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Laugh, Riotous Politics!

A first look at ‘Wit and Wisdom’, a new compilation from ‘The Parsee Punch’, a London ‘Punch’ clone, published from 1854 to the 1930s.

Laugh, Riotous Politics!
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The Parsee Punch, a London Punch clone, was published from 1854 to the 1930s. A first look at Wit and Wisdom, a new compilation by Mushirul Hasan. Here, he writes for us on politics and humour.

‘Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand’, wrote Mark Twain. Many of our leaders during the freedom struggle enjoyed sketches, photographs and cartoons. “If I had no sense of humour,” Gandhiji said, “I would long ago have committed suicide.” His humour was gentle and sympathetic. He ridiculed human folly in general rather than attack specific persons. Jawaharlal Nehru was pleased to see an exceedingly beautiful picture by Boris Georgiev, a Bulgarian artist, representing an Indian peasant with all his misery and resignation. He knew Shankar the cartoonist well and found him very “nice”.

Maulana Azad has some passages of great satirical ingenuity in his Urdu writings. The intellectual diversions that engaged his liveliest wit and those of his close friends are at least as revealing as the melancholia that finally overpowered him during the dark days of partition. In fact, Urdu humour offers such rare insights into South Asia’s cultural history that it can be read as a historical document without undermining its artistic achievements. It introduces a tenderness and loftiness of feeling.

After Independence, the country swarmed with cartoonists—good, bad and indifferent. R.K. Laxman’s taciturn Common Man—tough and durable—has left his mark. The Common Man is ‘a silent, bewildered’, and often bemused spectator of events anyway beyond his control.

Once upon a time, our politicians made lively remarks in a sharp, amusing way. Hence the cartoons of the era engaged the conviction and the passions of the discerning mind, and appealed to popular taste and intelligence too. Nowadays, wit and humour seems to have disappeared from their lives. In its early days, superior restraint won the reward of greater success. Today, the innocence of the funny side is replaced by coarse and boisterous jesting in Parliament. In general, the humour has turned brash, boastful, crude.

Cartoons fall into the historian’s province and some knowledge of them is necessary to understanding social and cultural histories. They belong to a field beyond history.


(Wit & Wisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, by Mushirul Hasan, is published by Niyogi Books and priced at Rs. 795.)

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