Cartooning Gandhi and the Politics of Representation

Abstract: Among the various visual life narratives, cartoons have a prominent role in depicting a life. The article begins with a brief introduction to cartoons and their appearance in India and then focuses on the twin dimensions of them – that of making and unmaking a subject. Here, some of Mahatma. Gandhi’s cartoons both by native and foreign cartoonists are analysed. It also throws light on the use of cartoons as tools in biographies.

Keywords: cartoons, making, unmaking, ideology, Gandhi, Durga Das, Round Table conference

Life writers especially biographers include cartoons in their texts which are used as powerful and effective tools of satire, evoking wit and humour. The word ‘cartoon’ acquired different meanings over years – from a preparatory drawing in fine art to that of illustrations in magazines and newspapers and broadly comic strips and comic books. However, in visual media various forms like television cartoons, animations, cinemas etc. have acquired warm reception. Cartoon is a hybrid genre as it exists in various forms – gag-cartoons, political cartoons, editorial cartoons, comic strips, caricatures etc.

Over a long period of time, the art of cartooning remained totally alien to Indians but due to the influence of the British rule and the spread of Western culture and customs, it slowly developed in the country. In fact, cartooning appeared in England only in the late 17th century. The London – based humorous weekly Punch contained interesting jokes and comic drawings and it may be noted that it appealed only to educated Indian minority. Gradually, humour in this visual form began to be popular through print media, particularly newspapers. Freedom struggle gave the much-needed fillip to the growth of cartooning in India and cartoonists drew their characters from the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and ransacked the mythology. Cartoonists began to use cartoons as a tool of political propaganda. While writing about the history and importance of the Indian cartoons, R. K. Laxman in his article, “Freedom to Cartoon, Freedom to Speak” (1989), observes:

As the national struggle began to gain momentum, the cartoonist ventured to draw the paunchy, thick-set John Bull to represent the colonial ruler. But still the cartoons were more in line with propaganda posters than with significant satirical comments. They portrayed flaming patriotism and lampooned the alien ruler, but in a vague and impersonal way within a safe limit set by the system. The theme of the cartoons was always the same but presented in innumerable variations: Bharat Mata, the mother of the nation in chains with the legend “Imperialism” written on them. Again, the same lady was shown being crushed under the jackboot of John Bull or being burdened with the deadweight of colonial exploitation. (72)

Laxman adds that the political cartoonist had to work lots of restrictions; he aim was to sustain the circulation of his paper and one can see the use of symbols to inadvertently attack persons or any policy as such. Thus, we encounter so many cartoons containing symbols like monsters, angels, tigers, lions, snakes, jackals, and elephants; on the one hand, bulldog and the lion stand for the British rulers whereas a dove-eyed suffering angel symbolised Mother India. However, the oth symbols represented violence, famine, injustice, want, or pestilence (71-72)

Mahatma Gandhi and Cartoons

Mahatma Gandhi’s participation in the freedom movement gave further popularity to this visual art form. Laxman gives the reason behind this by arguing that Gandhi’s “… whole appearance with his puckish, toothless smile, his unique attire, and other factors about him made him the delight of the caricaturists. Even an inexperienced beginner in cartooning could make a highly competent caricature of him! (74) Durga Das who edited the collection of cartoons on Gandhi, entitled Gandhi in Cartoons (1999), made the following observation:

Gandhi was often the butt of cartoonists who looked at the world from the angle of the white man’s mission of “civilising” the non – whites. As often, those who came to scoff remained to pray. David Low, the king of cartoonists, was, however, sympathetic to Gandhi, and so was the general run of cartoons in the United States, France and Germany. (“Introduction” 8)

Making/ unmaking of Gandhi

Fig.l. Gandhi. Kladderadatsch, Berlin from Durga Das, Gandhi in Cartoons (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1999, Print , 59).

Thus, we may broadly categorise cartoons and caricatures on Gandhi into two groups, irrespective of the fact whether the cartoonist is of native or foreign origin: those which glorify the Mahatma by attesting his ideology and secondly, those who oppose his ways of thinking and denigrate his personality. Let us briefly examine some of the most popular cartoons on Gandhi.

In the first cartoon which appeared in Kladderadatsch, a very popular humorous weekly in Berlin between the two world wars, India is seen moving slowly towards freedom under the leadership of Gandhi despite staunch opposition from the British. Gandhi is seen mounted comfortably on an elephant and

Fig.2. “Our weapons are different, Mr. Gandhi, but one of us must finally win,” Simplicissimus, Munich from Durga Das, Gandhi in Cartoons (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1999, Print, 55 ).

surrounded by presumably, some British soldiers. However, his sitting posture appears to be typically oriental in nature and Gandhi is in a meditating mood. However, this cartoon clip gives us the indication that Gandhi was a mighty opponent for the Britishers to fight with and they would eventually give way for him. It may also be remembered that the European and American Press were sympathetic towards India and no wonder many cartoonists in these countries strongly supported Indian independence.

Fig. 2 clearly shows the clash of ideologies – while the British believed in the brute force symbolised by the battleship, Gandhi’s weapons were truth and nonviolence. To many westerners, who had witnessed the calamities of World War 1, Gandhi’s unique nonviolent struggle against the colossal armed power of the British rulers became very significant. No wonder, many intellectuals including the French admired Gandhi for teaching a new lesson to the entire world which is worth emulating.

Fig.3. Danger Signal, Hindustan Times, May 1947 from Durga Das, Gandhi in Cartoons (Ahmedabad: Navajivan,1999, Print, 223).

Fig.4. The British Lion shows his Teeth, Haagesche Post, The Hague (Netherlands), 1930 from Durga Das, Gandhi in Cartoons (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1999, Print, 71).

When discussions regarding India’s partition. made matters more complicated, on May 6 1947, Gandhi made a last effort to convince linnah who proved to be totally uncompromising regarding Pakistan. In the cartoon titled `Danger Signal,’ Gandhi is seen hoisting a danger signal to prevent India, a train from derailing as the tract points in divergent directions. We all know that Gandhi had been a strong opponent of western culture and the train which was introduced in India during the colonial period symbolises European materialism and industrialisation.

The lion in the cartoon strip (Fig.4), with the title, `The British Lion shows his Teeth,’ symbolises the power and might of the British Empire and Gandhi, in the form of a crooked, poisonous snake appears to be a small, powerless and helpless opponent. The British Government in India, pictured as a lion, was thoroughly opposed to the mass civil disobedience movement which followed the breaking of the salt law. All the violent disturbances occurred as a consequence were suppressed with an iron hand.

Fig.5. Gandhiji’s Ten Commandments, from Durga Das, Gandhi in Cartoons (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1999, Print, 71).

The cartoon titled `Gandhiji’s Ten Commandments’ (Fig. 5), which appeared in a British journal in 1928, the reactions of a businessman and a politician towards the standards set by Gandhi are ridiculed. According to them, Gandhi was a practical idealist, a view popular in the ruling circles of Britain. Thus, the image of Gandhi is broken by the imperialist ideology.

And the following graphic narratives by different cartoonists and caricaturists throw much light upon the different moods of Mohandas-Gandhi. However, most of the illustrators draw from the last phase of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s career.

Fig.6. Mahatma Gandhi’s selected caricatures, from Web. <>.

Cartoons in Biographies

Cartoons are very powerful narrative tools used in biographies and let us analyse two cartoons used by two biographers of Gandhi, Judith. Brown and Yogesh Chadha, to explore the ideological implications in them.

Fig. 7. “Round Table Conference” Cartoon, London Evening Standard, 20 March 1933 from Judith Brown, Gandhi Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: OUP, 1989, Print, 271).

The context of the above cartoon (Fig.7), is Gandhi’s visit to England in association with the Round Table Conference. In fact, being the representative of India he was expected to present the new Indian Charter of Liberty. The cartoon is set against the background of a prison in which Gandhi is seen sitting on the ground with a donkey beside him and a British official is sitting against a round table which is placed in between. However, one gets a feeling that the situation is rather paradoxical because Gandhi who came for discussion regarding India’s freedom and liberty is pictured as being imprisoned in a jail. How can a person representing a nation talk about freedom on equal terms with a government when he himself is at the mercy of the state and its institution, prison? Moreover, Gandhi in prison may also imply that India is also imprisoned by Britain. The cartoonist has drawn a small window through which light is falling down on the ground where Gandhi, a frail figure sits with a spinning wheel near a round table. Gandhi, an old, thin and pale figure is seen submissive and engrossed in spinning under the surveillance of a British official with a “White Paper on India.” However, the official representing England seems to be a picture of confidence and his body language reflects arrogance and superiority complex. Gandhi’s sitting posture is important because it reminds us of the oriental sitting posture of the Vedic times and the white man’s sitting posture on a chair reflects the colonial mentality of dictating and taming the colonised. The ideological underpinnings of this cartoon strip are really evident and they suggest the British imperialist prejudice against the Indians. However, photography had also been a powerful tool by which the colonial powers represented their differences from the colonised / the ‘otheredi subjects.

Photographic images of historical sites and native peoples of the Orient helped in creating an image of the West as something barbaric, bizarre, or simply picturesque. The presence of a donkey near Gandhi makes it abominable as it signifies that Gandhi is an idiot so do all Indians! Even the tag which reads “The leader of the largest party in India being unavoidably detained in gaol, it is anticipated that special arrangements will be made to discuss with him the new Indian Charter of Liberty” sounds highly prejudiced. Then why this cartoon is included in the biography Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope speaks volumes about the biographer’s ideology and hidden agenda. But, this cartoon helps a lot in unmaking Gandhi through this life – text, especially when it is placed at a period of narration in which the biographer was reporting Gandhi’s failure to achieve anything concrete in England during the Round Table Conference.

Fig.8. Gandhi with King from Yogesh Chadha, Rediscovering Gandhi shot (London: Century, 1997, Print, 167 ).

The cartoon, (Fig.8), depicts an imaginary situation – the encounter between Gandhi and King after their assassinations. The caption “the odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you” is given as Gandhi’s dialogue to Dr. King. Martin Luther, as we all know, is an acknowledged disciple of Gandhi and is even known as ‘American Gandhi.’ Drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s teachings, the latter fought for the liberation from of the black people in America and was shot dead. The tag, though slightly paradoxical, has the implication that great men are immortal and their ideas and teachings are perennial. While analysing the body language of the characters in the cartoon strip, we find King standing in front of his guru folding his hands backwards and listening to him, showing utmost respect and gratitude. Gandhi is seen in his sitting posture and is in a preaching mood, rather typical of an orientalist. While King is clad in western dress, showing sophistication and formality, Gandhi is seen in the typically odd attire of a saintly figure, showing the contrast between the West and East.

From the above examples, it is clear that Gandhi, the symbol was used along with the nation, India. While certain cartoons which glorify Gandhi, celebrate India and its national ideology, those which are critical, lampoon the notion of India as such. Thus, such an overtly innocuous medium like cartoon can be used with a hidden political agenda.


Das, Durga. “Introduction.” Gandhi in Cartoons. Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1999. Print.

Laxman, R. K. “Freedom to Cartoon, Freedom to Speak.” Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Fall (1989): 68-91. JSTOR. Web.


RAJESH V. NAIR. Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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