“Freedom is not what is given; it is also what is taken”: An interview with Christel Devadawson

30 November, 2015

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.

SK: Could you talk about the historical basis and the trajectory of political satire in India?

CD: I will confine myself to what I know a little about, which is political satire in English-medium newspapers. See, why it is interesting to look at this trajectory is because like many other evolving institutions in India, it bears a very complicated relationship to our colonial past. Because on the one hand, you might say that definitely one part of colonisation, both of territory and of the mind, was an insistence on a certain kind of print culture, including the culture of visual satire. And people like, for instance, [the cartoonists] David Lowe, Vicky Weisz, they were people who were very much on the lips and in the hearts of India’s cartoonists of the 1920s and the 1930s. At the same time, the interesting thing about the evolution of pictorial satire in India is that it is one of those classic weapons which cartoonists of the 30s and the 40s learnt in London, brought back to India and turned and used as anti-colonial weapons.

SK: What do you think is the relevance of RK Laxman, not just to political satire but to the country as a whole?

CD: See, Laxman is, you might say, a very curious study in contradictions because he is radical where you might least expect it, and conformist where you might least expect it.

SK: Do you think that the freedom Laxman enjoyed, to do the kind of work he wanted to, is available to cartoonists today in the current environment?

CD: I think that, in the current environment that space that is allowed, so to speak—of the licensed court jester such as David Low with the Evening Standard, Laxman with the Times of India—is perhaps no longer available. But I think that you know, freedom to some extent, is what one snatches and takes for oneself, and makes one’s own space. Now I’ll give you a good example. Vishwajyoti Ghosh had you know these single pocket pages for the op-ed page of the HT [Hindustan Times] called “Full Toss.” And then it just didn’t seem to work for him because it was sort of constraining him. Then he did this really interesting piece of writing, you know, This Side, That Side. And now what he did most recently with the Peshawar attacks—in collaboration with a Pakistani illustrator and writer [the lawyer-activist Ahmad Rafay Khan]… it is really exciting to insist that in the face of terror there is such a thing as a joint response that must be articulated. And that’s what I mean by saying one has to snatch and construct one’s freedom. Freedom is not what is given; it is also what is taken.

SK: Is the Internet a platform through which this can happen, maybe more than it can in print or in the pages of a newspaper?

CD: I won’t say so much “more so” as “also” or “along with,” because one of the hugely exciting things about cyberspace is the way images can sort of jump out and hit you on the nose without necessarily being embedded in the structures of print journalism. And that can be hugely exciting because there are people, such as Vikram Nandwani [an independent contemporary cartoonist] for instance, use this kind of freedom to talk about refugees across the world, or common crises—the crisis of globalisation, things like that, and that’s very exciting. But one also has to be careful because it is one thing to say we will remove visual culture from the structures of print journalism, it’s another thing to think through the consequences. If you, for instance, look for [the cartoonist] Abu Abraham, now one of the images you will get is that of the former president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, signing ordinances in the bathtub. That is very much a comment on the way ordinances were promulgated during the Emergency. Now if you look at it on the net—say, I’m thinking now of a person who developed much after the Emergency, younger people—they see this as images of the Indian republic. Particularly if they happen not to be domiciled within India, these images when untethered from text, can give them—unintentionally—a somewhat prejudiced, a somewhat partial representation of India today, largely because the cartoonist in question is no longer amongst us for them to write to him or whatever. In contrast, with a living cartoonist, such as Steve Bell of The Guardian, it works brilliantly.

SK: Can this kind of political satire come from unexpected quarters that do not belong to mainstream visual satire? How would you, for example, situate the Amul girl?

CD: The Amul girl is a sort of brilliant example of a kind of, what I call, an ironic contrapuntal conversation. Because on one hand, the Amul girl speaks very directly to affairs of the moment with a lot of heart-warming directness. She laughs when the nation laughs, weeps when it weeps, draws attention to a great deal that is important like losses in the national religion of cricket, gains in the Indo-Pak dialogue, things like this. Although I would say, that along with this, I would put in a certain caveat that the Amul girl is also the epitome of middle-class consumption patterns. I would say that.

There is a very fine line between critique on the one hand and patterns of consumption on the other. It’s a slightly dated example that I will give but it is nonetheless one that is very disturbing: the use of [RK Laxman's iconic character] the “Common Man” as an icon by the Times of India for marketing many strategies, many projects. The Common Man has also, on occasion, advertised for Air Deccan. That’s pretty tragic, because I’m not saying that it is noble to be poverty-stricken, but I am saying that to sort of go overboard in terms of capitalistic advertising is perhaps doing that which is very, very disturbing, particularly in an evolving economy like ours.

SK: Shankar Pillai, whose cartoons you write about in detail, shared a unique relationship with his main subject, Nehru, who famously told him, “Don’t spare me, Shankar.” What do you think the relationship between satirists and their subjects is today?

CD: See, it’s a somewhat fraught and a vexed relationship. I think one reason is much in contemporary India, particularly with regard to political behavior, has become so very…it is so completely beyond the parameters of the rational that to bring a relatively rational form like political satire to it and then to ask what is the relationship between the polity and the satirist, that’s a little difficult. Because remember politicians today interact with a far greater range of media people than their predecessors did. And they seem to exact and very often, claim, a kind of adulation, you know, an adulation that is built, say, into the format of say, a television interview. Even if the journalist in question does not intend, the visuality of television, the politics of that visuality, will bestow a certain halo of heroism on the politician that is being interviewed. Now, pictorial satire doesn’t always have that space. It does run that risk as well, of inadvertently glorifying its subject, but less frequently. And I think that is why the major newspapers of our time are simply not carrying front-page cartoons any longer.

SK: Do you think public discourse and national consciousness affects academic spaces?

CD: It should. It ought to. When I say that it ought to, I mean that the business of education is, I should hope very much, to sensitise people to the way in which structures of power begin to function, how they themselves should talk back to power, handle power structures as and when they encounter these, things like that. Now it is important because as you know, over the last few years, these structures of power have shaped student intake, have shaped faculty intake, and most of all, are insisting on revisiting curriculum at a rate of knots. And these are things people should think about, should talk about, regardless of their ideological concerns. I think young people need to be conscious that they should not lose this power. Because remember education, like all kinds of knowledge-based systems, are suspect, are vulnerable to regime change, to ideology interfacing, things like that. It is important that the people within the system—the teachers, the students, the writers, whatever—I think it is important that as bodies of people and as individuals, we continually remain vigilant, we continually talk about these things and we continue to think about these things. To be sensitive is perhaps more important than to be politically correct. Being politically correct is often a function of ideology, but to respond sensitively, to think things through, to argue—these are very much birthrights of all of us, and I don’t think any of us should lose these.

SK: You write that the cartoonist Abu Abraham was the keeper of the “national conscience” during the Emergency. There have been several discussions on censorship and free speech in the recent past in India. Who do you think is maintaining that national conscience today?

CD: Well, it is to be hoped, that each of us is, as it were, some kind of spokesperson, some kind of bent, if that’s the right word, for the small voice. I should imagine that if there is any one repository more than any other, it would probably be a mix of certain kinds of television shows and their use of certain kinds of social media. I don’t think that that’s the perfect repository of the national conscience, but that is what we are standing with. Young people are ready to think, are ready to talk back. I don’t think that we can just push the responsibility on to the media. As the public, we have not just the right but the duty to carry that responsibility on our shoulders as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.