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October 09, 2019

Doodling With A Purpose: Manjul

As told to Huzan Tata. Illustration by Osheen Siva

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Regular readers of newspapers would have come across his cartoons every day, but the rest of us can now follow his characters on his website and social media handles too, where they have been given a new lease of life. Manjul describes himself as an ‘independent editorial cartoonist’, and he has been interpreting politics and current affairs through single-frame cartoons for almost three decades. His drawings, while humorous, are particularly refreshing today as they provide a straightforward perspective in the midst of the sensational news coverage we are bombarded with.

“I started doodling pretty early on in life, winning an inter-school art competition in the sixth standard in the early ’80s. Most of us were either into outdoor games or comic books as TV was available for only a few hours a week. I was an avid reader of comics. Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh riots, Rajiv Gandhi’s ascent to power…all these incidents initiated me into the intense world of political happenings. Then around 1988, a cop once asked me for a bribe, which made me feel absolutely powerless in front of the system. It was then that I decided to find a means to vent my feelings. I happened to meet Rajni Gupta, the director of the media house Jagran Group, who gave me my first break at 16, and that’s when I started drawing cartoons professionally.”

“A comic is seen as a source of amusement, but if one adds a sharp political point to it, it becomes a very potent weapon to spread a message. Drawing cartoons about current affairs is challenging because a cartoonist has to constantly come up with fresh ideas, while history keeps repeating itself in India. The place, name, and time may change but the basic nature of most events remains the same.”

“When I started out, there was no social media and mainstream media had much more credibility. Readers used to enjoy cartoons for what they were. In the recent past, people have become alarmingly sensitive and divisive. Social media and its political funding have changed the way readers look at cartoons. In this polarised atmosphere, the threat of backlash is always there. But this is what the new establishment wants. It wants us to be afraid of them, but I am too old to change now. In my eyes, cartoonists are not afraid of anyone.”

“Any kind of genuine criticism is always welcome, but I don’t pay heed to everybody on social media. Most trolls are just there to abuse people and to compel them to leave the platform. There’s also the option of muting or blocking trolls. I use it all the time.”

“I have heard stories about the censorship of cartoons imposed by the government during the Emergency. I have also fought with editors who tried to censor my cartoons. Twice in my life, I’ve been asked to draw certain types of cartoons I didn’t agree with, and both times I decided to quit my job. I’ve realised that nowadays almost all editors are afraid, and are unwilling to publish cartoons about certain political characters. It is definitely a harrowing time for cartoonists. I am able to survive because I am a freelancer and have many clients, but I assume my friends working for a single publication are not so lucky, and they may have to exercise self-censorship.”

“The government should ensure a safe atmosphere for artistes to perform, and there should be no censorship on art forms. It is probably too much to ask for in a country where people don’t even have basic amenities. I find the web very helpful as it gives everybody a voice. Rather than regulating and censoring the web — which is a near impossible task — governments should focus on taking full advantage of the medium to help people become more informed. Again, this may be too much to ask, as no government wants an enlightened voter.”

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