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No laughing matter

As a study of the spontaneous overflow of indignation, satire and cartoons are valuable to the historian

books Updated: Jun 01, 2012 17:39 IST

‘Ah! You must be Mrs Naidu! Who else dare be so irreverent? Come and share my meal,” Gandhi is reported to have told Sarojini Naidu when they  met in London on August 8, 1914. Gandhi had gone there to organise an ambulance corps for World War 1. “And so, laughingly,” recalled Sarojini Naidu on the occasion of Gandhi’s 78th birthday, “we began a friendship that has lasted, grown and developed through all these many years.”

Gandhi’s simple, austere life inspired reverence and awe. The world didn’t know though, said Naidu jokingly, what it cost to keep the Mahatma in poverty. She wore coarse khadi and remained devoted to Gandhi for over 25 years. She helped him relax and enjoy a joke. She even nicknamed him ‘Mickey Mouse’: he enjoyed it and asked all sorts of questions about Mickey Mouse, whom he had never seen on screen.

The smallest detail of Gandhi’s behaviour served as a model for his followers. Did Naidu follow his rules in diet? She cried out: “Good heavens, all that grass and goat milk? Never, never, never!” She was the only one who could joke with him regarding his views on brahmacharya and chastity. Once when an article appeared in Young India suggesting several ways of avoiding the temptation of being with women, the writer advised, among other things, the wearing of dark glasses. As C Rajagopalachari always wore dark glasses, Naidu would keep making naughty remarks in which both Gandhi and Rajagopalachari himself would join. The latter’s views on the subject were as staunch as Gandhi’s, but both put up with her teasing.

Much of the humour during the freedom struggle was verbal, employing the use of catch-phrases, mispronunciations and such other devices. One cannot imagine today’s politicians indulge in word-play, a recurrent preoccupation through the centuries. Parody is an advanced form of punning that plays humorously upon a whole poem or prose work instead of a word or a group of words. Today, not many poets in our country practice this art. But in Lucknow lived Mian Mushir, a hazl go (poet of comic verse), who convulsed his readers with laughter through his language and elegant technique. It is hard to find somebody like him in Urdu.

The Lucknow paper Awadh Punch ran from January 16, 1877 till it closed in 1912. During this period, it published some of the greatest comic writers in Urdu literature. As in the case of the London Punch (1841-2002), it became a household name, known for its dignity, geniality of satire and good taste. Awadh Punch laid the foundations of the Urdu short story and literary journalism, and rendered the same service to the Urdu novel as the The Tatler and The Spectator did for the English novel. By the end of the 19th century, 70 Punch papers/magazines were published from more than a dozen cities.

With Urdu’s spread from the ‘periphery’ to its eventual heartland in the Indo-Gangetic belt, ‘excellent humorists’ flourished all over the country. The poet Mirza Ghalib mastered the art of satire, tinged with irony, to jibe at the Mulla and the Shaikh, lambast the ‘pious adviser’ (nasih), the favourite target in Persian and Urdu poetry, and denounce, both in his letters and ghazals, outmoded beliefs and practices. He castigated them because they were unintelligent and corrupt. When he satirised the ruling classes, he attacked not the theory but the abuse of authority.

Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921), a highly gifted poet, would distort words, twist their meanings, resort to pun, tazmin or tasarruf, and idiom-based  verbal jugglery. Satire and cynicism runs through much of his poetry, especially when directed against the materialism of the West, the idiocies of society, the quaint customs that came with western learning, including children ridiculing their parents and students being sarcastic about their professors, and the naïveté of the men who considered themselves emancipated. This group of poems stands apart in Akbar’s literary production. Considered as poetry, they are not negligible, but as self-description they are unique.

Given India’s folk and classical tradition of satire, it was easy for a cartoonist to relate to a form — comic art in the form of cartoons — that freezes mime and movement into a stinging visual. In 1855, two years before the fire of revolt was ignited in Meerut and Delhi, Hakim Ahmad Raza Lakhnavi launched Mazaq (‘Humour’) from the princely state of Rampur in the Rohilkhand region. Madras Punch (1859), Farhatul Akhbar (Bombay, 1876), Rohilkhand Punch (Moradabad) and Al-Punch (Patna) followed. Yet, all said and done, Awadh Punch and Parsee Punch were virtually the first Indian newspapers to give us the cartoons, as we know it today.

We believe the cartoons published therein belong to the historian’s province and some knowledge of them is necessary to understand social and cultural histories.

And if much of the world’s satire is the result of a spontaneous, or self-induced, overflow of powerful indignation, and acts as a catharsis for such emotions, then we need to examine its expression in Awadh Punch and Parsee Punch.

Mushirul Hasan is director-general, National Archives of India