To trace the origin and evolution of the art of Cartooning in Bengal, we have to go back to the days when the native scroll painters or Patuas, in their typical colourful style and flourish, churned out the ‘pata chitras.’
The ‘Pata Chitras’ whose staple theme included the divine and scenes from mundane life, slowly and steadily started to embrace whatever was contemporary in terms of form and content. . Though Patachitras were drawn in Birbhum, Kandi, Katwa, Tribeni and far flung East Bengal(where they were known as Gazir Pat), it was the Kalighat Patachitras, which were most modern in terms of style and subject. Located in Calcutta, the most happening city back then, Kalighat was frequented by Europeans who bought these Patachitras as valued specimens of exotic art.
Thus the local unlettered artists began to incorporate things to suit the contemporary taste, which contained traces of Cartoon. For example, a spoof on a overfed Vaishnava mendicant, the fisticuffs among rustic womenfolk, the in-laws tormenting the hapless young bride, roughing up of the pleasure seeker by brothel inmates — scenes such as these can be considered as a homebred variant of what eventually came to be known as Cartoons. The salacious gossip often made their way into the Kalighat Patachitras, to be immortalized and frozen in time. The adulterous Mahant of Tarkeshwar and his consort Elokeshi has many Patas attributed to them.
On another front, an interesting development was taking place. The standardization of the Bengali alphabet and the subsequent development of Bengali font catalysed the birth of the Bengali Printing Press. In 1798, Panchanan Karmakar set up the first vernacular type foundry in India with the help of the Srirampore Baptists. In 1818, Biswanath Deb founded the first vernacular press, crude, low cost and local, later to be famously known as Bat tala.(Under a Banyan tree, bereft of any respectability). These Bat tala publications, initially focussed on the erotic. But gradually to cater to the cross section of the society, they printed hagiographies, almanacs, pamphlets, advertisements,rustic ballads or Pachalis, epics and sundries. They were lapped up by the masses, who were now acquiring a taste for the printed books.
These ‘Bat tala books’, thankfully, were very illustrative. Annada Mangal, printed from Bowbazar, was the first illustrated book of Bengal. More followed suit. Printed on wooden blocks, various pictures adorned it’s pages. Some humorous illustrations in these books can be called a precursor to Cartoons.
A humorous sketch by John Leech in the 105th issue of the British magazine Punch published in 1843, is considered to be the first cartoon in the world. The English colonial power in India, by that time was well entrenched. In 1850, Mr. Saunders of Delhi Gazette Press published The Delhi Sketch Book, a 10 page lithographic booklet of raunchy sonnets, parodies and more importantly, cartoons. The English Commissioner of Peshawar and Ambala, Sir Herbert Benjamin Edwards ( 1799— 1868) drew cartoons under the pseudonym Brahminee Bull. It lampooned Lord Dalhousie’s Postage Act of 1853. It had a runtime of nearly 3 years.
The 1859 born Indian Punch, too , was short lived. In 1872 , Percy Windham brought out the Indian Charivari, which published cartoons regularly.
Amrita bazar Patrika, on 28th February, 1872 published a cartoon, a first for a Bengali daily. The cartoon had a humorous take on how Lord Campbell is trying to train the Bengali bureaucrats.
The British magazine of satire and humour, Punch, which started creating waves across the colonial world through 1850 ties and 60ties, is supposed to have inspired Bengali cartoons. However, Punch contained cartoons that made fun of Indians as an enslaved race.
In 1874 when ‘Harbola Bhand’ and ‘Basantak’ were published, they were popularly touted as the Indian Punch. Basantak started publication from 31st January, 1874, just one month after the appearance of the first cartoon magazine in Bengal, Harbola Bhand. Brought out by two scions of the famous Hatkhola Dutta family, Pran nath Dutta and Girindra nath Dutta Basantak played a pioneering role in the introduction and popularisation of cartoons in Bengal. Pran nath Dutta, the editor of this periodical, was an activist of the Municipal Movement in Kolkata. The main demand of the movement was active participation of Indians in the Calcutta Corporation. The illustrated periodical with cartoons by Girindranath on management of the city, it’s thoughtless implementation of arbitrary laws and various caricatures on social issues was used as a tool to justify the cause of the Municipal Movement. Take the case of a cartoon published in 1870 ties. Hee the chairman of the Calcutta Corporation, S.S. Hogg, who was also the city police commissioner, was likened to the Varaha Avatar of Vishnu, thanks to his name. Basantak made fun of almost every accepted socio political norm — be it Calcutta Corporation, the police administration, the Brahmo Samaj or the Bengali Babudom.
Till this time cartoons in Bengal were largely made from woodcut blocks and were heavily inspired by the drawing style of Bat tala books and Kalighat Pats. All this was to change when this genre got as its practioner the classy Gaganendranath from the house of Tagores. The famed Tagore modernized the art of Cartooning in Bengal and India, as well.His cartoons came out from 1917 onwards in three books that he published — Nabahullor, Adbhutlok and Birup Bajra. These were replete with satires against the class of Bengalis that went all out to imitate the British ways. In a cartoon Gaganendranath draws himself as the dhoti clad bengali gentleman who is not allowed to enter a first class railway compartment by another Bengali, dressed in European clothes and sporting a pipe. There is another one in which a Kalighat priest is seen “selling ashirvaad”. A cartoon depicting a Bengali Babu in hat and coat is aptly captioned Hybrid Bengali.
According to Subhendu Dasgupta, who has been researching on Bengali cartoons, ” You will notice how the cartoons of Gagan Tagore were markedly different from the ones that preceeded him. He brought out a distinct modernity with his play of light and shade, depth and volume in his cartoons, something that is comparable with the trends that were popular in Europe then. ”
This is not all. To give a professional edge to his cartoons, Gaganendranath started using the lithograph for printing them.
Gaganendranath drew for Probashi and Modern Review. Now journals like Bharati, Agamani, Narayani, and Basumati were also publishing cartoons, a popular genre by then, paving the way for a generation of cartoonists. The most notable among them are Dinesh Das, Charu Roy, Jatin Sen, Banbihari Mukhopadhyay, Satish and Jatish Chandra Singha, Binoy Basu, Haripada Roy, Debi prosad Roychowdhury and Ramkrishna Bhaduri. Magazines like Sachitra Bharat, Joshti Madhu, Sanibarer Chithi regularly published cartoons.
Prafulla Chandra Lahiri, a history professor, left his job to join as a cartoonist in bengali Jugantor and english Amrita Bazar Patrika. He took the name Khafi Khan and Piciel. He also created a single page strip called Khooro, a fat bumbling middle aged Bengali with a walrus moustache who is always at odds with the changing times.
The legendary Saila Chakraborty did some political cartooning before he began to illustrate the children stories of Shibram Chakraborty, which gave him lasting fame. Chittoprosad, a mainstream artist, has many remarkable cartoons to his credit which urged the people to protest. Rebotibhusan Ghosh, whose brush work was of exceptional calibre drew on political developments, happening at home and abroad. Naren Ray or Sufi contributed cartoons for the journal Swadhinota. He also drew for many other dailies and magazines. Amal Chakraborty, the ace political cartoonist was a staff cartoonist at Jugantor before it closed. He is now famous for his Amol Aloy, a box cartoon that still appears in Sangbad Pratidin. Chandi Lahiri, had his illustrious cartoon career spanning four decades. Debasish Deb and Anup Ray, illustrators for the reputed AnandaBazar Group of publications, has left the legacy of Cartooning alive in Bengal.
Till present time there are as many as 150 cartoonists spanning 8 generations. Their works have been published in more than 50 newspapers and periodicals.
Nowadays, cartoons are conspicuous by their absence in publications and media. The political economy of a newspaper now can hardly accomodate a cartoonist and the space for cartoon is eaten up by ads. No editorial cartoonist worth the name has come up in the last decade. One who has the ability to draw funny pictures will inevitably shift to animation industry. Therefore, cartoons have now become synonymous with animation films and serials.
Thus the art of Cartooning has thrived and saw its better days in Bengal. Now marginalized and under threat, the art of illustrated humor is urgently in the need for archiving.