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Cartoons of the Raj

Partha Mitter looks at how tensions and cultural interchange between Indians and Britons are conveyed in the imagery of the colonial period.

One of the first cartoons by an Indian to make a political impact was published in the Bengali newspaper Sulav Samachar in the 1870s, highlighting a glaring injustice. Often poorer Indians were assaulted by Europeans, leading to their death. lf the case came to court at all, the victim's 'enlarged spleen' was blamed for his death. The cartoon shows a dead coolie with his wife weeping next to him. A European doctor conducts a perfunctory post-mortem while the offender stands nonchalantly smoking a cigar. The cartoon, with its suggestion of collusion between European authorities and the offenders, was one of the seditious pieces that provoked the Raj into imposing vernacular press censorship in 1878.

Although caricature and parody have occasionally been encountered in Indian art since the ancient period, caricature as a systematic weapon of social criticism began with the popular art of Kalighat which colonial Calcutta gave rise to in the nineteenth century. Modern caricature as a form of journalism was imported from Britain by the British expatriates in India. Their comic drawings were inspired by Rowlandson. However no single humorous publication made a deeper impression in India than the English comic magazine, Punch. A riotous procession of its offspring greets us in magazines published in India during the second half of the last century: Delhi Sketch Book;

Momus; The Indian Charivari; The Oudh Punch; The Delhi Punch; The Punjab Punch; The Indian Punch; Urdu Punch; Gujarati Punch; Hindi Punch; Parsi Punch and Purneab Punch from a remote town in Bengal. Unlike Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, Punch, which had given the word 'cartoon' to the English language, stood for Victorian respectability, a respectability eagerly emulated by the British-owned comic magazines in India. Indeed, the comic magazines, whether in Britain or in India, were an index of imperial mentality.

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