The book Batsyayana and His Barbs: A Cartoonist’s Take on Post-1990 Nepal will be available online on UWB for sale. (read more about the book below)
Prachanda: O Buddha! I take refuge in thee
Guerillas: O Buddha
Cartoon by Batsyayana via (the front page of) Kantipur (Monday, June 26, 2006).
Batsyayana is Nepal’s foremost cartoonist both in terms of the content of his works and its quality. Over four decades he has charmed his readers with irrepressible wit and humor. And by unflinchingly and persistently drawing cartoons against corruption, bad governance, government censorship, untouchability, violation of human rights, extra-judicial excesses and in favor of freedom of press, he has helped further the most vibrant civil democratic discourse in Nepal.
Batsyayana in the book release ceremony on Sunday June 25, 2006. Pics by Bikas Rauniar via Kantipur
He is now coming up with his first book of cartoons, entitled Batsyayana and His Barbs: A Cartoonist’s Take on Post-1990 Nepal. The book contains best of Batsyayana’s cartoons published, as is evident from the title, after 1990 in various newspapers. It presents an unbiased visual history, though registered through the uncommon sight of one gifted individual, of post-1990 Nepal. Reading it, one gets a vivid picture of what went wrong in post-1990 Nepal and why. It simply doesn’t let us forget history lest we are condemned to repeat it. Now as we head towards the path of national reconstruction, the book keeps us on our guard against the kinds of ills we unwittingly had to grapple with after 1990.
Thought packed with humor, the book sends out strong social and political message, and is therefore indispensable for activists working in the fields of anticorruption, transparency, good governance, untouchability, human rights.
UWB here reproduces the Introduction of the book by Ajit Baral (with permission from the publisher Fine Print Book Club)
Batsyayana and His Barbs: A Cartoonist’s Take on Post-1990 Nepal
In mid-August 2005, Batsyayana’s home town of Pokhara was heating up for the general convention of the National Free Students’ Union (NFSU), the student wing of the Nepali Congress. Gagan Thapa, a leader of the NFSU, who had unexpectedly been released from jail, where he had been imprisoned on charges of deshdroha—or treason against the state—had arrived in Pokhara just in time to compete in the election. And he was vociferously asking that the topic of the people’s republic also be included in the main agenda of the general convention of the Nepali Congress, scheduled to start a few days later.
Perhaps in response, the Nepali Congress President Girija Prasad Koirala accused Gagan Thapa and Narhari Acharya of being backed by the palace—an absurd assertion, given that Thapa and Acharya had both been most critical of King Gyanendra and his October 4 dismissal of the constitutionally elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba. Koirala’s statement angered many, including me, and I thought of picking up the phone and asking Batsyayana, who happens to be my father, to draw a cartoon pillorying Koirala for the statement. But somehow I didn’t.
A few days later, on August 21, Kantipur and its sister publication, The Kathmandu Post, carried a cartoon by Batsyayana, which was based on the Koirala statement (after all, the statement was absurd enough to be made fun of). In it, Koirala is shown carrying the carcass of a donkey somewhere after retrieving it from a garbage container—the donkey, of course, representing the constitutional monarchy. I read the cartoon in the morning, had a laugh and quickly forgot about it. Later in the afternoon, in talking to friends about the cartoon, a columnist said that it was more powerful than all the newspaper pieces he had written put together. When I returned home, I read the cartoon again and only then did I intuit that that a political tsunami might be in the offing.
Mohammad Mohsin: Jumply Quicky. You have no other alternatives
Surprisingly, nothing happened that day. But on Monday, the Kantipur Publications started receiving threatening phone calls. The Chief District Officer of Kathmandu summoned the editors of Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post and demanded clarification on the cartoon, while the government officers and security forces discussed for long hours what charges to frame against the company. On Tuesday, the Communication Minister Tanka Dhakal called a press conference and informed the journalists that his Ministry was doing homework for possible action against the Kantipur Publications. The government-owned newspaper Gorkhapatra wrote editorials demanding action against the cartoonist and his editors, and carried statements of the pro-monarchists. Some of the palace apologists even ventured to say that all the property of the cartoonist should be confiscated and that he should be sentenced to death. Somehow, no action was taken against the cartoonist or the editors.
After the October 4 move by the King, Kantipur, Himal Khabarpatrika, and Samay had all carried articles which were as much, if not more, critical of the monarchy as the cartoon, yet they never created a stir. Why did the cartoon then alone ruffle the feathers of the monarchists so? An opinion put forth by Kundan Aryal, who has written a history book on Nepali cartoons, might be instructive here. In a discussion on “Censorship in Cartoon” organized by Martin Chautari a few weeks after the publication of the cartoon, Aryal said that the hue and cry over the cartoon was raised because it was the work of a man who had been creating cartoons for four decades, and who had become an institution unto himself.
But did Batsyayana ever think that he would one day become an institution when he started cartooning some forty years ago? No. Time, and not interest, made him a cartoonist, he says.
In the mid-1960s, Batsyayana had come to Kathmandu to study and was looking for a job to support his academic work. Ramesh Nath Pandey, the editor of a Nepali weekly Naya Sandesh, was looking for someone who could draw and offered Batsyayana a job as a cartoonist, even though Batsyayana did not know anything about cartooning (ironically, Pandey was the foreign minister when the government was considering actions against the cartoonist). The editor would come up with ideas and Batsyayana would draw cartoons accordingly.
Once he got a job at Janak Shikshya Samagri Kendra as an illustrator and started doing illustrations for Ratna Pustak Bhandar and Sahayogi Prakashan, Batsyayana no longer felt the urge to do cartoons, which paid almost nothing. Moreover, those were the early days of the unitary Panchayat system when newspapers were regularly shut down because of censorship, and the weekly Naya Sandesh was no exception. Batsyayana believes that he drew 20 cartoons at the most during his three years’ tenure at the weekly.
You just lisp. It will sing the bhailo carol.
After a lull of some years, he took up cartooning again for a literary magazine called Prangan that he and his literary friends floated in 1978. The magazine ran for four years, through 13 issues, and then folded up. Having seen Batsyayana’s cartoons in that magazine, some newspaper editors in Kathmandu requested him to draw cartoons for them as well. Rastrapukar was the only newspaper with democratic credentials in those days and Batsyayana agreed to their offer. In his Rastrapukar days, he kept himself busy creating cartoons reflecting the political concerns of the time, like the 1982 referendum and the student union elections. By then, he had already become an established cartoonist.
However, the quality of his cartoons was not as good as it now is. Modern printing technology that is so commonplace these days was unavailable then. Cartoons, therefore, had to first be transposed onto wooden blocks and then printed onto paper, and much was lost in the process. Later, zinc blocks replaced wooden blocks, which improved things a little, but the illustration printed from zinc blocks still had a raw and unpolished look (see the cartoons in the book done in the late 1970s). Moreover, photos were rarely used in the papers then, television was non-existent, and Batsyayana, more often than not, had no inkling what the subject of his cartoon looked like. So, when he had to depict, say, Kirtinidhi Bista, he would draw a figure and inscribe the then-Prime Minister’s name somewhere within the frame. The quality of printed cartoons, however, improved a lot with the arrival of the offset press around 1983.
Before then, Batsyayana used to draw in pen and ink, which is not easy to do, because one needs to keep dipping the pen in ink and pressing it hard as one went about the drawing process. It is a time-consuming process, with the danger of the paper getting scratched. Working with the brush, on the other hand, is different. It is quick, efficient, and one can use brushes of different sizes to better illustrate the effect of light and shade. Furthermore, not surprisingly, he took to brush when he learned that RK Laxman, the doyen of Indian cartoon, worked with it. Batsyayana was with Suruchi at that point, where he also used to draw a gag column entitled Aveyentar. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, he worked for Deshantar during the period of the interim government, and then for the government-owned Gorkhapatra, after which he joined Kantipur in 1995, where he has been since.
It has already been four decades now since he started drawing cartoons, yet he is still getting better. His work of late has been far better than the earlier efforts, which Batsyayana himself confesses he doesn’t like as much, and whenever he sees them, he gives the oh-did-I-draw-them look.
He has a keen, observant eye and sees the unusual in the pedestrian, which he exaggerates into delightful cartoons. Some anecdotes spring to mind in this regard. Once we had gone to deposit some money at a bank. The man at the counter was on the phone, unconcerned about the growing queue in front of him. Having carefully observed the scene, Batsyayana later transformed this quotidian experience into a cartoon (see inside the book), in which he had the man at the counter asking whoever was at the other end of the phone to tell him a story.
Similarly, we had bought a kerosene heater, which we were reduced to keeping as a showpiece because a Maoist blockade had resulted in kerosene shortage. Again, he transformed the experience into a humorous cartoon, in which a man, warming himself in front of a makal, tells his wife to send a makal to his sons so that they too could keep warm in the Kathmandu cold. The daughter in the cartoon on page (see in the book) is our mother. Mother has a habit of sleeping with the television on, a common sight in other households as well these days. But Batsyayana’s eyes registered something unusual in this scene, which he transformed, through invented dialogue (“Don’t turn it off for some time, father. I was just beginning to fall asleep”) and clean artwork, into another delightful cartoon.
Even though he has used our family as subjects for his work, Batsyayana has almost never solicited any suggestions or ideas from us. And even when we share our ideas with him unasked, he rarely bases his cartoons on them. That could be because, while we can offer ideas, we are unable to suggest the humorous angles. Moreover, a cartoon has its limitations, which we laymen are unaware of, and thus the suggestions we offer may not be translatable into cartoons. When the general convention of the Nepali Congress was fast approaching, I requested him to draw a cartoon that would help garner support for Narhari Acharya in his race for Congress President against Girija Prasad Koirala, but Batsyayana declined. There was no way of showing support for Acharya through a cartoon, and if he had attempted to do so, it would have BECOME anything but. Or maybe he didn’t want to appear partisan.
It’s good, like a municipality road
He has never used the power of the brush to please anyone. In fact, sparing none, he has pilloried all the major netas, from Man Mohan Adhikari, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Surya Bahadur Thapa, Lokendra Bahadur Chanda to now Tulsi Giri. And he has been most critical of Girija Prasad Koirala, the third-time president of the party he supports. Thus, no one can say for sure which ideology Batsyayana leans towards when looking at his cartoons. It was no surprise, then, that during a student union election, a friend of mine affiliated with the All Nepal Free Students’ Union (the student wing of the United Marxist Leninist Party) told a mutual friend of ours that I was in their camp, the ANFSU, when he learned that I was Batsyayana’s son.
Batsyayana well knows what makes a cartoon and eschews making plain [bald political or social statements. That’s why his cartoons are always humorous. They not only induce laughter, but also compel one to reflect on the issues raised, long after one has finished reading (and looking at) his work. Take, for example, the cartoon on page (see the book). In the context of Martyr’s Day, it shows a boy, upon seeing people garlanding his martyred father’s statue, asking his mother if it is his father’s birthday. There is faint humor in it: the politicians showing respect to the dead but not caring for the living; but more importantly, running even deeper is a pathos, which forces readers to think about the plight of the son and the mother (and, by extension, many families of the martyrs), long after one has read the cartoon—the plight of families who have been rendered homeless due to the death of their breadwinner, and who now have no one to count on for a living.
An avid reader of newspapers as well as a keen observer, Batsyayana has no trouble in identifying subjects and themes for this cartoons; it is the presentation of such in a humorous, satirical way where the difficulty comes in. So, he often composes several drafts, before picking and starting work on the best one. He works conscientiously on minute details, unlike others who only line-draw, and he is able to bring an accurate likeness to his cartoon characters, be they Jyapus, foreigners, or hip young boys. And then he puts in water colors, adding dialogue, if any, later. Primarily an artist, he brings all his painting skills to bear on his cartoons, making them look soft and aesthetically pleasing (unlike the flat computer-generated cartoons), thereby also revealing his skills as a master craftsman and composer.
While cartoons are generally easy to understand, at times, however, one fails to get the pun if one is unaware of the context referred to therein. When Batsyayana is unsure of his readers getting the pun, he asks us, his first readers, if we understand the cartoon. If we don’t, he explains the context to us. If we still don’t get it, or think much of it, he throws it out the window, as it were.
I don’t know how other cartoonists work, but when we, his family, see him work, we notice pure labor. He works on a single cartoon as if it were a piece of art, from morning to late afternoon. Sometimes, despite his labors, the cartoon doesn’t meet his standards–the dialogue, for instance, may be off kilter, or the humor falls flat, despite the painterly quality of the cartoon. Seeing the kind of effort that goes into his cartoons, in order not to have his labor of the day go to waste, we sometimes try to force him to send in his work, even if we are unsure of its worth. More often than not, he stands firm in his decision not to, but once in a while he relents, but doesn’t forget to tell the editor: “It’s not that good, but have a look.”
This tendency to stand back and evaluate his cartoons on merit as well as his sense of humor, observant eyes and unsurpassable drawing skills enable him to draw one good cartoon after another. This collection is a testimony to that.
ABOUT THIS COLLECTION
In this book, we have selected only those cartoons, which were drawn after the restoration of democracy in 1990. There is a reason for it. Batsyayana never dreamed that he would one day be a cartoonist, or that his cartoons would have great archival value. So he was negligent about retrieving and collecting the cartoons that he would send for publication in Kathmandu from Pokhara, where he still works and lives. Therefore, most of the cartoons he did before the arrival of fax and Internet technology in Nepal have been lost, and he has retained only those cartoons he worked on after around 1990.
I am sure we could have found some of his cartoons if we had hunted for them in the libraries, but scanning and publishing them in book form did not appear to be a good choice aesthetically because, back in those old days, as mentioned earlier, cartoons had to be carved onto wooden blocks and then printed onto paper, with much getting lost in the process. More importantly, we wanted the book, warts and all, to be a sustained visual history of Post-1990 Nepal, as registered through the uncommon sight of one gifted individual, documenting the country’s slide into active monarchy, a mere 15 years after the restoration of democracy.
UWB Note: Saluting his efforts of fighting against autocracy and creating awareness about democracy and freedom in Nepali society through his breathtaking cartoons for decades, United We Blog will proudly start selling Batsyayana’s book online soon.