Recently, cartoonist G Balakrishnan (Bala) was arrested for ‘controversial’ caricature of Tamil Nadu CM E Palanisamy, the Tirunelveli police commissioner and the collector in a distasteful manner on his Facebook page. The freelance cartoonist drew a caricature showing them covering their private parts with currency notes, while a person laid burning in front of them.
The 36-year-old’s cartoon was an attempt to criticise the three for being unable to help a family, who set themselves on fire outside the Tirunelveli collectorate after their complaints of being harassed were not addressed.
Within a few minutes the cartoon garnered attention on social media and went viral. It was also widely shared under the hashtag #NellaiFamily Ablaze.
Though a few cartoonists have come down heavily on the Government in the matter, a few have criticised Bala as well for using his skills for popularity.
Well-known cartoonist Gaman Palem opines, “Right from the time of prominent cartoonists Shankar and RK Laxman, cartoonists have come under scrutiny... Though they have been criticising the government, they tried to maintain a good diplomatic relations with the higher officials. And that’s how they won hearts of people.”
He goes on to add that a cartoonist should be diplomatic in his approach and needs to be cautious while portraying something controversial.
“We have a complex legal system in our country. According to me, cartoonists should know the legal framework and secondly, they should dissuade themselves from publicly assaulting anybody’s image or persona. There are many ways of representation. Why do you choose something that has to be so distasteful?” he asks.
“I am talking with all respect to the artist community. You can explore art in any form and to any extent. But, I believe that cartoonists should have a style of their own and should be consistent throughout. Here, in this case, Bala was angry on the incident and he went on a public outrage rather than treating it more sensibly. A cartoon is also a form of journalism and it has to be responsible. If Bala is an editorial cartoonist, it is his duty to be responsible while depicting something,” says Gaman
Questioning the existence of democracy and freedom of speech, another Chennai cartoonist Lakshman Balaji, says, “The arrest has clearly shown how intolerant the government is, but I don’t think it will affect the mindset of cartoonists. We are a passionate bunch, and when we feel strongly about something, we will try and express it through our work.”
Lakshman, who is currently in Ithaca for higher studies, opines that a cartoon should just be taken as a visual expression of the artist’s opinion.
“Just because someone has an opinion different from yours, you can’t go around stifling his voice. A cartoonist should definitely think about whether his work is justified with respect to the seriousness of the issue, which in this case, I feel it was.”
Cartoonist Lakshman believes that an artist should be sensible while talking against government or higher authorities. “I strongly feel that an artist shouldn’t just blindly speak against the government without analysing the issue first. They should weigh up and act accordingly.”
We ask Lakshman whether an artist should follow any guidelines. “Definitely. A cartoonist should never draw cartoons with a maliciously calculated intent to divide people on lines of religion or caste,” he stresses.
For Chennai-based architect-cum-doodle artist Anjana John, art is purely subjective. “What I perceive is not what the other person perceives. Bala has just spoken his stance through his caricature. Why should there be an outcry? Look at the world today and see how Instagram and social media work. There are women and men out there, who post nudes for various causes and campaigns. If you can post nudes, then what is the problem in depicting art through nudity?” she questions.
Nude art is a genre of fine art and people shouldn’t be intolerant when it comes to nudity in any form of art. “When people can portray themselves nude, then there shouldn’t be a controversial aspect associated with it. It’s high time people appreciate art and artists in our country,” fumes Anjana, adding, “Bala criticised the government officials through nude art and I don’t think it is a crime! If the government needs to address some issues, they should focus on that. Not silence the critics.”
The person in question has now been granted bail by the Tirunelveli district court. Meanwhile, Sandeep Nanduri, Tirunelveli collector, posted his opinion of Facebook.
“I won’t deny that I myself enjoyed many of the cartoons. But there is a limit for creativity and freedom of expression. One can’t levy baseless allegations of corruption and publish defamatory and obscene cartoons in the name of freedom… I only joined this service to serve with pride. I won’t tolerate false accusations and baseless allegations, especially when my conscience is clear,” he wrote.