In the twilight years of his life, Sudhir Dar used too many words to say things that one could mistake as trite reactions of a political simpleton. His Twitter timeline was a sad testament to this, however, verbosity and banal political commentary were never part of his large body of work as a leading cartoonist in the English press of post-Independent India.
A somewhat reluctant convert to the political cartooning circuit, his work was not confined to caricaturing power politics and its movers and shakers — something for which he had less inclination, if not talent. Dar’s imprint would remain more as a comic collector of everyday slices of public life — its vagaries and regular absurdities, changing social mores of urban India, bureaucratic corruption and red-tapism.
For a young man of Kashmiri descent, and more so with a Master’s degree in Geography from Allahabad University in the late 50s, cartooning had to be an unconventional route to earning a living. Dar cut his teeth in professional cartooning at The Statesman, from 1961 to 1967. A chance meeting with the then editor of The Statesman in All India Radio studio, where Dar worked briefly as an announcer, changed the career course for the self-taught cartoonist in him.
To an extent, the non-political flavour of Statesman’s editorial leadership with Evan Charlton as its editor had a role in honing Dar’s penchant for a humorous take with a longer shelf-life not necessarily dictated by current affairs.
“Only in a newspaper like The Statesman of those days could Dar’s zany humour, usually unrelated to current news, have flourished,” observed Rajinder Puri, one of Dar’s contemporaries, among others like the legendary R K Laxman, Shankar, Abu Abraham and OV Vijayan. At the turn of the current century, while reviewing one of the collections of Dar’s work, Puri elaborated on the editorial support in the formative stage of development of Dar’s genre. “This was possible because he worked for The Statesman, edited then by Evan Charlton, who himself was not the typical Indian editor. His interest in politics was marginal. He encouraged human interest features, travelogues and writings on nature.”
Besides the no-caption, understated humour of his front-page “Out of mind” cartoons in the newspaper, his clean lines — without the use of black and shading — became part of his style, markedly different from other cartoonists of the day.
After his initial stint with The Statesman, Dar moved to The Hindustan Times and worked there for more than two decades (1967 to 1989). HT placed a premium on political commentary, which, in turn, also placed its mark on Dar’s “This is it” cartoon column.
As the country’s political landscape had already settled in a post-Nehruvian evolution of power battles, political movements and power arrangements, political cartoons had to come of age. With it also had gone the innocence of a less combative phase in the formative years of the republic where the country’s first Prime Minister could nudge cartoonist Shankar to “not spare” him.
Dar’s technical adjustment to political cartoons cost him his distance from shading — they were visible in his daily cartoons in the HT frontpage through the 70s and much of the 80s, and so was the use of black. The trademark style of a younger Dar was reserved occasionally for his pocket cartoons in the same daily.
Dar’s liking for more universal humour, that could survive the fickle nature of the news cycle, didn’t disappear. It was an eclectic mix of influence of Mad magazine and the Saturday Evening Post and admiration for K Shankar Pillai that became more evident in his cartoons. Mad magazine’s feature on him opened for him doors to international publication and recognition, as his work got published in The New York Times, The Saturday Review and The Washington Post.
Being the custodian of visual humour in what was, then, national capital’s most circulated English daily brought its own standing. It spawns its own opportunities too, Dar published six books — mostly collection of his cartoons — along with creating an illustration for some government as well as private book projects. He left the paper only in 1989 to join The Pioneer. By 2000, he had decided to quit treat cartooning as an office and settled for freelancing work now and then.
Such a long inning as the morning prodder for a chuckle in Delhi hadn’t gone unnoticed by a generation of younger cartoonists in the capital. No wonder, in his tribute to Dar, E Unny, The Indian Express cartoonist, remembered Dar as “the city’s most visible cartoonist”. He goes on to recall how Dar, contrary to popular perceptions, could speak his political mind when the occasion presented itself.
That, by no means, can undermine the fact that Dar was essentially a humorist who could draw lines about everyday life around us, in which politics was just one of the intruders — not necessarily an important one. Perhaps it was an indictment of the cramped creative space in the press, or the disproportionately political nature of media commentary in India, that he had to earn from work for which he was less inclined.
“It may sound strange, but I have always considered Dar to be a victim of Indian media’s prevalent system. Till recently, media in India was heavily political,” Rajinder Puri observed while pointing out that Dar could have realised his potential as a pure humorist whose cartoons could outlive immediacy of politics and power games.
To slightly revise Puri’s remark, Indian media continues to prioritise political content, and to such an extent that even political cartoons have either shrunk or disappeared in most newspapers. In sharing screenshots of his published cartoons in newspapers from the past decades, Dar reminded us of how he was a daily habit once for a generation of newspaper readers as he visually chronicled everyday India — sometimes with a wry smile, sometimes with ironic detachment and sometimes with just that unforced chuckle. To his credit, he didn’t overdo it most of the time, never with words.