In 1956, MAD magazine’s editor Al Feldstein commissioned artist Norman Mingo to create the publication’s iconic freckle-faced and gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E Neuman. An essay tracing the history of Neuman’s visage reports that Feldstein’s directions to Mingo were: “I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.” In 1964, twelve years after MAD debuted in the United States, Indian readers were treated to a desi version of its famous figurehead grinning at them from newsstands. With a gold hoop in one ear, two forelocks and a wide Cheshire smile, the boyish face promised masti.

Christened Chilli, this Indian cousin of Alfred E Neuman, became the cover boy for Diwana magazine, the first full-fledged Hindi humour and parody periodical addressed to adults. Brought out by the Delhi-based media house Tej, Diwana ran till 1986 as a bilingual weekly in both Hindi and English, with the English edition commencing in the early ’70s. Featuring some of India’s finest comic strip artists and illustrators from the mid- to late-20th century, the periodical, like its American inspiration, reflected the zeitgeist of the post-Independence decades through recurring cartoon characters, visual gags and topical satire. In the years after Diwana’s inception, other illustrated comic magazines followed, such as Lotpot in 1969 and Madhu Muskan in 1972, each of which left its own mark on Hindi popular culture. But while these latter magazines have at least a Wiki page dedicated to them, the quarter-century legacy of Diwana seems to have been largely forgotten. Tej has not preserved physical copies of the magazine, and the few that have been digitised and uploaded onto the internet by readers are limited to a short period from the late ’70s to the early ’80s.

The history of the Tej group of publications dates to 1922, when freedom fighter and journalist Rati Ram ‘Deshbandhu’ Gupta co-founded the Urdu Daily Tej/Rozana Tej. It was under the aegis of the Hindi Tej Saptahik/Tej Weekly that Diwana began to be published. The making of Diwana was a family affair: Deshbandhu Gupta’s son, the late Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, was the editor; Vishwa Bandhu’s sister Manjul served as assistant editor; and his brothers Satish and Ramesh edited art and contributed story ideas. Sitting in Tej’s longstanding Central Delhi office, Ramesh Gupta spoke about how the magazine came to be: “We thought Hindustan mein koi bhi magazine manoranjan nahin de rahee [in India, no magazine provides entertainment]. There was no real humour even in the movies. So we looked at magazines that did humour and satire – MAD was one such example. We studied it for ideas and Indianised it.” It became popular within a short period of time, a fact that Gupta attributes to its novelty. “At its peak in the 1960s, Diwana’s circulation was two lakh per week,” he said. Several years after the Hindi magazine took off, the Guptas decided to diversify into an English edition as well. Its editor was the writer and theatre director Som Benegal, a college classmate of Vishwa Bandhu Gupta.

Apart from its name, Diwana’s most visible homage to MAD is in the form of Chilli, a Neuman-esque character with a mischievous smile, who assumes various culturally recognisable roles and personas on the magazine’s cover. Sometimes Chilli is the solo protagonist in a whimsical scene, engaged in an absurd activity or referencing a scenario familiar to readers, while other times he is joined in his goofy adventures by the rest of the magazine’s ‘top-billed’ cast of cartoons. Yet other times he poses with or masquerades as celebrities from the world of cinema and sports. Over the course of his 24-year career, Chilli passed himself off as shahenshah, Rishi Kapoor, 10-headed Ravan, and the goddess Lakshmi and her devotee (in the same frame), among hundreds of other avatars.

Diwana’s playfulness extended beyond the cover to Chilli’s open letters or “Prempatra” addressed to those in the news (Delhi Police, Jayprakash Narayan and Charlie Chaplin were among the recipients), parodies of hit Bollywood movies, caricatures of netas, cut-out stickers with funny quips called chipkiyaan and columns by well-known Hindi satirists such as Padma Shri awardee Kaka Hathrasi’s Kaka ke Kartoos in which he responded to readers’ queries with witty one-liners. Gupta recalls some marketing strategies through which the editorial team emphasised the magazine’s wacky character: “Once, we gave out a bullock cart as a prize. Another time, we pasted an envelope bearing the phrase ‘Letter Bomb’ onto the cover. For one issue, we rolled up a plastic mouse in the magazine – no post office would take it. It was very difficult for our agents to display it. Generating anticipation for something new was Diwana’s USP.”

But packaging aside, the historically significant aspects of Diwana are the graphic strips and artworks within its pages. For the period of its run, the magazine was home to characters by pioneering Indian cartoonists like Kripa Shankar Bharadwaj, Bharat Negi, Murli Sundaram, Manik Pande, Jagdish Gupta and Anupam Sinha. On the masthead, right from the magazine’s beginning, was the creator of the wildly popular Motu-Patlu cartoons, Kripa Shankar Bhardwaj. According to Gupta, Bharadwaj first drew a version of the physically contrasting double act in Diwana, before joining Lotpot for a brief stint. Anupam Sinha, best known for his acclaimed work at Raj Comics, creating Super Commando Dhruva and continuing the Nagraj series, remembers seeing Bhardwaj in the Diwana office as a teenage contributor from Kanpur. Over email, he writes, “I was less than fourteen when I first visited Delhi and the office of Diwana at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in 1975…I remember the office being a big hall, mostly empty, where artists used to come only if they so decided. I remember seeing Kripa Shankar Bhardwaj ji working on Motu-Patlu during one such visit.” Sinha himself contributed a gag-a-day strip titled Baat Bebaat Ki, but his “innings with Diwana was a short-lived one as I moved onto making full-fledged comics from ’78 onwards…I still feel it was a lost opportunity for me.”

Baat Bebaat Ki, by Anupam Sinha. Courtesy: Anupam Sinha.

One of Diwana’s memorable mainstays was a comic strip called Pilpil Silbil, featuring the adventures and misadventures of two clownish men. Drawn by Bharat Negi, the strip had a droll, metafictional undertone, featuring guest appearances by Chilli and direct appeals to the reader. Its Hindi speech bubbles were peppered with words from the characters’ native Haryanvi, lending a rooted regional flavour to the stories. Negi himself was an enigmatic artist about whom little seems to be known outside geek circles. One such enthusiast is graphic novelist, animator and television producer Alok Sharma, who developed a documentary on Indian comics called Chitrakatha: Indian Comics beyond Balloons and Panels. The Facebook page he set up for the film has become a platform for Indian comic book aficionados to share information and commentary. In one post from December 23, 2013, Sharma writes of Negi, “Perhaps one of the most intellectual artists to work in Indian comics…it was Bharat ji’s command over Indian dialects that made Silbil-Pilpil one of the most underrated yet brilliant comic strips ever.” In an email interview, Sharma likened the strip to the work of American masters like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar: “Silbil-Pilpil was absurdist, cerebral humour. There was no set rule; they would divert from the main storyline to crack a joke or make a pop culture reference.” Gupta mentions that Negi also drew a strip called Spy vs Spy for the English Diwana as well as illustrations accompanying film parodies. Sharma notes that, apart from his work at Diwana, Negi contributed to The Illustrated Weekly of India, Dharmyug, Shankar’s Weekly and Raj Comics.

Another Diwana artist, an Air India employee called Murli Sundaram, created a strip called Paropkari, named for the leading man whose good Samaritan ways often land him in trouble and bad books. Sundaram is the subject of a post this January on the Facebook group Chitrakatha by a member called Hemendra Singh, who speculates that Bharadwaj’s absence at Diwana between 1969 and 1976 created the need for another flagship series: “Although Chilli was the mascot of Diwana and was quite famous, but it was difficult to bind him in a script. That was when a new artist entered Diwana with the pen name [The] Native! He was cartoonist Murli ji…New cartoon columns like Bund karo Bakwaas and Madhosh also started featuring in Diwana, which were also drawn by Native! In a very short time, Paropkari of [The] Native and Pilpil Silbil of Negi ji, became the face of Diwana.”

According to Sharma, Diwana also carried some of “the rarest Chacha Chaudhary stories ever”. Though debuting in Lotpot, Pran’s beloved character had a different look and tenor in Diwana: “…three-colored (no skin tones) and of two pages (as opposed to three page stories). The format was different because Diwana’s page size was larger than Lotpot and Diamond Comics, one of the biggest reasons why these stories were never reprinted. Even the themes were fairly strong: in one story an alien creature takes over Chachaji’s mind and makes him contemplate suicide. Dark!”

Given its lifespan and wealth of comic art, what place does Diwana occupy in the broader historical landscape of Hindi comic visuality? Hindustani comics and cartoons go back to the colonial period, with the Urdu Oudh Punch starting publication in 1877. Hindi periodicals started printing cartoons or vyanga-chitra about the social issues of the day from the early 1900s, according to Prabhat Kumar, a historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. In his 2015 dissertation Satire, Modernity, Transculturality in late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century North India, Kumar characterises Indian cartoons and satirical journals as “transculturally constituted”, meaning that these formats had to be repurposed and reframed for local consumption in order to be successfully received. Through the use of framing commentaries, indigenous literary forms like fables or recognisable visual strategies like stereotypical representations of various communities, the new European format of the cartoon narrative was “domesticated”. Kumar argues: “Modernity and Hindi satire are…constitutive of each other. Satire is one of the most significant literary-artistic modes/sites that have hosted the process of negotiation with western modernity.” While during the colonial period, as he discusses, this negotiation was framed in terms of nationalist reform and/or entertainment (opinions were divided on which conjunction was preferable), in the postcolonial era, the terms of mediating between India and the world changed.

The Guptas’ decision to bring out an entertaining or manoranjan dene wali magazine was, in 1964, well-timed. In the period after Independence, while the tradition of cartoons in Hindi literary journals continued, there was a spurt in humour magazines and comics publishers like Indrajal, an imprint of The Times of India (which Anant Pai quit to establish Amar Chitra Katha in 1967). Though American and European graphic fiction had been syndicated in South Asia for a long time, it wasn’t until the mid-’60s that they started being published in subcontinental languages – Indrajal’s Hindi version of Lee Falk’s Phantom: The Jungle Patrol was syndicated in Diwana, for example. At the same time, there was a push for indigeneity, whether it was in the turn to Hindu mythology and lore in Amar Chitra Katha or the desire for homegrown superheroes like Abid Surti’s Bahadur (Indrajal, 1972) who could compete with the Americans. This is the context in which the import of MAD to Indian shores and its transcultural “reconstitution” as Diwana might be understood. The Tej group’s Guptas identified in MAD the potential for an adaptation aimed at an emerging constituency of middle-class Hindi magazine readers. Consuming material from around the world, these readers developed cosmopolitan sensibilities in translation and through transcreation.

Translations were indeed a salient feature of magazine culture during this period, as Francesca Orsini, Professor Emerita of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, notes in The Post-Colonial Magazine Archive, her essay on Hindi and English literary journals and middlebrow magazines from the ’50s to the ’70s. She describes them as “an abundant archive that…gives an immediate sense of the breadth of the readers’ horizon...” A comic magazine like Diwana is not only a repository of a genre of graphic-textual practices from the 1960s to the 1980s, but equally a site for mediating the values of the modern condition, albeit through pictorial humour. For example, through Pilpil-Silbil’s transgression of lingual norms and the fourth wall of panels, Motu-Patlu’s shenanigans involving Ghaseeta Ram’s political machinations and Dr Jhatka’s dubious science, send-ups of popular cinema and a Hindi-speaking Phantom, satirical publications like Diwana too might be interpreted as what Orsini describes as “windows into a larger world and into ‘being modern’”, when discussing mid-century Indian magazines. Where the early 20th century cartoons championed a nationalist modernity reacting to British rule, the humorous graphic narratives from the latter half of the century were a mode of engagement with international modernity responding to American cultural influence.

As other channels of mass entertainment like television and film became accessible, Diwana became less relevant, finally ceasing production altogether. Gupta sighed wistfully: “The psyche of Hindustan was changing; perhaps other problems were more pressing.” The relevance of his words is glaring in light of the clampdown on free expression currently being experienced by Indian citizens. However, this is not the first time that someone from Diwana has expressed such a sentiment. In his 1987 book Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India, Lee Siegel, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, gives an account of a trip to the Diwana office, during the Emergency. He quotes “the editor”, presumably Benegal of the English edition (whom he thanks in the acknowledgements): “...the government controls the media, and the government has no sense of humor…You can sneak a joke or two past the censor, but not a whole magazine full of them. There was a little humor before the Emergency and a growing interest in it. But the Emergency killed it. We all move more cautiously now.”

Diwana survived the Emergency, but not the 1980s. Still, the nostalgia is strong. Gupta is confident that “all North Indians over the age of 60 know Diwana.” Former diwane – what loyal readers seem to have imaginatively named their fandom, based on letters to the editor – leave morose comments on collectors’ blogs with stray Diwana covers: “Mere bachpan ke saathi Chilli, main tumse bahot pyaar karta hoon.” [My childhood companion Chilli, I love you very much.] Gupta is aware of what has been lost. “We absolutely can’t imagine a magazine like this today,” he said. “There was no malice back then. People just laughed.” Turns out, Al Feldstein, it is hard to maintain a sense of humour while the world is collapsing around you.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.