Recently, I spent two weeks embarking on a speaking tour of India on behalf of the U.S. State Department (check out all my blog posts here). Although the schedule was busy and sometimes hectic, I did manage to find some spare time to do some sketching of my trip:
The main thing most American’s notice when they arrive in India is the poverty. When I arrived in Mumbai and Delhi, the crowds of beggars were impressive, with newborn babies pressed against the windows of whatever car I was in as the desperately poor pushed through traffic on the streets. They followed me down the street wherever I walked in Mumbai and Delhi – but not in Kerala.
Probably the second biggest impression for me, and for most Americans in India is the crazy traffic. The disregard for traffic laws is awesome – combine with driving on the wrong side of the road there is a constant sense that my car is hurdling toward a head-on collision. India’s traffic is wonderful drama. I’m still shaking.
I gave speeches at schools all over India, and they all had a funny, common sequence of events. First, I would be invited for a cup of sweet tea with the Dean of the school or teachers, while a room crammed with students waited patiently until we were quite late for my talk. Then it would take ten to fifteen awkward minutes, after we’re already late, to set up the projector for my Powerpoint presentation.
After my presentation the students rush up to the front of the room, asking me to do sketches, which I’m usually happy to do. Sometimes I’d be given more tea, groups of girls would tell me about how they all knew my work already, because my cartoons appear in their high school textbooks in India (something I’d like to see). The college talks in India were great fun.
The food in India was wonderful – I think I was steered to the best places to eat, and the food was truly great. I can’t get used to eating with the fingers rather than a knife and fork, though.
I thought about eating with my fingers at a local favorite India restaurant here in California after I got back, just to show what I had learned, but my local manners got the better of me.
I was so rushed with the end of my India trip that I neglected to do a post about my visit to Hyderabad, the huge, hi-tech city in the middle of India. The Hyderabad cartoonists were great, and I enjoyed drinking with them through the night in the backyard of the Press Club, where I had some particularly hot Biriyani that made me sweat and shake, to the amusement of my colleagues. I especially enjoyed meeting renowned, veteran Hyderabad cartoonist, Mohan, who moved on from being a local, Telegu language political cartoonist for the huge Sakshi newspaper, to running his own animation studio.
The US Consulate put on a lovely show of my work in cooperation with the Muse Art Gallery at the Marriott Hotel in Hyderabad – they did a great job. I was impressed that they included my more edgy cartoons that would have gotten me thrown in jail, if America suffered the same, poor press freedoms as India.
I gave speeches at the Sri Venkateswara College of Fine Arts and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and at each a bunch of girls ran up to me after my talk to tell me how they have known my work for years because my cartoons appeared in their high school textbooks, which was fun.
There has been a lot of talk in India recently about banning some cartoons from high school text books, in particular, this one (below right).
This textbook cartoon controversy was much more interesting to the Indian cartoonists that I met than the brouhaha about the jailing of Aseem Trivedi, which was raging at the time. The cartoon was the subject of debate in the Indian Parliament, where it was described as racist, for showing former Indian Prime Minister Nehru, supposedly whipping Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a lower caste politician who is riding a snail. In fact, Nehru is not whipping Ambedkar – both Nehru and Ambedkar are whipping the snail, because they want the process of writing India’s new constitution to go faster.
Kerala is wet, steamy, tropical and charming, with an extensive network of estuaries called the “backwaters.” While I was here there was a big trade show going on, which brought India’s Prime Minister to town and was an excuse for me to do some cartooning speaking engagements. I had a lovely exhibition of my work here and I spent a sightseeing day with my new, Indian cartoonist buddies.
Special thanks to my new friend, Sudheer Nath, the cartoonist for the Thejas newspapers, in Kerala’s Malayalam language; also Prasannan Anikkad, the freelance cartoonist chairman of the Kerala Art Academy and Unnikrishnan, the cartoonist for the Mathnubhumi newspaper – they all showed me a great time touring Kerala’s historic sights, and introducing me to the fascinating food here, which is served on big banana leaves, eaten with much drama with gooey fingers mushing things all about.
Kerala has an outsized cartooning tradition, and the Kerala Cartoon Academy (KCA) is at its heart. The KCA doesn’t exist as a school, rather it is a cartoonist professional organization that organizes events, like my visit here and the tribute to Mr. Toms. They do “cartoon camps” for kids and publish books and magazines; I was very impressed with them.
I’m so rushed I haven’t had a chance to write about my visit to Hyderabad – that will come next.
Near the end of my visit we got the sad news of the murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, who was a career foreign service officer, and a friend and colleague of the State Department people who were hosting me here. It was a grim reminder that the world outside of Kerala can be an ugly place, putting things into some perspective. I’m impressed with the dedication of the State Department people I’ve met on my travels and I appreciate their service.
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was released from jail in Mumbai on $100 bail and a promise that sedition charges against him would be dropped. It was interesting to watch the media storm about Trivedi explode in the middle of my speaking tour of India.
The Cartoonists Rights Network, a foundation associated with my professional organization, The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is giving their Courage in Cartooning award to Trivedi this weekend at our convention in Washington DC. I’ve been spending the past two weeks talking to the media in India, and early on I would get no interest or follow up questions about Trivedi – then when Trivedi went to jail it was all over the news, in banner headlines in all the newspapers and dominating TV news. All of India was outraged at the ridiculous charges and injustice of putting a cartoonist in jail for drawing symbols of the state.
I heard and read a lot of outraged opinions on the case in the media here, and I don’t recall hearing anyone argue in favor of jailing Trivedi. He got support from all corners of India, although I notice that nowhere in the media did I see anyone reprint or show the offending cartoons.
Also interesting was the motivation of journalists here to tell “both sides” of the story, but since nobody would speak in favor of jailing the cartoonist, the “other side” came out as derision, describing Trivedi as a “bad cartoonist,” and the cartoons as “terrible,” although “nothing that should land the cartoonist in jail.” I think that attitude is just plain rude. Trivedi isn’t a bad cartoonist – as regular readers of our site can see, his cartoons hold up pretty well to cartoons by other foreign cartoonists, and cartoonists from India. I think he’s a good cartoonist, and he deserves some respect for his artwork.
Trivedi also deserves some admiration for the way he handled himself through this media storm. He refused to accept bail for days, keeping the story alive and in the headlines. He’s been appearing all over the media since his release, giving interviews and making intolerant authorities here look silly. I think he’ll have a strong impact on moving India to a more free press.
There is a general rule that editorial cartoons are a barometer of freedom in any country – if cartoonists can draw the president of their country then the country has a free press. We don’t see Chinese cartoonists drawing their president; Fidel Castro is never drawn by cartoonists in Cuba. Our cartoonists in Singapore tell me that they are free to draw anything, as long as it isn’t about Singapore.
In India there is a mixed message on the cartoonist barometer. The press savages the Prime Minister, who is regularly lampooned in cartoons, but drawings of the President of India, who has a less substantive, ceremonial role, are barred. Cartoonists are forbidden by law from offending religious sensibilities – and Trivedi did well to limit his cartoons to symbols of the state, so that religious issues never came into the argument. Cartoonists in India are forbidden from drawing symbols of the state, without first getting permission from the state – that may change soon, because of Trivedi, and it is an important change. It is the role of editorial cartoonists to criticize government, and symbols of government (flags, seals, currency, government buildings like India’s Parliament building) are the prime tools in every editorial cartoonist’s tool chest.
If I couldn’t draw symbols of governments, and I was barred from offending religious sensibilities, there wouldn’t be much of substance left for me to draw.
Trivedi has done an excellent job of making his point against government corruption in India and against the absurd restrictions against cartoonists in India. He’s an excellent artist too, and at the young age of 24 he’s now India’s star cartoonist. All in all, a great result for a talented, media savvy, young activist.
I spent yesterday in Delhi speaking to packed rooms of intense students at Amity University and at the International School of Media and Entertainment in Noida. Speaking to the college audiences here is great fun.
In the evening I met with about twenty Indian cartoonists at the American Center in Delhi; the handsome group in the photo below:
What was remarkable about the meeting is that all of the Indian cartoonists wanted to make the point to me that their careers are in peril. Cartoonists in India feel they are being squeezed out by timid editors who are afraid of the reactions of government officials and powerful patrons who fear negative reactions to strong opinions in editorial cartoons. The cartoonists told me about job losses and repeated stories about how the only work is for illustrations, at very low fees. They paint a grim picture.
They were all aware of a recent issue here where historical cartoons are being edited out of text books. They knew about Aseem Trivedi and other cartoonists who are facing prosecution, but they describe the problem more as self-censorship, and a fear of the adverse attention that cartoons draw. A number of them described the situation as the “death” of their profession.
Frankly, I was surprised by the tone, looking at the newspapers here it seems that there is a lively debate, and I see Prime Minister Singh savaged in cartoons every day. The newspapers are filled with stories of the current government coal scandal with wagging fingers pointed this way and that to blame for every social and economic problem.
That said, I had a great time with the cartoonists, I got to see much of their work, I was flattered that they all knew my work, and I was impressed at their professionalism and commitment to our art form. There is a lot of talent and promise in India for cartoonists, even though the mood is glum.
Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, this year’s Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award winner (along with Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat) plans on turning himself over to the police in Mumbai in the next couple of days over controversial cartoons he posted on his web site that parody India’s national symbols.
Trivedi was charged in January with treason and insulting India’s national symbols, and if found guilty, he could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 5,000 rupees (about $100).
In the cartoon below, Trivedi took India’s national emblem of the Four Sarnath Lions of King Asoka that sit above the motto “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone shall triumph) and re-drew them as bloodthirsty wolves on the re-worded motto “Bhrashtamev Jayate” (long live corruption):
In another offending cartoon, Trivedi drew the Indian parliament building as a toilet:
There is a long tradition of editorial cartoonists using symbols of states to express opinions about governments. Drawing a legislature or parliament building as a toilet is common. I recently drew our Capitol building in Washington as a toilet:
The offending cartoon below by Trivedi shows the “Mother of India” being held down by politicians and bureaucrats, about to be raped by corruption:
The Indian Constitution allows for “the right to freedom of speech and expression.” Trivedi’s critics argue that while he is allowed to mock and poke fun at politicans, it is a crime to mock the national emblem, the parliament and the Indian flag.
“I am democratic. I am patriotic. I have a twenty-four year life without any charges of corruption. I am only making cartoons. … I am talking about nationalism. I love my country. I am reacting [to the corruption] in my own way. Someone is protesting. Somebody is a doing hunger strike in India. [As for me,] I am a cartoonist.”
There is a lot of sensitivity in India about cartoons that offend religious sensitivities, but cartoons that bash the state must be fair game. I would argue that editorial cartoonists must disrespect governments and symbols of governments as a professional obligation.
I’m continuing my US State Department sponsored speaking tour of India. Yesterday I spoke in “tiny” Raipur – a state capital with a population of over one million, which doesn’t rate a single mention in my Frommer Guide to India. My lecture was organized by Cartoon Watch Magazine and its cartoonist editor, the gracious Triambak Sharma.
I traveled from Raipur to Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Majal, a three hour drive each way from Delhi. That’s me at the right, standing in front of Agra’s Red Fort, which is pretty cool, and suffers from being in the Taj Majal’s shadow.
The poverty here is disturbing. I thought I had seen poverty in Latin America, in Brazil and Mexico – it was nothing compared to India. And the fact that the poor and the rich are living so close together is stunning. I hear a lot about America losing the middle class – India’s extremes put that into perspective (although India has a growing middle class).
I have to get used to speaking here – so far I’ve only spoken to art college students. They usually stare blankly and intently, but they stir and murmur when I show cartoons about Pakistan, like the one below.
The cartoon below also makes the audiences murmur here. In India, is against the law to insult the sensibilities of someone of another religion, and I’m told that they would never see such a cartoon here (although, I should mention that whenever I crucify someone in a cartoon, I get some angry mail from Americans). It is also taboo in India to draw the president, but cartoons about the Prime Minister are savage.
The taxi rides here are like thrill rides. The traffic lights and lines in the road are simply ignored. We barrel head on into other cars every few seconds, only to swerve away at the last moment. The drivers whisk past lazy cows, skinny dogs, rickshaws, throngs of pedestrians and rusty bicycles, at high speed, with only an inch or two of clearance. I’ve read that India has the highest rate of traffic accidents – this must be true.
Here’s a little movie that I made on a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi today. I think the traffic here is charming.
I can’t stand the political conventions and I don’t understand why the media all goes along with presenting days long commercials for the candidates. I’ve had enough if it – so it seemed like a good time to head off for India. I’m doing a speaking tour of India through the US State Department speakers program. I’ve never been to India before – they have lots of great cartoonists and a vibrant free press (with some interesting government restrictions).
Yesterday I spoke to a crowded room of about 300 students at the Sir JJ Academy of Applied arts in Mumbai. Those are the students (right), they are a spirited bunch, sitting on the cold floor, Indian style, in the dizzying humidty to listen to me talk for a whopping two hours. I wish I had thought to take a picture, just outside the door, of the mountain of about 600 shoes. They told me that, as the speaker, I need not take off my shoes – that’s good. I can’t imagine how they can find their shoes after class. I would have been there for an hour, sorting through shoes. I need to remember to put name tags on everything.
Here I am (below) at Rudyard Kipling’s house, next door to the JJ Academy. I’m told this is the “best art college in India” and the student’s work that I saw was quite impressive. Thy asked good questions and seemed to have a good time. I had a meeting with a bunch of newspaper editors for dinner. This is a crazy huge, diverse country full of cartoon fans. Such drama.