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HomeViduraTribute cartoons – a fascinating canvas of respect and remembrance

Tribute cartoons – a fascinating canvas of respect and remembrance

Prof Mrinal Chatterjee provides insights into a niche facet of journalism/art which traditionally not only honours the subject but is also often a powerful commentary on societal implications

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘tribute’ as an act, a statement or a gift that is intended to show respect or admiration, especially for a dead person. When it is done through a cartoon, it is called ‘tribute cartoon’. Often it is done immediately after a person’s death. In that case, it is called ‘obituary cartoon’ and is the comic art equivalent of a printed obituary.

Tribute cartoons honour and commemorate personalities and iconic figures with trademark humour or even satire. These artistic renditions, often found in newspapers, magazines and increasingly on online platforms, provide a blend of visual artistry and social commentary. Through tribute cartoons, artists pay homage to the contributions and legacies of notable personalities, while also offering a reflective lens on the broader societal impact of their lives and works.

At their core, tribute cartoons are artistic expressions that encapsulate the essence of a person. They are created to celebrate, remember or mourn the loss of individuals who have made significant contributions to society through their work in their chosen field. Like tribute cartoons, obituary cartoons also pay homage to the individual’s achievements, character and impact on society. As obituary cartoons are published immediately after the death of the concerned person, the sense of grief and loss is dense. It offers a sense of solidarity and shared mourning for the public, often reflecting collective sentiments.

History
The tradition of tribute/obituary cartoons dates back to mid 19th Century, although cartoons have been around since mid-18th Century. One of the earliest examples of a tribute cartoon can be traced back to the 19th Century, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who is considered the ‘Father of American cartoons’, created illustrations to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Since then, tribute cartoons have become a staple in the world of editorial and political cartooning, capturing the zeitgeist of various eras and providing a historical record of societal values and sentiments.

In India, though the comic art tradition has been in existence since ancient times, the art of cartooning evolved in the mid-19th Century, heavily influenced by the British. The first vernacular language periodicals which published cartoons were Sulav Samachar and the Amrit Bazar Patrika from Bengal in the early 1870s. The first cartoon in Malayalam to be published was called Kshamadevatha in 1919, in a journal named Vidooshakan. The earliest examples of a tribute cartoons dates back to the early 20th Century. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination inspired several tribute cartoons in India and abroad. An obituary cartoon on Gandhi, depicting him beside Abraham Lincoln, was published in the USA-based St. Louis Dispatch on 12th February 1948. Founded in 1878, the St. Louis Dispatch is one of the most prestigious newspapers in the US. 

Post-Independence, numerous tribute cartoons have been created to pay homage to freedom fighters, national heroes and cultural icons. Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘Father of the nation’, has been a perennial subject. Cartoons depicting Gandhi often emphasise his principles of non-violence and simplicity, using powerful imagery such as the spinning wheel or his iconic glasses. On his birth and death anniversaries, cartoonists across the country create heartfelt tributes that resonate deeply with the public. Similarly, figures like Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and B. R. Ambedkar are commemorated through tribute cartoons that highlight their contributions to the nation. These cartoons serve not only as a means of remembrance but also as educational tools, reminding new generations of their legacy.

Honouring cultural, art, sports icons
Tribute cartoons in India extend beyond political figures to honour artists, writers, musicians, sportspersons, actors, social workers and other professionals who have left an indelible mark in their chosen field. For instance, the passing of iconic playback singer Lata Mangeshkar saw an outpouring of tribute cartoons. Artists captured her unparalleled contribution to Indian music, often depicting her as the ‘Nightingale of India,’ surrounded by musical notes and celestial imagery. Similarly, the death of legendary actor Raj Kapoor and filmmaker Satyajit Ray inspired cartoons that celebrated their cinematic brilliance and contributions to Indian cinema. A tribute cartoon on noted Punjabi poet Surjit Patar (1945-2024) by Amul was captioned Unke kalam mein kamaal tha (There was magic in his pen).

Often, tribute cartoons employ the regional flavour through use of local language, imagery and symbols to make the cartoon more poignant. In case of artists, film makers, singers and writers, these cartoons often feature symbolic elements from their most famous works, creating a visual narrative of their impact. Tribute cartoons have also been created on personalities who retire from their field of fame (for example, Sunil Chetri, who retired from international football on 16th May this year), or on their birthdays or on other occasions. Several tribute cartoons were drawn on Rajinikant and Amitabh Bachchan who received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

Social commentary and tributes
Tribute cartoons also address broader social issues that the concerned person is or has been engaged with, using the occasion of a tribute to comment on societal values and challenges. For example, the tribute cartoons on prominent environment activist Sundarlal Bahuguna (1927-2021) highlighted and continue to highlight environmental concerns. Tribute cartoons on noted ornithologist Salim Ali (1896-1887) showcased the importance of saving birds.

One of the most poignant examples of a tribute cartoon is the illustration created by Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) upon the death of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Mauldin, known for his wartime cartoons, depicted the Lincoln Memorial weeping, a powerful image that captured the nation’s collective grief. In India Rajinder Puri (1934-2015) drew a poignant tribute cartoon of Jawaharlal Nehru the day after his death (28 May 1964) in Hindustan Times, with a one word caption – Void. Rajinder Puri was a harsh critic of Nehru. The cartoon showed the face of Nehru surrounded by innumerable people. Many tribute cartoons were drawn following the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, highlighting his impact on technology and innovation. A particularly striking one by Pat Bagley (born 1956) featured Jobs at the gates of heaven, being welcomed with the message ‘iHeaven’, a clever play on his iconic product line.

Tribute/obituary cartoons have been drawn by almost all cartoonists of India, particularly contemporary cartoonists. One of the pioneering figures in Indian cartooning, Shankar Pillai, often used his satirical magazine Shankar’s Weekly (1948 to 1975) to honour freedom fighters and political leaders, encapsulating the spirit of the times. Bengaluru-based Satish Acharya has drawn several heart-wrenching cartoons. Rohan Chakravarty, who mostly draws cartoons on environmental issues, created a poignant tribute cartoon on ornithologist Salim Ali. The tribute/obituary form has been used extensively in advertisement by Amul. It was Sylvester de Cunha (1930-2023) who started this form of advertisement in Amul in 1966.

With the advent of digital media, tribute cartoons in India have found new platforms and audiences. Social media has amplified their reach, allowing artists to share their work instantly with millions. This has also led to a more dynamic and immediate response to events, with tribute cartoons often going viral and becoming part of the collective digital memory.

Artistic, emotional impact   
Tribute cartoons are not only artistic creations but also emotional statements. The use of symbolism is a common technique in tribute cartoons. Artists employ visual metaphors, such as broken chains, extinguished flames, or rising suns, to convey the significance of the individual’s legacy. These symbols transcend language barriers, making tribute cartoons accessible and meaningful to a diverse audience.

Moreover, tribute cartoons often spark conversations and reflections on the values and achievements of the individuals they commemorate. They serve as a starting point for public discourse, encouraging people to remember and celebrate the positive impacts of those who have passed away. Tribute cartoons are a testament to the enduring power of visual storytelling. They honour the lives and legacies of influential figures, capturing the essence of their contributions in a way that words alone cannot.

(The writer, a journalist-turned-media academician, is regional director of the Eastern India campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in Dhenkanal, Odisha. He has authored six books and edited four on mass communication. He also writes fiction, essays, plays and columns in English, Odia and Bengali.)

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