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Drawing Out His Best

Political cartooning wasn't his forte, but Dar made a virtue of that evil
The Best of Sudhir Dar
By Sudhir Dar
Penguin India Rs:200

WHEN Indian political cartoonists are discussed, Sudhir Dar's name usually figures in the list of the first half-dozen. Expectedly so. For over two decades Dar worked as the political staff cartoonist of Hindustan Times, the largest-selling newspaper in north India.

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It may sound strange, but I have always considered Dar to be a victim of Indian media's prevalent system. Till recently, media in India was heavily political. A sure sign of an underdeveloped society. The most important slots in Indian newspapers were reserved for dull, pompous, boring journalists pontificating on dull, pompous, boring subjects. This killed natural talent in the profession. For instance, to keep up with the Joneses, a genius among crime reporters would cheerfully become a mediocre special correspondent dealing with handouts from government departments. That would be the only way he could increase his salary.

Dar was never by inclination a political cartoonist. He is not a political animal. His attitude to politics is somewhat akin to what I imagine would have been the attitude of Bertie Wooster. Dar's forte was humour. Pure humour of the zany kind. His drawing style suited that genre. Earlier he used clean lines without too much black, without shading. Dar is a self-taught draughtsman without the visible influence of any other artist. Unlike an icon like Laxman, or even Thackeray, neither of whom I imagine would deny the profound influence David Low's work exerted on them.

For his first three years as a newspaper cartoonist, Dar drew only cartoons without captions. He focused on humour, not topical comment. The comment, when it surfaced, was incidental. This was possible because he worked for The Statesman, edited then by Evan Charlton, who himself was not the typical Indian editor. His interest in politics was marginal. He encouraged human interest features, travelogues and writings on nature. Only in a newspaper like The Statesman of those days could Dar's zany humour, usually unrelated to current news, have flourished.

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But Dar had to get on in the profession. So he switched to HT when a vacancy for a political cartoonist arose. Mulgaokar, who edited HT those days, was the antithesis of Charlton. A political ideologue, Mulgaokar was carrying on his paper's pre-independence tradition of being the most important media voice in Indian politics.

Dar had to get into the conventional mould of an Indian political cartoonist. For two decades he acquitted himself with competence. But his real potential was never realised. Had he pursued his natural inclination for pure humour and captionless cartoons, he might have developed into an icon like the cartoonists of Punch and The New Yorker. Political cartooning even took a toll on his drawing style. He resorted to shading, making his style more conventional to fit in with the rest. He should have taken a leaf from Abu who painstakingly evolved his deceptively simple, childlike style. Abu's drawing became a talking point in Fleet Street in the Sixties. The feathery touch of Dar's earlier style survived only in some of his Page One pocket cartoons. Fortunately, there was no dearth
of those.

It is ironical that when Indian newspapers are diversifying themselves to get away from politics—and not always with happy results—to create a natural space for social cartoons, Dar has retired. Another wonderful cartoonist, Mario Miranda, had to get into the current affairs straitjacket to find space as a pocket cartoonist in the daily press. A pity the Indian press never allowed a cartoonist like Giles of The Daily Express to develop in India. Like Mario, Giles was a wonderful artist. But he got a six-column spread doing only social cartoons to become Britain's highest-paid cartoonist.

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Old hands often complain that political cartoonists in India today are not like Shankar, Kutty or Laxman in their heydays. The truth is we have as fine a bunch of political cartoonists as ever. Ravi Shankar, Unny, Sudhir Tailang, Keshav, Ajit Ninan and the rest can hold their own with cartoonists of any generation. The problem they face is not of their making. Politics itself has become so trivial as to render improbable cartoons that are memorable.

Dar's fifth such book, The Best of Sudhir Dar, reproduces only his pocket cartoons. For fans of cartoons it's essential addition to their memorabilia. For air travellers it is an ideal companion.

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