The image is permanently stuck in the middle-class Bengali reader’s mind – a quintessential Bengali middle-aged Puja shopper bent under a load of newly bought packages of saris, meekly following his wife with her hair in a big bun, walking like Queen Victoria. The expression on the face of the balding man touched more hearts than the name “Chhaya Stores,” which was the advertiser. The cartoonist’s name, Chand, signed with a flourish did not escape readers.
This was typical of cartoonist Chandi Lahiri, who remained a Bengali cynic throughout his life, probing and questioning every aspect of middle-class Bengali existence through his inimitable pen-and-ink images. Before he closed his cartoon shop forever at the age of 87, Chandi-da, as he was popularly known, continued to work every day. Till the very end.
“Chandi-da was a lifelong learner,” says Debasish Deb, a famous illustrator and Lahiri’s former colleague at Ananda Bazaar Patrika. “He used to say, ‘you have to read a lot to draw political cartoons. You may know all the techniques in the world to draw cartoons, but you might still never know what political cartooning is all about.’” Deb finds that reflected throughout Lahiri’s work, often seen in the form of a severe denouncement of the political class, sometimes embracing controversy, but never compromising. From elements of the Mahabharata to the Ramayana to modern political thought, everything found a place in his huge body of work. Despite the breadth of his knowledge, Lahiri remained anchored to his roots: Bengal. There is an acute sense of “Bengaliness” in his cartoons that, perhaps as a result, did not transcend the borders of West Bengal.
Deb finds similar trends in the work of many Bengali cartoonists, especially PC Lahiri, who in Deb’s books is the “father of modern Bengali cartoons.” “There is an uncanny similarity between the works of the two Lahiris,” says Deb, “and the elder Lahiri had this Bengaliness in his cartoons that may have influenced Chandi-da. But one thing is beyond doubt – Chandi-da followed PC Lahiri in continuing the tradition of using funny pictures on advertisements to earn some extra money.” In Chandi Lahiri’s case, the overuse of his cartoons in advertising did blunt their effect on the reader. How many of us can remember OV Vijayan, RK Laxman, or Ravi Shankar drawing for advertisements?
Chandi Lahiri was a no-nonsense political cartoonist, who regarded cynicism as a virtue. He never went soft on any politician, and the former Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, was often his target. From Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to local leaders of the Congress, no one escaped his merciless pen. It appeared that he was perpetually angry and aggressive in his political cartooning, though some of this was lost when he began his Tirjok series of satirical cartoons in 1962 for Ananda Bazaar Patrika. “This series gave Chandi Lahiri his fame, but it also took him away from editorial cartooning,” says Deb.
Still, many of the images created during the Tirjok period still evoke a chuckle. For instance, the mastaan or the local goon in his tight drainpipe pants, brandishing a revolver, and the fashionable, modern lady in her sleeveless blouse and her hair in a huge bun. Though the cartoonist never admitted it, the balding, hapless man who appeared in many of his works is his alter-ego.
Chandi Lahiri had been friends with cartoonists across generations because of his amiable nature. The much younger Sekhar Mukherjee, senior faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, became a friend when Lahiri was well past his prime. “He was a simple man without celebrity airs. He accepted me as his brother,” says Mukherjee. This was around the mid-1990s, and in 2000, Mukherjee accompanied Lahiri to Bangladesh on a project. “Chandi-da was quite popular in Bangladesh too. I had not realized this,” says Mukherjee, a cartoonist and animator himself. “I also learned that he had created an animation film using makeshift equipment at his home in Kolkata along with his brother.”
The film, Under the Blue Moon, was restored under Mukherjee’s guidance at NID in 2009, when Lahiri visited the International Student Animation Festival, Chitrakatha. “He also did some experimental animation work that shows the influence of animation guru Norman McLaren, and some on puppetry. We also restored those,” says Mukherjee. “It is sad that there is no collection of his Tirjok cartoons, which helped me learn a thing or two about cartooning. I asked Chandi-da about it and he said nonchalantly, ‘all lost.’” Mukherjee was also impressed by Lahiri’s “reliable” knowledge and detailed memory.
Not everyone seemed to be convinced about Chandi Lahiri’s achievement as a cartoonist. His depiction of Bengali characters in the cartoon is a reinforcement of the Bengali archetype: a fat woman is the ruler of the house, who makes her husband sweat. The modern young Bengali woman has an oversized bun on her head. All this, some feel, limited his appeal. “They’re fun to look at,” says cartoonist Sarbajit Sen, “with predictable imageries. The gags work in cartoons, but Chandi-da overdid it at times.”
Still, despite all his “Bengaliness”, non-cerebral as some would say, Chandi Lahiri was one of the finest proponents of the art of cartoons in Bengal since the form was introduced to Bengali reader by the likes of Gaganendranath Tagore. His unwavering support for the unprivileged and the poor was legendary. This, too, earned him the kind of goodwill that his biting satire might not have attracted.
A very young Chandi Lahiri used to assist freedom fighters by couriering food and arms to them. During one of those daring acts, a bomb burst, and he lost one of his hands. That he took it in his stride quite comfortably is evinced by the cartoons he created. Chandi Lahiri left his world of cartoons on January 18, 2018, survived by his wife and a daughter.