Rajinder Puri (September 20, 1934–February 16, 2015) was an
exceptional cartoonist and political columnist. His work in both areas was
marked by a directness and purity of purpose seldom, if ever, seen in the
oeuvre of any Indian cartoonist or columnist. He had a marked gift for incisive
drawing and writing. There were others like O. V. Vijayan, who could draw and
write expressively, but none had Puri’s bent for savage satire which, no doubt,
had a connection with the Partition, an event without parallel in 20th century
history where 18 lakh people—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs—were massacred. It scarred
the psyche of people in India and Pakistan, and memories of psychological and
physical wounds inflicted on each other survive to this day.
Puri was only 13 when he came to Delhi with his family from Karachi, but the cataclysmic happenings were to mark him for life, as they did millions of others not so blessed with an aptitude for the arts.
He was 22 when he finished his Master’s in history from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. He had already begun to reveal a talent for satirical drawing and writing. It was only a matter of time before he plunged into cartooning and journalism full time. Puri had also met the dynamic socialist Ram Manohar Lohia, whose thoughts were to remain with the aspiring tyro the rest of his life. Puri carried within himself—till the end—Lohia’s scepticism about the Congress’s intentions to rule India fairly and bring succour to the poor and needy.
Puri’s ability to use the grotesque through line, and later tone, may possibly owe something to the medieval Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, and the early 20th century German cartoonist George Grosz.
His artistic credentials—the expression would have
embarrassed him no end—were established soon enough. His drawing had raw power
and a quality of expression that at once brings two artistes to mind: Jonathan
Swift and Honoré Daumier. The first was an Englishman, who wrote the savage
satire Gulliver’s Travels. The second was French, a cartoonist and
painter of profoundly humane abilities. Swift probably opened for Puri the
doors of realisation about greed and avarice being fundamental traits in human
beings, and Daumier opened up the varied possibilities of line in the
expression of ideas and emotions, more so those associated with satire and
trenchant social criticism.
Puri’s ability to use the grotesque through line, and later tone, may possibly owe something to a viewing of reproductions and possibly, originals of the medieval Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, and the early 20th century German cartoonist and painter George Grosz. Puri would have been alarmed at such cultural heavy weights being dragged in to justify the quality of his cartoons and caricatures. A lifelong debunker of so-called high culture that for him had its roots in inexplicable snobbery, he once wrote in the visitor’s book, after seeing the exhibition of a well-regarded modern Indian painter’s work, that even he [Puri] could understand the paintings!
He learned the ropes of his profession when in England, working with The Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald. In an unguarded moment during a tea session, he confessed the he had seen the art of the classical and modern European masters while in England. It was then that he also met Ronald Searle, Osbert Lancaster, Scarfe and others. He was instinctively averse to “high culture” and its proponents though he responded keenly to Hindustani music, both vocal and classical.
Always the champion of the underdog, he spoke glowingly of the khayal singing of Ustad Chhote Ghulam Ali Khan, who also hailed from Kasur (now in Pakistan) like his illustrious senior Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He had a hilarious story about the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s first concert at the Harballabh music festival in Amritsar in the early 1950s. The largely rustic Punjabi audience was musically well informed but a little too generous in the use of choice expletives to express appreciation. Ravi Shankar warmed up quickly and played a series of difficult taan with supreme confidence and the audience showered him with colourful four-letter words expressing approval.
The sitarist, taken aback, asked his pupil called Jhinghan, sotto voce, as he was getting ready for another piece if he was playing all that badly. Jhinghan, Puri’s college friend, said, “Gurujee you are playing brilliantly!”
“Then why are they abusing me so badly?”
Suppressing a smile, he replied, “No! Not at all, they’re showing their love and admiration for your masterly playing!”
uri’s writing was every bit as biting as his drawing. He was at his best in short pieces on topical subjects. Vinod Mehta, former editor of Outlook, got him to do “Bull’s Eye”, a short, satirical weekly piece with a matching illustration. By then Puri, the alleged Luddite, had learned to use the Personal Computer and its graphic possibilities in his unique way.
The following was written five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid by satellites of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, and, of course, followers of the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The truth was murkier than what met the eye.
Puri’s take is simultaneously very angry and funny: “Last week’s grand bash in Mulayam’s house to celebrate his son’s [Akhilesh Yadav] wedding provided some indication. Mulayam, who defended Babri Masjid and ordered the police to shoot karsevaks, warmly hugged Kalyan [Singh], whose mob killed Muslims and demolished the masjid. Laloo [Yadav], messiah of Muslims, hugged Kalyan, the saviour of Hindus. Laloo said: ‘Kalyan is our friend. The people of Bihar are calling him.’
“Kalyan said: ‘If the PM can abandon the temple issue who am I to persist with it? The PM never supported the masjid’s demolition.’”
Puri continues in the next paragraph: “Never mind if Hindus and Muslims were killed in the hatred unleashed by these leaders. Now there’s peace among them. And that living insult to Karl Marx, H. S. Surjeet has blessed it. The third front will again emerge,” he said.
Puri considered politicians, regardless of their affiliations, to be harbingers of evil; responsible for the slaughter of innocents, and the looting of the Indian nation and its natural resources.
t is important to pause and discuss other contemporaries who were very gifted in their own way. R. K. Laxman was by far the most famous of his peers. His wit was somewhat like that of his novelist elder brother, R. K. Narayan: droll, playful, gentle, rarely if ever angry. In Common Man, an ongoing character for his daily pocket cartoon and, on occasion, larger editorial cartoons modelled on the common middle-class man, Laxman attained lasting fame. Common Man was an observer of rather than a participant in the important and not so important events of daily life. He was not combative or a crusader.
O. V. Vijayan’s cartoons were political but without the contentious wit that characterised Puri’s work. Abu (Abraham) had a lyrical, whimsical streak, as does his younger colleague E. P. Unny. Sudhir Dar, in his best work, had a gentle, mischievous sense of humour. The gifted Mario Miranda had sparkle and optimism, but he wasn’t really a daily newspaper cartoonist. Not one of these individuals was politically committed in the way Rajinder Puri was. They had other interests apart from cartooning and, on occasion, writing.
Puri through his cartoons and columns lived entirely for politics. It was for him the rendering of a public service. He saw his writing and cartooning as vehicles for spreading public awareness on burning issues of the day.
Rajinder Puri’s drawing was like no other cartoonist's. Not for him the gentle, playful strokes of Laxman to bring out the silly and funny in daily life. Not for him the lyrical use of the curving line like Abu nor the jagged yet perceptive strokes of Vijayan. Puri’s draughtsmanship, in his pen and ink days brought out the grotesque in people, particularly those in politics and his words completed the pictorial idea. He could, however be a completely visual poet of the macabre that had infested political and social life in India. When he later began to use computer technology in his work his visual pre-occupations remained the same.
In his collection of essays titled India: The Wasted Years, 1969-1975 (Chetana Publications), he wrote the following about the Emergency that was about to be declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress: “Landlords and labourers, capitalists and workers, students and teachers, Sikhs and Muslims—each class and community in India today is victim of its own grievance, a strident and sometimes violent, champion of its own cause ... Each section of society has its own private grouse, but, inexorably all are finding a common cause in their hatred of Authority at all levels. The Government is becoming the common enemy, and the police is a common target of public wrath.” (page 33)
The 18-month Emergency declared in June 1975 marked Puri for
life, as it did many at that time. He became founder-secretary of the Janata
Party which defeated the Congress in the national elections but soon
degenerated into a hotbed of intrigue as the personal ambitions of politicians
clashed with the strains of public service. The Janata Party split and spawned
entities like the Janata Dal, Lok Dal, and most significantly, the BJP. Puri
worked briefly with the labour cell of the BJP but realised it was not for him.
He was far too independent a man to follow orders that did not make sense to
him. He gave up organised politics in 1988.
Puri continued to crusade till the end for social and political justice for every citizen regardless of his/ her religion or economic status. He displayed a kind of continuous fearlessness that was the pride and envy of fellow journalists.
Forty years ago his contempt for the Congress, a party he held responsible for the partition of India and the miseries that followed, was more than offset by his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. In an essay, “Remembering Gandhi”, he observed thus: ‘’It is tragic that since Independence a generation has been brought up in India on tales of Gandhi the man, and has been denied access to Gandhi the revolutionary. The man was killed by his enemies, and the revolutionary has been buried by his followers, but the legacy that he left his followers was too rich, the credit afforded by his goodwill too generous for them to altogether discard his memory ... As his followers rejoiced in Delhi, Gandhi fasted in Noakhali, embittered by his betrayal. He turned away without a word the All India Radio correspondent sent from Delhi to Noakhali to record his message for Independence Day. A few months later, he fell to an assassin’s bullet. It was left to his followers to murder his message.’’ (India: The Wasted Years, 1969-1975, page 229)
He wrote about the post-Godhra massacres in Gujarat, in continuation of his crusade for justice, in “Bull’s Eye” in the October 21, 2002 issue of Outlook. In “Cops at Work”, he wrote:
“‘Seven months have passed, we still haven’t got the truth about Godhra,’ I said.
“‘Wait for seven years,’ a lawyer advised me. ‘Remember the mass cremations in Punjab? Remember J. S. Khalra? More than seven years have passed. Have we got the truth?’”
Jaswant Singh Khalra, head of the human rights wing of Akali Dal, was taken away by the police for issuing a press statement stating that thousands of people under arrest had been quietly killed and cremated by the police. Khalra disappeared without a trace.
In the same piece Puri said, “The CBI investigations confirmed that 2,097 disappearances were accounted for in the mass cremations organised in Amritsar district alone. The remaining 16 districts of Punjab were not investigated. The CCDP has documented the identities of over 1,700 of the police victims, their families, and the circumstances which lead to their arrests, custodial deaths and cremations. There are detailed reports of how innocents with no connection to terrorism were tortured and killed in cold blood by the police, in some cases driving their relatives to suicide or insanity.’’
He comments: “The NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) is still dawdling. Pinochet of Chile and Milosevic of Serbia were named international war criminals for crimes no worse.”
Rajinder Puri wrote in the same perceptive and outraged style till the end. In his last piece, which appeared in The Statesman (October 13, 2014), he wrote of a Modi mukt Bharat.
Predictably enough he never wrote for the paper again!
Drawing or writing, Rajinder Puri was his own man. Not always the fire and brimstone preacher as this piece may suggest, he was also capable of laughing and making others laugh just for the pleasure of it.
The images were taken from
India: The Wasted Years, 1969-1975, Chetana Publications (1975), and
Bull’s Eye!, Hope India Publications (2004).