The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Landmines and the lampooning Lankans
After the almost ritual homage is paid to late political cartoonist Wijesoma, there will be few left to assess what's left of political lampooning in this country.

No, I didn't see any political cartoons in the Suder Oli, the LTTE newspaper, at least in the few copies that I perused. We do not have to dig for reasons nobody wants to lampoon Prabhakaran. The Tamilnet does not carry any cartoons either.

A cartoon-less North and East somehow seems to say more about the state of democracy and free expression in those parts, than any of the reports cranked out by human right organizations such as Amnesty International.

Sri Lankan soldiers are not dying of Claymore mine blasts in the NorthEast, to preserve the right of Sri Lankan artists to keep turning out cartoons. But the high-table jargon of international human rights organizations does not generally allow for simple truths such as the following: in this part of Sri Lanka we prick pomposities, in that part they don't.

But, somebody may well ask what pricking pomposity with cartoons has done for us? The corrupt and the politically arrogant continue to thumb their noses at people, even if they have been drawn and quartered by the likes of Wijesoma. Not that Sri Lanka has always had the healthiest tradition of political caricaturing. Aubrey Collete drew the newly widowed Sirimavo Bandaranaike pregnant and in bed with N. M Perera, which was a clear signal to puritan and the unshockable alike that some journalists at Lake House would do anything to keep the SLFP coalition out of power.

Regi Siriwardene left Lake House when that offending Collete cartoon appeared, saying that it was the last straw for him. But Sirimavo Bandaranaike the world's first woman Prime Minister recalled in her memoirs that she and not Collete or his readers had the last laugh. She said 'a particular cartoonist left the country' when the people despite the best efforts of Lake House finally elected her.

Then we have the case of the slashed nose -- of Yoonos of Attha. We also had censorship of cartoons and editorial matter alike in the slash and burn era of Jayewardene. Also, when Collete had already fled the country, those whom he tormented turned the tables on journalists. They persecuted political sketch writer and cartoonist alike.

All of which proves that cartoonists do more than just provoke a laugh. They write political columns in art. That's why it's said that when Benjamin Franklin drew a snake in several pieces struggling to come together to make one big reptile, he did much more for the creation of the United States of America than some of the rebels who took to arms. The snake in parts depicted the American colonies.

When cartoons are not allowed to function in the journalistic currency of any country or domain, unpricked pomposities get blown up like hot air balloons at bursting point. This syndrome hit all the now defunct communist countries, for example. Though nobody was allowed to caricature Chairman Mao in communist China -- not even in a small hole in the wall paper -- his image became so enlarged that it became a caricature by itself.

It may be that they still respect him in China, but isn't it a fact that despite all the fawning, the Chinese do not want to do the larger-than-life thing again, not with any man or any demi-god?
Cartoons are exaggerations, and in the political culture of the North East of this country, exaggeration as a right of expression is a preserve of the leadership and their faithful. Leaderships that confine to them alone the right to exaggerate, curiously always make use of this right to the point of destruction. Mao and many of the communist leaders made themselves larger than life with literally larger than life images -- and Prabhakran, by way of image, has become seriously overdone.

In that sense, these leaders are caricaturing themselves to the point of boredom. When Romesh Kaluwitharana, the Sri Lankan opening batsman was being gradually axed by the selectors, a local language cartoonist gave himself the full liberty to draw Kaluwitharana going out to bat on a cricket pitch drawn as a razor blade.

At the time, my first reaction was that it was a grossly unfair exaggeration. That assessment still probably holds true, as the selectors did have a good reason to eject Kaluwitharana from the team when they did.

But expecting a cartoonist to get all his exaggerations right is like expecting a political columnist not to have any opinions at all. Exaggeration is the cartoonist's stock in trade. He uses long noses in the place of words.

If he is expected to be entirely fair with all his long noses, then you have missed the oxymoron in it. Can there be any such thing as a fair exaggeration or an exaggeration in fairness to all?

Readers know that a cartoonist's exaggeration is never to be taken on the face of it but it's the politicians who keep missing the exaggeration for truth. But often, the exaggeration approximates the truth, as when Richard Nixon the disgraced American president was drawn in the early days of Watergate, struggling to emerge out of a sewer.

But (..without exaggeration) a country or terrain that cannot hold its leaders to legitimate ridicule is but half-civilized. Its better to have cartoonists around and put one or two in jail perhaps, than not to have any at all. Cartoonists were jailed before the French revolution, but the Bastille was stormed anyway.

The beauty of it is that often cartoonists are peripheral characters. A handful such as Wijesoma will pass onto legend. Some of the rest are like caricatures themselves. They take their pens out, do their thing and disappear and probably languish around thinking and smoking in bus stands. If their cartoons become too wordy, they cease to be cartoonists -- they become columnists. It's a sparse art this. Politicians are forever impaled on the horns of its dilemma. They feel left out if not caricatured, but aggrieved when in cartoon. Prabhakaran never had the luxury of feeling so wonderfully confused.

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