anger against political loot. But drawing Parliament as a lavatory is neither etching with vinegar or vitriol, but with excreta. Though, as a visual metaphor the building’s architecture would be irresistible to a cartoonist, he crossed the unwritten line of good taste. Would a cartoonist feel insulted if he is called a clown while he has the chutzpah to depict the parliamentarian as a lump of poo? After all, clowns were the earliest humourists in history, mocking kings and lords in comic plays. His role was so significant that even the theatre-mad Tang emperor would play the clown himself.
Good taste is not about what a person does, but what he does not do. This is what defines culture.
John Towsen, in the classic book Clowns traces the beginning of satire to comic theatre that started in Megara, Greece, sometime in the 7th century. These were short farces written and performed by travelling clowns called ‘deikelistai’. Towsen states that the sophisticated plays of Aristophanes (448-380 BCE) included “low” comedy as popularized in Megara. “Don’t expect anything great and wonderful from us,” cautions the prologue to Aristophanes’ play The Wasps. “Don’t look for merriment stolen from Megara.” Later, the clowns and their plays came to be known as mimes—“to imitate” in context to “the performer’s talent for caricature”.
The merchant of merriment, the satirist, has two choices as British caricaturist Ted Harrison explained—to mock or wound. Mockery has nuances that the audience can understand and sympathize with. Subtlety in protest is comparable to a surgeon’s skill while wounding, and flaying is the butcher’s grim art. Humour can either be a scalpel or a blunderbuss. The wrong choice can wound not just the wielder but the sensibility of a civilization too. When the lines he draws crosses the line simply to draw blood, the difference between a surgeon and a butcher becomes obfuscated. And it’s not fun anymore.
- For team Rahul, it’s good politics that will yield rich dividends for poor Indians
- Incredible India! Cuppa at Rs 1,200 is Chiru’s idea of sustainable tourism
- Farmer gets wise, beats drought with micro-irrigation
- Translation to go hi-tech; C-DAC to launch ‘Translator’
- Hurdles galore as UPA walks road to Ballot 2014
- BJP's post-Karnataka gloom: Neither united nor untainted
- Hit by chit fund scam Mamata faces biggest challenge in 2 years
- Key relationships
- Car makers run into diesel dilemma
- Jaya expresses grief over pontiff's death
- Siddaramaiah has his way with team
- NEET 2013: CBSE gaffe leaves students in a fix
- Man arrested for attempt to attack TV host Ranjini Haridas
- Rs 8K-crore plan for upgrading ICVs of Army
- Shun hatred to live with peace