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Window on pioneering cartoons

A. R. VENKATACHALAPATHY


WIT AND HUMOUR IN COLONIAL NORTH INDIA: Mushirul Hasan; Niyogi Books, D-78, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase I, New Delhi-110020.


India’s leading historian of Muslim politics and communalism in colonial India has written and edited an engaging and offbeat book. Mushirul Hasan breaks the widely held misconception of the emerging Muslim public sphere as inward looking and degenerate in the wake of 1857 and its aftermath. The underlying politics behind the publication of the book, though unstated, cannot be missed by the reader. By putting together this riotous volume of cartoons Hasan seems to b e conveying a subtle but nevertheless strong message to both Western champions of liberty and Muslim fundamentalists.

Ambitiously titled Wit and Humour in Colonial North India, this book is centred on the Urdu weekly Avadh Punch which was published from Lucknow from 1877 to 1936. Even though we know that the Delhi Sketch Book published cartoons even before 1857, the author is not too far off the mark when he states that the Avadh Punch “was virtually the first Indian newspaper to give us cartoons.”

Influence

Partha Mitter, in his pioneering work on art and nationalism in colonial India (who for some inexplicable reason is not cited in this book), rightly points out that “no single humorous publication made a deeper impression in colonial India than the English magazine, Punch. A riotous procession of its offering greets us in the second half of the last century.” The Avadh Punch was probably the earliest of the scores of Indian magazines to take the suffix “Punch”. The influence of Punch is evident on every page. Many cartoons were adapted from the Punch and even the ones that were drawn anew show its overwhelming influence.

The cartoons in Avadh Punch periodical neatly fit the definition of the cartoon “a unique visual which combines to make a strong commentary.” Many of the contributors to the Avadh Punch were English-educated and heavily critical of the British. The colonial wars in Afghanistan, the heavy taxation, the impoverishment of the peasantry and the hubris of the corrupt officials were targeted by the Avadh Punch. Its politics broadly fitted the moderate politics of the Congress and was critical of the Aligarh school and Syed Ahmad Khan. Politically nationalist, the Avadh Punch however was nostalgic about the dying Nawabi culture. Social reform, especially through legislation was anathema, going even to the extent of opposing the Age of Consent Bill.

Apart from tracing the history and ultimate eclipse of the Avadh Punch, Hasan also has survey chapters on humour in Urdu literature and political satire. The book would have been even more useful if the author had analysed the visuals rather than simply describing their “content”. In the second section the author reproduces the writings of Wilayat Ali Bambooque which sketch critical portraits of the various personae — such as the patwari, revenue agent, honorary magistrate — spawned by colonial rule. Eighteen plates from the Avadh Punch with notes by Archibald Constable are also reproduced in this book.

Hasan has made an important contribution to an under-explored area of cultural history.

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