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The Bile Also Laughs

Showcases the finest of this most discussed and criticised political cartoonist.

The Bile Also Laughs
The Bile Also Laughs
Tragic Idiom—O.V. Vijayan
By Nancy Hudson-Rodd
Edited By Sundar Ramanathaiyer
DC Books Rs: 595; Pages: 261
For the pre-Emergency cartoon lover, accustomed to a daily dose of proselytising gentlemanly humour, Vijayan’s laughless cartoons posed a challenge. The reader was invited to a serious, across-the-table debate, not to laugh. As Vijayan put it: "The West, with nearly a century of stable institutions, could afford salon humour; I cannot.... The cartoon is an attribute of democracy; but mine is a precarious island democracy whose shores are being licked by erratic waters all the while. On this insecure perch, do you expect me to laugh—or cry?"

Vijayan’s minimalist, graphic style marked an abrupt shift (not evolution) of Indian cartooning from the classical British narrative style practised by masters like Shankar, Kutty, and later, Laxman. Vijayan might not have had wide readership (or ‘laughtership’) like Laxman or Abu. But his limited, committed, Left-looking, if not Left-leaning, readers were special. They were never underestimated. They could disagree. Vijayan was not giving them a humorous, visual representation of the news they already knew. He was discussing with them what they might have already suspected.

While his older contemporaries in the then young republic were patronisingly critical of the goings-on in the fledgling democracy, Vijayan took on the dark underside of the Establishment with the vehemence of an affected party—the underdog. This empathy with the victim made Vijayan doubly defiant. This reflected in his drawings as well. He reduced his caricatures to geometrical graphic figures, something like today’s computer graphics, with a rough black patch for a background, often made with a coarse piece of khadi cloth! The local Soviet, Maoist acolytes, the imperial US, the failed Nehruvian economists (Vijayan went beyond the usual price rise, inflation, higher taxes suspects)—all were victims of this piece of rag. Then came the Emergency when even gag was gagged. A frustrated Vijayan stopped newspegged political cartoons and turned to allusive cartoon strips that went beyond the news and the censor. The collapse of the Soviet Union robbed him of his prime antagonist and he quit cartooning.

As cartoonist Unny puts it: "Vijayan’s style was overtaken by the computer and his grand themes by time: but there is something in Vijayan that cannot be appropriated. The lethal blend of language and ridicule." A Malabari cloudburst charged by potent satire.

Tragic Idiom showcases the finest of this most discussed and criticised political cartoonist. A difficult task for a compiler, for Vijayan never stayed long enough in any publication (Shankar’s Weekly, Patriot, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Hindu, The Statesman, Mathrubhoomi, Kalakaumudi, Newstime, Economic and Political Weekly) nor did he keep the originals or copies with him. A short commentary along with each cartoon would have made the collection more enjoyable (or should we say ‘meditatable’?) to the young reader.

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