What social and political debates tickled Bengal’s funny bone in the two decades after Independence? That was the focus of an exhibition titled “Cartoons In Bengal 1950-1970: Freedom of Speech and Socio-Political Artistic Voice”, held at the India International Centre, New Delhi from July 8 to 15 to showcase the state’s cartoon history.

“When we laugh at local matters, it is a way of being vocal about these issues, about engaging with them,” said Samit Das, the curator of the show. “This is also how these issues become a global concern. The wit and ideas that are involved in creating cartoons, I believe, have always been present in Indians. It is certainly not a new phenomenon.”

The works on display, Das said, traced the major political and social shifts in Bengal during that period.

They also turned a critical eye on newly-independent India as it grappled with remnants of its colonial past while nurturing the dreams of millions, as seen by cartoonists from Bengal. From the Partition to Kashmir conflict, cartoonists from the state had a unique perspective on events.

On display were cartoonists and illustrators Saila Narayan Chakraborty, Debiprasad Roy Choudhury, Kutty, Chandi Lahiri, Rebati Bushan, Amal Chakraborty, and others. Das found the cartoons in Bengali periodicals and dailies such as Lolita, Prabartak, Suchitra Shishir, and Bharatbarsha.

Political personalities like Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and cultural giants like Rabindranath Tagore were popular subjects of these cartoons, many of which used animal metaphors.

Scroll.in spoke to Das about cartoons through the years and current cartooning trends in West Bengal. Excerpts from the conversation:

What is the idea behind exhibition, “Cartoons In Bengal 1950-1970: Freedom of Speech and Socio-Political Artistic Voice”?

Artistic voices are important and still relevant in raising questions and critiquing socio-political matters and that is why, exhibitions are much-needed too. Cartoonists, with their aesthetics and brilliant ways, are able to compose a solid debating voice.

Cartoonists in Bengal expressed critical visual narratives with a deep sense of social and political awareness. The content and text matter of the cartoons in the exhibition are important even in today’s time.

"The Hundredth-anniversary Chorus" by cartoonist Kutty.

What could have been the reasons for cartoonists being so prolific in Bengal of the 1950-70s?

A selection of cartoons in this exhibition focuses on Bengal, and the time period in focus is crucial since it was only a few years after Independence – the 1950s to ’70s. A few of these cartoons were created before 1947 but only published in the 1950s.

Many people did not agree with political leaders and their decisions during the years following Independence. As we know, Bengal has always been a strong voice of social and political awareness. Opinionated voices have always existed in this community. Similarly, artistic voices, including those of cartoonists, are crucial for challenging certain socio-political status quo.

A cartoon on Jawaharlal Nehru by Saila Narayan Chakraborty.

How did you decide which cartoonists and cartoons to display and how did you find them?

The entire collection is from my personal archives and library – cartoons that I have encountered over the years.

As for what is on display, I have selected cartoons that I felt were relevant to the socio-political contexts of the present.

Who among those on display (Saila Narayan Chakraborty, Debiprasad Roy Choudhury, Kutty, Chandi Lahiri, Rebati Bushan, and Amal Chakraborty) is your favourite and why?

I honestly could not pick a favourite. The remarkable thing about these cartoonists is that every one of them was very well informed, aware, and consistently strong in their artistic voice.

Is there anything particular about the art form that seems to have been lost with time?

Political cartoons are so rare to come across these days, they are almost lost. That could be due to the fact that there is not much editorial support from various publications. There is a need to preserve cartoons and encourage cartoonists – it is a high-intellect form of art.

What are your views on the cartoons and cartoonists of Bengal today?

One does not see many political cartoons in Bengal these days. They are rare in newspapers and similar publications, though it is not uncommon to see cartoons doing the rounds on social media. It remains a potent medium to expose shortcomings of our political leaders.

In Bengal, there is a cartoon club that organises Cartoon Mela that encourages the audience to engage with cartoons and cartoonists. Monfakira Books actively publishes cartoons and has become a respected name in this niche area. They also post cartoons to their Facebook account.

"Reflection" by cartoonist Debiprasad Roy Choudhury.

Memes have also become a way to express one’s frustrations with socio-political issues. They are the go-to medium in today’s age of social media and are found in plenty. Do you think memes will eventually replace cartoons or are cartoons here to stay?

Memes are not really cartoons. They are not hand-drawn and are mostly completely digital. These days, there are also memes that are AI based or software generated.

Be it cartoons or memes, the creator uses the form to express certain views. In my opinion, every medium has its own advantages and they can coexist with each other.

How did you develop an interest in this art form?

I think everyone wants to have a good laugh about whatever is going on around them. You can make sense of things even with a big smile – I am not an exception in that case.

I think most Bengalis in the 1970s were surrounded by cartoons. I was too. I have grown up with cartoons.

If given an opportunity, cartoons from which other states and time periods would you like to curate?

I don’t consider myself an expert of many Indian languages and local humour. Therefore, I don’t want to bite more than I can chew! But yes, one should also look at the cartoons from the 1930s till the 1970s. These years were also a crucial period in Indian politics, so it would be interesting to find out how cartoonists had raised their voices and participated in political dialogues in such tense circumstances!

Curator and artist Samit Das at the exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi.