As a widely followed cultural activity, sport has been a significant component of political cartoons. Sporting images are commonly applied to cartoons related to elections since both sport and politics are envisaged as figurative battles. The tradition of sport-themed political cartoons started with Vanity Fair and Punch in the late 1880s. The immense popularity of these cartoons published in comic periodicals prompted newspapers to follow suit. Cricket and football were the most repeated metaphors in British political cartoons, whereas baseball was the major cartoon imagery in the US. The trend caught up with political cartoonists in India as well. The series of political crisis and public disaffection with inefficient, corrupt politicians following the country’s independence in 1947, and the popularity of sports in the country provided cartoonists an armory with which to assault the political establishment. I intended to analyze the working principles and methods of these pictorial narratives to understand the effectiveness of graphically designed, mass mediated political critiques in the context of contemporary India. Aided by the Strategic Research Grant from the Design History Society, I collected representative sport-themed political cartoons from six major Indian newspapers – The Times of India (Mumbai), Hindustan Times (New Delhi), Hindustan Standard (New Delhi), Anandabazar Patrika (Kolkata), Jugantar (Kolkata) and The Hindu (Madras). The resources were obtained from the National Library in Kolkata, the Anandji Dossa Reference Collection and the H.D. Kanga Memorial Library in Mumbai, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.
R.K. Laxman pioneered the use of sport metaphors in political cartoons. Laxman, captain of the local Rough and Rough and Jolly cricket team in his boyhood, joined The Times of India in 1951 and embarked into a highly successful cartooning career. The flagship character of his cartoons – the Common Man – is an average Indian man who mutely witnesses idiosyncratic incidents involving various actors, mainly politicians. However, despite the influence of Punch Laxman’s cartoons were preoccupied with class mannerisms and sporting philosophy, not adequately exploiting sport to interpret political dispositions. Sudhir Dar’s cartoons used sport more extensively as a tool of criticizing politics. Dar started his career with The Statesman, but his most illustrious years were spent with The Hindustan Times where he drew the ‘This Is It’ series for twenty-two years. Naren Ray alias Sufi was a distinguished cartoonist who worked with the Bengali daily Jugantar in addition to several other publications. The experience of drawing cartoons for the sport periodicals Gorer Math and Stadium had a visible impact on the political cartoons he created for Jugantar. Among others, Chandi Lahiri in the Anandabazar Patrika and P.K.S. Kutty in Hindustan Standard, Anandabazar Patrika and later in Aajkal published many sport-themed political cartoons. The importance of editorial cartoons has diminished recently, but sport continues to be a major signifier in political commentary. Below is a summary of the approaches taken by these cartoonists.Examination of the time and frequency of publication reveals that these cartoons were primarily published as an important moment in politics coincided with a substantial sporting event. A cartoon depicting the political rivals Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram bowling to one another came out in Jugantar when India were playing West Indies in a Test series. The cartoon criticises the internal power-mongering of the ruling Janata Party stalwarts in the veil of cricket rivalry. Having been elected the prime minister, Morarji Desai sought to carefully distribute important posts to satisfy Janata’s different constituents and the most powerful party leaders who were rivals for his own position of leadership. In the first panel Ram sends down a delivery that puts Singh in utter discomfort, making him duck underneath the ball. In the next panel, the situation is reversed as Singh returns the compliment, alluding to the closely contested Test match which ended in India’s favour. It is clear that the struggle for the post of the Deputy Prime Minister of India has ended in a stalemate, forcing them to share the position. Such cartoons explicitly demand a reconsideration of political bickering that has held the nation in a vice-like grip. Sport motifs have been repeatedly and freely used to draw attention to these power games, yet they remain popular even today, currently its best exponent being Satish Acharya. Nevertheless, not all cartoons in this category meticulously reflected the material condition of the coincident sport event. One such cartoon, published during the India-Australia Test series in 1969, shows Jyoti Basu, the Marxist minister of Bengal, smiling at three worried gentlemen who represent opposition leaders from the Congress. Unable to dismiss the batsman, they conclude that the person must be a Communist.
A second type of cartoons showed politicians engaged in a sporting activity commensurate with their recent political stance. While serving as the Prime Minister of India, Charan Singh reportedly criticised the decision to host the Asian Games in 1982. Referring to the mega event as a tamasha (joke), he made a statement that the projected expenditure of 70 crore rupees was an utter waste for a developing country. The small report was encased in a cartoon with two panels. The first showed a foot race towards Delhi; in the second politicians were depicted as racing towards the election which was to be held shortly. Jagjivan Ram, Indira Gandhi and Charan Singh are seen leading the front, while the rear was brought up by the likes of Morarji Desai and George Fernandes.
Thirdly, cartoonists have used sport as a recurring trope of making generic, and not incident specific, comments on political culture. At times such cartoons trivialise pressing political matters in comparison to sport, thereby exhibiting the public’s alienation from politics. In a cartoon by Dar, two politicians discuss the encroachment of Russians in Afghanistan and the massive US arms aid to Pakistan. One of them asks a bystander about India’s latest stand on international affairs, to which he responds with the cricket score, implying that the nation was more interested to follow batting partnerships than international power brokerages. The central location of cricket in the public psyche was often exploited by politicians to garner popular support. Laxman draws a minister who claims that the government is very efficient when it comes to cricket, evident in its quick resolution of the impasse surrounding the imminent England series in 1981-82.
The culture of listening to radio commentary had reached such fever pitch before satellite television transmission revolutionised cricket broadcasting that the act had become not only a signifier of fandom but also a critique of work culture. Cartoons depicting a minister listening to radio commentary inside his chamber while his personal assistant refuses appointments to visitors on the pretext that the minister is very busy, or a Congress politician listening to commentary in disregard to the speaker at the Narora conference exemplify this dualism. Large-scale malingering during a sport event was a stock thematic in a cartoonist’s repertoire.
Dearth of reader feedback data limits any conclusive assessment of the popularity of these cartoons. However, the recurrence of sport, especially cricket-themed political messages in newspapers spanning various locations, orientations, and readership suggest that it was a popular medium and might have communicated with more expansive an audience than traditional political reporting ever could. In order for cartoons that allude to one theme while communicating another to succeed, the cartoonist must synchronize his/her visual vocabulary with the audience’s ability to register cultural references. Instead of posing intricate questions on provocative issues in contemporary politics or characteristics of individual politicians, the cartoonist could deliver the message more effectively by simplifying the event though visual imageries the audience are familiar with. Such methods served the dual function of drawing the readers’ attention to contentious political developments in an informal, non-incriminating tone and establishing sport as a far-reaching public pursuit.
Centre for Historical Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University