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.
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 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.