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Murder of Cartoonists.

India, Jan. 12 -- The world is shocked at the killing of four cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, along with eight others, including a Muslim police constable and a woman, in Paris on Wednesday last. They have become martyrs of freedom. The newspaper has been lampooning all religions, most vehemently Christianity, and few paid much attention to it. Even those who feel shocked by the terrorist attack cared two hoots for the newspaper.

However, nobody is bothered by the murder of cartooning in India and elsewhere where cartoonicide, like female foeticide, goes unnoticed. When I joined the profession of journalism 42 years ago, the cartoonist was a venerated person in every newspaper office.

I remember visiting the Shankar's Weekly office a few weeks before it was closed during the Emergency. It was India's Charlie Hebdo, which was finished without firing a single shot. No columns or editorials were written mourning the death of the weekly, started by my fellow villager.

Every time I go for a morning walk, I remember Shankar when I pass by the area where his ancestral house once stood. The Kerala government has set up a museum to commemorate Shankar, called the father of cartooning in India, at Kayamkulam but it is the local MLA's name which is emblazoned in larger red letters on the building.

I grew up hearing about Shankar, who studied art at Mavelikara and left for Delhi where he blazed a trail for cartoonists to follow. I heard with pride how Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru often invited Shankar for breakfast at Teen Murti Bhavan, where he asked him not to spare the prime minister in his cartoons.

What a tragedy, it was his daughter's imposition of Emergency which struck at the roots of the Shankar's Weekly! Yet, no FIR was registered against Indira Gandhi because cartoonicide is not mentioned in the Indian Penal Code.

Kerala saw the murder of Sarasan, a satirical journal which I enjoyed reading during my adolescent years. Again, the killers escaped. Today, many would wonder how anyone could run newspapers devoted solely to satire.

At the rate at which cartooning is becoming extinct in India, a time may come when a separate section on cartoons will have to be opened in the National Museum in Delhi to remind generations to come that such an art form thrived once in India. There was a time when cartoonists commanded great respect.

The first time I visited the Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society (IENS) office on Rafi Marg in New Delhi, I was so happy to see cartoonist O.V. Vijayan climbing down the stairs holding a pipe. As I grew up enjoying his cartoons in The Hindu, I was thrilled to see him in flesh and blood.

I stopped on the stairs and watched him till he slowly walked out of the building and disappeared from my eyesight. I am sure I would not do the same if I meet Amitabh Bachchan or Sharukh Khan today.

A few years later, on a visit to the Times of India office in Bombay, I knocked on the doors of cartoonist Lakshman's cabin. He did not like my intrusion but I was happy to see him.

Here, I must also add a little story about cartoonist Sudhir Dhar who was for a while my colleague at the Hindustan Times. One day, while driving in Delhi, I accidentally blocked his way as I was on the wrong lane.

While overtaking my car, he rolled down the window glass and banged on my window with his fist, muttering abusive words. Fortunately, the glass was not broken and he did not hurt himself. That is when I learnt that a cartoonist could also attack with his fist, as he could with his pen and brush!

As soon as I reached office, I found out his number and called him to lodge my protest. He flatly denied that he did so and claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity. I did not contest him, though the Press sticker on the windshield and his cherubic face were etched in my mind.

Many saw the nomination of cartoonist Abu Abraham as a member of the Rajya Sabha as a tribute to the art of cartooning. To me it signalled the decline of political cartooning. Today, as a rule, newspapers do not employ full-time cartoonists.

The few who survive like E.P. Unni of the Indian Express and Sudhir Tailang of the Deccan Chronicle are retained as consultants. In any case, the day when a journalist or cartoonist could expect a long-term, stable career, with enough gratuity to lead a comfortable retired life is over.

Nowadays cartoons are no longer published on front pages. Newspapers like the Indian Express and The Hindu publish them on their editorial pages. Most newspapers today employ illustrators, rather than cartoonists.

There was a time when the cartoonists enjoyed considerable freedom. The editors seldom interfered in their work, though at times they rejected some contributions. Today, the editors ask them to draw cartoons in the style and manner in which they want them.

The cartoonist cannot protest because he knows that he is not indispensable. Technology has also something to do with the decline and fall of cartooning.

I was with The Searchlight at Patna for a few years. It had a rotary press but the printing quality of the paper was very poor by modern standards. Photographs had to be sent for block-making and the printed pictures were smudgy. When printed, Indira Gandhi would be mistaken for the fourth wife of Idi Amin.

In sharp contrast, line drawings printed much better. Ranga was The Searchlight's cartoonist and we invariably published his cartoon on the front page because it printed better than a photograph. When I read the biography of Joseph Pulitzer, I realised that this was the reason that prompted him also to prefer cartoons to photographs.

Today when newspapers can publish excellent colour photographs, why should they publish black and white cartoons? This seems to be the logic of most editors, who do not realise the value of a good cartoon.

When the demand for the creation of Telangana haunted Mrs Gandhi, Vijayan, who is remembered more as the author of The Saga of Khazak than as a cartoonist, drew a cartoon with the caption, "To V or not to V is the question".

Of course, only those who knew the opening phrase of the soliloquy in the "Nunnery Scene" of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet could enjoy the caption. Vijayan substituted "v" for "be" and it stood for the word 'vivisection'.

Those were the days when editors wrote about the books they read. Today they write about the food they eat and wine they drink and they cannot appreciate a cartoonist like Vijayan whose pithy captions conveyed better than full-length articles on the subject.

I remember how a silly editor went out of the way to denigrate the national Padma awards when the cartoonist working under him won a Padma award. Very soon, the cartoonist found himself smoked out of the newspaper establishment.

In an era of dumbing down, it is no surprise that cartooning is becoming extinct. Cartoon lovers like this columnist can take solace from the fact that it is a worldwide phenomenon.

For instance, the golden age for editorial cartoonists at American newspapers is over, according to a report recently presented by The Herb Block Foundation, founded by the legendary editorial cartoonist, Herbert Block, aka, Herblock.

It gives the grisly details and sad statistics behind the extinction of that now rare animal, the flourishing editorial cartoonist. The numbers are truly stunning.

"At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the US," the introduction to the report states. "Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink."

The situation is worse in India, though statistics are hard to obtain. I, therefore, depend on anecdotal evidence. The Hindustan Times used to organise an annual competition for budding cartoonists where Abu Abraham and Sudhir Tailang were regular judges.

Thousands of cartoons and caricatures from all over India would land at HT office. The preliminary selection would be made by Sudhir and the judges would choose the prize-winning entries from among the short-listed ones which would be exhibited for a few days.

It was an annual event in Delhi the art lovers looked forward to attending. Now, there is no such competition. Instead, HT organises "an annual Luxury Conference which features speakers like designer Diane von Furstenberg, Gucci CEO Robert Polet and Cartier MD Patrick Normand".

It may be a coincidence that Kerala has more per capita cartoonists than any other state. In fact, from Shankar to my friend Sudhir Nath, Keralites have dominated the field. Abu Abraham had an explanation for this. The Malayali has inherent irreverence towards those in authority. He attributed it to the tradition founded by the Malayalam poet and satirist Kunchan Nambiar (1700-1770).

Whatever be the case, not everybody can appreciate the work of a cartoonist. Recently, I saw L.K. Advani attending an exhibition of cartoons of Sudhir Tailang at Habitat Centre in New Delhi.

Indian Union Muslim League leader and Kerala's former Chief Minister C.H. Mohammed Koya could not appreciate the cartoons of Mantri, a school teacher who drew cartoons for the Malayalam daily Thaniniram (Real Colour). When he drew some cartoons on Koya, who was education minister, he was punished. The poor cartoonist died in penury.

It may appear curious to many that Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo has in a way given a new life to the newspaper. With just 60,000 copies, it was struggling to survive. "The 45-year-old satirical newspaper is quintessentially French in its provocative irreverence, its not-so-tasteful, yet very witty humour, its refusal to spare any taboo" as described by Sylvie Kauffmann, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde in a signed article in the New York Times.

It earned the wrath of Islamists, when almost 10 years ago, it reprinted the cartoons of Mohammed printed originally in a Danish newspaper that had sparked deadly protests even in India. It never backed down.

In fact, the Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier told La Monde two years ago: "It may sound a bit pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees". That is exactly what he did. On Wednesday, he died standing.

Earlier, Theo Van Gogh who worked with the Somali-born writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce the short film Submission, which criticised the treatment of women in Islam was killed by a fanatic.

He shot the film producer eight times, tried to behead him and failing in the attempt, stabbed him twice and left the weapon implanted in the body. The killers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did not spare a beat constable, who was a Muslim. Later, they killed some people at a grocery shop before they were killed by the police.

What a pity that a BSP MP wants to reward the threesome who killed the Charlie Hebdo staff! He should have also rewarded the Taliban, who killed innocent children in Peshwar! Yes, there was a justification for the killing - they were children of the army men!

Why did the three resort to killing? They wanted to seek revenge. What for? Because the cartoonists insulted the Prophet. Is it not strange that they think that their all-powerful God needs warriors to defend Him on earth?

Well-known writer Fareed Zakaria, son of Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria, says in an article that the Quran does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy, unlike the Old Testament. There is also no Quranic injunction against the use of pictures.

Once I visited an ancient church in Istanbul, which had murals depicting various scenes in the Bible. When it was converted into a mosque, the Muslim ruler did not deface the paintings. Instead, he covered them with clothes. That was enlightened Islam.

The two brothers who took up arms were virtually unemployed. They could not have improved their lot, except by hard work and diligence. So, they sought martyrdom and eternal life by killing and getting killed. What a waste of life!

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 12, 2015
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