It is said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi works tirelessly round the clock. A section of the media can barely rest too, thanks to a new feature of Modi’s public image: his snow-white, lush and seemingly ever-lengthening beard.
Modi’s beard has been one of the most striking features of 2020. Drawings made before the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing national lockdown in March have had to be discarded over the past few months to more accurately reflect the leader’s latest sage-like image.
“The white beard that has begun to flow during the lockdown gives his carriage a sage-like appearance,” journalist Saba Naqvi noted in an essay for Scroll.in. “…Modi’s greatest talent lies in understanding the audience. His image calibration has therefore been a work in progress for two decades. Increasingly, these days the images that Modi chooses to present the world touch subliminal buttons – saffron, sage, penance, service and so on.”
How have cartoonists responded to this latest element in Modi’s ever-evolving public persona? Scroll.in asked three commentators for their views on Modi Before and Modi Now.
EP Unny, ‘The Indian Express’
“Narendra Modi’s beard has reached Tagorean proportions. Let us see what happens to it after the Bengal polls. And the hair is getting longer too. We cartoonists have to keep pace.
“There are no fixed intervals for when I touch up Narendra Modi’s image – certainly at least twice a year.
“Modi first got into cartoons during the Gujarat riots [in 2002]. He looked distant and aloof then. The look was pretty static, but for natural ageing during his chief ministership. Perhaps Gujarat’s cartoonists who watched him closely noticed other changes. Certainly from when he became prime minister, the image has been visibly transforming. The whole presence has changed – the clothes, the accessories.”
“Modi’s face isn’t difficult to do. But where he becomes a challenge is that he doesn’t let you stay with the same image for long. By the time you zero in on him, he changes his manner to project another impression. So lazy, rubber-stamp caricaturing doesn’t work.
“I have never seen anybody else’s appearance change in this pro-active manner. Age surely affects looks. That apart, the demeanour changes in most cases as a response to political fortunes. There are leaders who look suddenly lost when they lose power and spring back to life when they are back in the saddle. Some like Jawaharlal Nehru never looked the same after the 1962 war with China.”
“When I draw stand-alone caricatures, I refer to a few photographs and observe the details in a face. This is detailed caricature. But while drawing editorial cartoons, caricatures need not be detailed. I normally simplify the face to draw caricatures in editorial cartoons. So, as I draw more of that person in my cartoons, I don’t even refer to photographs, to maintain the same style. But I keep following Modi’s latest videos and photos and if I find any change in his face, I keep updating it.
“I have drawn very few of his cartoons when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. His beard had black and dark grey hair. And he didn’t have a well-groomed look. After he became the prime minister, he started focusing on his looks, appearance, clothes and styling. I remember drawing lots of cartoons featuring him prior to the 2014 elections. He mostly wore a simple kurta and had an untidy beard and unkempt hair. That look went well with his campaign of the ‘chaiwala’ aspiring to be the PM of this country.
“But once he became the PM, it was astonishing to see him change clothes so frequently even in a day. It was evident from his appearance that he was in safe hands of a styling team.”
“But I’m now amused by the growing beard. I have a feeling that this too is part of a brand-building strategy.
“Cartooning is a visual art. So I often use his beard as an element of cartoon ideas.
“The faces of most of our leaders change very slowly. Sonia Gandhi had untied hair, but later her ponytail became an amusing part of her caricature. Rahul Gandhi used to appear in public with a clean-shaven look. At the time, he was shown as a baby in cartoons. Gradually he started sporting a beard, maybe to showcase a mature leader’s look. Even during the lockdown, he had a shabby look, which cartoonists updated in their cartoons.
“But I can safely say that no leader has changed his look as frequently as Narendra Modi. Sometimes people wonder, what happened to the humble chaiwala image? But the BJP IT cell took good care of all those questions.”
“Narendra Modi came into the limelight when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. At the time he looked very different. His beard was hardly a stubble. His face too wasn’t that bright.
“Cartoons keep changing because a person’s appearance keeps changing. It also depends on how long the leader lasts.
“Generally, cartoonists draw a caricature and keep it as a reference. I am a lazy person, so each time, I draw from memory. So Modi’s appearance keeps changing in my cartoons because of the latest image I have seen. I always draw him from memory. When somebody is the prime minister, you tend to draw that person on almost a daily basis. The way I drew Modi in 2014 is different because he has changed drastically.”
“The beard first made its appearance when he came on television to announce the national lockdown. My hunch is that he was avoiding meeting his barber because of the virus. Now, even if you draw Santa Claus, people will mistake him for Modi.
“Modi is easy to draw. The beard makes it easier. A certain quality of your face makes you interesting. People often talk about Indira Gandhi’s nose, for instance. When we were drawing Manmohan Singh, the bluish turban was always there. In Modi’s case, the beard has kind of become a part of his personality. Then you can take liberties.”