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Posted on May 07, 11:01AM | IANS
By Madhusree Chatterjee, New Delhi, May 7 : Humour has been the golden lining of India's realpolitik for as long as one can remember. The early kings hired jesters; Mughal emperor Akbar had Birbal and, in the 19th century, quick-witted Indian writers picked up from the British bible of humour, Punch, to laugh like the white "babus".
By the end of the 19th century, at least 70 Indian-style Punch-like papers and magazines had appeared in ovar a dozen 12 cities of the country.
"Humour unfortunately is now on the decline in public life. The composition of political clans has changed so dramatically that their appreciation for humour is diminishing. Public life has become very combative and politics competitive. The ability to laugh is becoming more of a rarity," historian and anthologist Mushirul Hasan, the director of the National Archives of India, told IANS.
Hasan's new humour compendium, "Wit and Wisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch" (Niyogi Books) published last month, has reproduced some of the best caricatures from the illustrated Parsee comic weekly paper published for over seven decades from 1854.
The cartoons mirror the social and political situation of Bombay and the western provinces of the country in the light of world events.
There are also academic accounts of the history of the Parsee community in India and how politics, religion, reforms, identity and foreign affairs affected their lives.
The Parsee Punch, like the London Punch, contained 20-36 pages of funny illustrations. The weekly's name was later changed to Hindi Punch for a more pan-Indian identity and continued to be published till 1930.
"You can't conceive a human society without humour. Modern India had several great humorists like Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru. Shankar was everybody's favourite and with Laxman, the common man became a symbol. There was a lot of homour in Urdu writing before and after Independence," Hasan said.
The cartoons have a nationalist colour. A late 19th century Parsee Punch illustration, "A Loving Pair", makes a political comments about a cross-cultural love.
It reads thus:
Fergusson (to a native sari-clad lady, whom he hugs): "Yes, My Dear, I shall always try to make you happy!"
Miss Poona Bai: "I am so happy, so joyful for your such kind and sincere attention towards me, my dear Fergusson, that I am unable to express my feelings in words..."
(Sir James Fergusson had made an important concession for establishing a native girls' high school at Poona.)
Another cartoon that appeared during a campaign against the British vice-regal's and Indian gentry's visits to Simla in the summer reads: "The Gentleman Goes to Simla and the dog barks (Holkar and Barking Dog series)".
The dog in the illustration is identified as The Pioneer newspaper.
"The remarkable thing is that even though the Indian Punch writers were critical of the ruling British government and its policies, the British never proscribed any of the issues. There was a certain level of acceptance of the humour," Hasan said.
The Indian avatars of the Punch brought about an acknowledgement by the erstwhile British rulers that "Indians had a sense of humour", Hasan said.
"They realised that humour will be appreciated by the educated elites. They would read, laugh and forget about it," Hasan said.
The Parsee Punch is the second in the series of Punch anthology by Hasan.
The first volume consisted of pickings from the Awadh Punch, published from Lucknow from January 1877 to 1936.
"The Awadh Punch, edited and published by Munshi Sajjad Husain, was a household name hosting writers like Akbar Allahabadi, Ratan Nath Sarshar and Mirza Began," Hasan said.
The character sketches in the magazine were described by critics as the "precursor of the modern Indian short story".
The Awadh anthology caricatured the Raj, defended Indian tradition and wrote political satires of early 20th century India with sketches of comical stereotypes such as "the patwari, chawkidar, revenue agent, honorary magistrate, the England-returned and the title-hunting associations of noisy zee-huzoors".
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)