Christel Devadawson, a writer and professor, is the head of the English department at Delhi University. Through her work, Devadawson, who studied at St Stephens College and then at the University of Cambridge, explores visual popular culture in its various forms, especially in the context of South Asia. In her 2014 book, Out of Line: Cartoons, Caricature and Contemporary India, she traces the development of graphic satire in independent India, and studies the work of noted cartoonists, such as RK Laxman, Abu Abraham and Shankar Pillai. Devadawson analyses the political relevance of these cartoons and cartoonists, and characterises political satire as form of national “lifewriting”—a way for the nation to self-document and record its own history. Last week, during a discussion at the Indian Languages Festival Samanvay, she talked about RK Laxman, and the role of political cartoons as a language of critical thinking and expression.
In this interview with Surabhi Kanga, an assistant editor at The Caravan, Devadawson discussed the current state of political satire, its relation to public discourse and how criticism might be changing in the age of the Internet.
Surabhi Kanga: What do you think is the importance of political satire in a democracy such as ours? How did you pick up satire as a subject of study?
Christel Devadawson: I would say the single biggest function of satire in a participatory democracy such as ours is to radicalise the middle-class; to insist on broadening the middle ground between one form of extremism and another; to keep everything in perspective; and to not allow any one form of ideology to dictate terms to society; and finally, it is a curious combination of watchdog and entertainer for an evolving civil society.
But why I find political satire challenging is because it does not allow people—either cartoonists or leaders—to sit on the fence. It insists that everyone take a position, argue it out, think it through; it entertains, and it also in a sense, gives people a major reason for thinking about ways, visually, in a way that they wouldn’t textually.