Hyderabad – I Didn’t Forget!

My portrait by the brilliant Shri Shankar Parmarthy of the Sakshi newspaper in Hyderabad, India.

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.

The controversial cartoon that was banned from india's textbooks, after a long debate in Parliament.

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.

In America we have idiots who fight to take evolution out of science text books all the time, so the idea that the Indian cartoonists were so invested in this debate, when one of their colleagues was thrown in jail for drawing their Parliament building as a toilet, seemed to be misplaced priorities to me.

I was very impressed by the colored pencil work of Shri Shankar Parmarthy, the staff cartoonist for the Sakshi newspaper, who did this great caricature of me standing in front of Hyderabad’s historic Charminar (top right).

I’ve posted Shankar’s brilliant Mother Teresa and Dalai Lama caricatures below. Impressive stuff.

Dalai Lama by Shri Shankar Parmarthy.
Mother Teresa by Shri Shankar Parmarthy.

Trivedi’s Cartoon Media Storm in India

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.

Trivedi's drawing shows India's Parliament building as a toilet, a commentary on corruption in India's government.

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.

This image, a parody of India's national seal, was the cartoon described most often in the media here.

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.

This offending Trivedi cartoon shows "Corruption" about to rape "Mother India." Trivedi's "seditious" cartoons all used symbols of state in commentary about government corruption.

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.


Cartoonists in India Struggle

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 To Be Tried For Treason

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.

Read an interview that Trivedi gave to Cartoonist Rights Network International, here’s a quote:

“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.