Mostly busy trying to make sense of the present, it is not often that journalists, as part of their daily grind, get a chance to go back in time and surround themselves with leather-bound volumes in an archive. Mine came last week, thanks to the furore caused by K. Shankar Pillai’s more-than-six decades-old Ambedkar cartoon that had first appeared in Shankar’s Weekly in 1949. As someone who was born in 1981, six years after Shankar was forced to fold his magazine in the initial phases of the emergency in 1975, I didn’t think twice when this opportunity to turn the clock back came by.
What was the legendary title like? My answer lay in New Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, where the weekly’s back issues have been preserved. While the weekly carried articles just like any other magazine, what was unique about it were the numerous cartoons— practically one every page— that accompanied these articles.
Often they weren’t even related. It was clear what Shankar intended it to be— a cartoon-oriented magazine. And not just India, the weekly featured cartoons on international affairs in each issue— a lot about our neighbourhood, West Asia and the US.
Other than his cartoons, what had me also gripped were advertisements from the decades of the 1960s and 70s. All in black and white and in linotype, they are no less part of our nostalgia than the cartoons.
Like the metallic Allwyn refrigerator that retailed for Rs 1,500 or an Air-India Delhi-New York return ticket that sold for Rs 4,004. Or Cottage Industries, that at 17, celebrated being “gay as soft and innocent as gay”! Another memorable one had the Air-India maharaja featured with a Santa Claus beard stealing a kiss from a lady and her son stealing a glance of it. And some were so simple— like Mario Miranda’s drawing of a family secured in a safe in an ad for the Punjab National Bank.
What also didn’t escape attention were the ones issued by the government, especially in the 1960s, when India fought wars with Pakistan and China, urging Indians too be frugal and productive for more effective nation building and helping our armed forces. One such ad called on Indians to avoid unwanted expenses and work more to add “strength to our fighting power”. “No feasts or festivities” was its directive. Another such ad featured a group of Indians ramming a tree trunk into a Mongoloid-featured man. “Preserve unity, work resolutely,” it read.
But as Shankar's cartoon is exorcised from our textbooks today, words from his farewell edit seem as relevant as they were 37 years back. “What (sic) are the people who have a developed sense of humour? It is a people with a certain civilised norms (sic) of behaviour, where there is tolerance and a dash of compassion,” he seems to tell us even today. “From this point, the world and sadly enough India have become grimmer.” Only if we could laugh it off…