Artists: Notes on Art Making

Caricature in art is a "grotesque and ludicrous representation of persons or things by exaggeration of their most characteristic or striking features." It appeals to the eye more directly than any other art does. In the West today, it is considered a serious type of pictorial art, although rare in major works of painting and sculpture and rarely practised by great artists. The range of subjects covered by it is expanding day by day. Political, economic and religious themes as well as the innumerable incidents, manners and mannerisms of social life constitute the raw material for this branch of art. The manner of approaching and executing the theme is also becoming varied. The artist may laugh at his subject in a kindly manner or in pure fun or he may show him up for ridicule with irony or bitterness. A whole social philosophy of the artist may live behind a piece of caricature. In the hands of a gifted artist it is a potent instrument to condemn or correct social behaviour and pursuits. With the dominant role that politics plays today in the life of a nation, the caricaturist, like Press itself, which is his main medium, has attained the position of a watch-dog of the people's civic rights, liberties and responsibilities.

Caricature, as we understand it today, is a new development. We do not find anything which we can precisely call a caricature prior to the 17th century. It was with Annibale Carraci that true caricature originated. But this art is not a new thing as is generally supposed. It has its roots in ancient past. There are examples of humorous representation in the arts of almost all cultures. We find in them portrayals of character and physical traits and depiction of humorous themes. Sometimes the intention was only comic, but at times it was pregnant with pungent satire and malice. The ancient arts of Egypt, China. Japan, Greece, Rome, Persia and even India have some such characterizations or humorous themes. But the comic or humorous element in them was generally derived from popular beliefs or literature. So we find that both the "significative comic" which is dependent on allusions and references to the specific, and the "absolute comic" (the grotesque) which originates in fantasy, existed during the classical and middle ages. The major difference between the ancient and modern (since the 17th century) caricature lies in the subject-matter. The modern caricaturist rarely indulges in "absolute comic" (in Baudelaire's sense). His is more of a 'significative' comic due to the journalistic accent. The idiom depends on the prevalent style.

Apart from this, time and place also play an important role in regard to theme. A theme, which inspires the caricaturist today, may lose its force and charm after sometime. Likewise, some portrayals and depictions may look to be humorous to persons of other nations, though they might not have been so intended. Our lack of knowledge of the myths and legends of other countries sometimes gets us into such errors. Apart from this, each nation has its own ideas about the humorous: what may be very funny for one may not appear so to another.

The present change in the concept of caricature, the time factor and the difference in the outlook in regard to humour, sometimes make us reject today even those depictions which were actually intended to be comic.

In India, unlike other countries, caricature did not attain much status in her classical and medieval arts. It may not be wrong to say that it was not considered a serious branch of either painting or sculpture. It occupied a minor place in the field of art. Yet, as is sometimes supposed, it was not entirely unknown to ancient Indian art. Quite a number of examples are extant of the comic in art in various parts of the country, both in sculpture and painting. Some of these we shall presently quote.

The earliest example of the humorous theme in Indian Art is found in Mohen-jo-daro (2500 B.C. 1500 B.C.). It is a terracotta statuette in which two monkeys are shown embracing each other. No religious or mythological significance can be attached to it. Maybe it is just a toy made to amuse children.

It is quite a common feature of folk dance, drama and literature to intersperse even a religious theme with humorous incidents and features to relieve the heaviness of the main theme. The stories of the Jataka which contains anecdotes of Buddha's previous lives have several such episodes. We find two very amusing illustrations from the Jataka in Bharhut sculptures of the Sunga period (1st century B.C.). One of them shows `monkeys extracting hair from a man's nose'. The hair is held by a plies which is pulled by an elephant. The elephant seems to have found the job strenuous. The monkeys, therefore, seek to encourage him by playing on trumpets and drums. One monkey is seen even biting the elephant's tail and striking him with a stick. The whole conception of the intersperse and the manner of its execution is more amusing than the traditional adage digging a mountain to produce a rat. There are few such powerful depictions of the comic in the world which have an all-time appeal. In another roundel on a balustrade, a group of monkeys is shown taking out an elephant in procession. It is in the Indian tradition to use animals as allegoric vehicles for purposes of ridicule or reform of the human being. Some animals are associated with certain qualities such as the jackal with craftiness, the monkey with clever but foolish and imitative actions, etc. and they are used as symbols for human qualities and conduct of a particular type.

The Sun temple at Konarak (Orissa, mid-13th century A.D.) depicts another comic piece relating to the pranks of monkeys which are shown pilfering sweets from a receptacle on the head of a lady. Some monkeys are shown making a bold attempt to get on to the woman's head in a very funny manner. Such scenes were very common for the worshippers on their way to the temples or in ancient Indian markets. Today we may reject such elements from the scope of 'caricature', but humorous as they are, both as regards their content and the manner of representation, they can well be classed as caricature. They evoke laughter and amusement.

In a metal engraving on a 19th century temple chariot at Ajodhya (Dt. Birbhum, W. Bengal) we see a villager returning home smoking his coconut 'hukka' and a monkey is perched on his back. It further proves attachment of the ancient Indians to monkeys on the one hand, and on the other suggest how simply the village-folk took their religion. Their religious faith was not doctrinaire like that of their urban contemporaries.

Dwarfs have always been a favourite with ancient caricaturists of every nation. Although the humorous intent may not be present in their depiction, the imaginative stylization and the expressive exaggeration of their features have a comic appeal.

The dwarfssupporting the 'torana,' of the west gate at Sanchi (2nd century B.C.) or the dwarf under the feet of Kushan period (2nd century A.D.) Yakshi figures at Mathura, a laughing Yaksha from Pithalkhora in Andhra (3rd century A.D.) Or the lintel of the upper gallery over South niche of Ellora (mid-8th century A•D.), are but a few of the innumerable varieties of them used in classical Indian sculptures. Dwarfs and hunchbacks ( Kubjas )formed part of the palace retinue of kings, prince and princesses.

‘Udarmukhas’ or dwarfs with heads on stomach, are frequently seen in the sculptures of Amaravati, Ghantasala (both of 2nd century A.D.), Saranath (5th century A.D.), Badami (6th century A.D.), Mamallapuram (mid-7th century A.D.) and the Ajanta paintings (5th-6th century A.D,). They have even been transported to the sculptures of Prambanam (late 9th century A.D.) in Java. It is difficult to state definitely the purpose of this motif. It is probably only a creation of literary fancy and cannot strictly be regarded as caricature. But on account of forceful characterization, quaintness and expressiveness such figures nevertheless give amusement to many who see them.

Indian terracottas, which we may call 'the poor man's sculpture', have great value as source of social history and manners. Several foreign ethnic types are represented in them sometimes truthfully and sometimes with lively naturalism and humour. Their comic intent can hardly be doubted. One terracotta plaque of the Gupta period (5th century AD.) from Mathura shows a woman playfully pulling the scarf around the neck of a court-jester (Vidushaka). The Vidushaka' wears a conical cap and is making funny gestures. Another terracotta plaque, also of the Gupta period from Ahichhatra (Bareilly Dt.), depicts Siva's -ganas (members of the retinue of Siva) engaged in scramble for sweets helping themselves merrily to the contents of two baskets containing laddus' and `gujhias'. They are depicted as nude, corpulent dwarfs with conspicuous genitals. Although it forms part of an illustration of ‘Daksha-Yajna' from the Mahabharata, the incident depicted has no religious significance. It is one of pure fun and frolic intended to amuse the popular mind. As a matter of fact the Hindu religion is full of such popular stories and characters which have a great appeal to the simple village folk who amuse themselves by recreating them from such scenes.

One finds the comic element depicted through an animal motif in the South also e.g. in the open-air Pallava-period (mid-7th century A.D.) has a relief known as 'The Descent of the Ganges', at Mamallapuram. Opposite to Bhagiratha doing penance with uplifted arms, we see a cat in a similar posture with paws stretched upwards. Some rats are shown near-by, playing about or sleeping fearlessly. In India there are many popular fables of an old and feeble cat having recourse to Bhakti' to decoy innocent or foolish rats and secure an easy meal. This sculpture seems to make an oblique reference to pretence in devotion and to ridicule it.

Indian toy-makers have occasionally shown their talents as caricaturists. The clay figurines of the big-bellied and other odd figures are sometimes associated with local stories or personages from fables or mythology. But sometimes they depict comic characterization of persons for pure fun. The toy `Ahladi' from Bengal is one of the finest examples of this type.

The earliest examples of a caricaturish portrayal in painting is the portrait of the Brahman Jujaka in V’essantra Jataka' scene in cave No. 17 (5th century A.D.) at Ajanta. It is one of the finest character studies in the whole of classical Indian pictorial art. The scene depicts the Bodhisattva (born as prince Vessantara) making a gift of golden coins and his children to a Brahman called Jujaka. The avaricious character of Jujaka with his thin beard, broken teeth, bald head with a few wiry hair and greedy expression in his face at once evokes a smile.

The figures of dwarfs, included in the scenes from the Jataka stories and insects at many other places in the Ajanta frescoes, strike a humorous note in the solemn and serious nature of the subjects painted. Their strange forms, with big paunches, their mirthful gestures and merry moods add a comic note to these stories.

The treatment of demons was also done in a similar vein. One such instance is the scene of 'Assault and Temptation of Mara, (the Evil One)’ on the eve of Enlightenment of Gautama in cave No. I (5th century A.D.) at Ajanta. Gautama is seen here in Bhumisparsa-mudra' (touching the Earth), while in either side is the hedious retinue of Mara threatening him in every possible manner. The artist has given a touch of caricature to the expressions and gestures of the Mara's demon army. Perhaps he intended to add vivacity to such a serious theme.

It was after a lapse of some centuries that we again find a few paintings in the humorous vein. Some Mughal paintings of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries depict the witty but unwieldy Mulla-do-Plaza dressed gorgeously, wearing a huge turban and riding a rickety nag. The Mulla was a well-known court buffoon of the Mughal Court.

Another Mughal painting in a private collection in America and done during the early seventeenth century depicts a fat woman, harassed by flies, riding a camel. She is carrying pots of either sweets or honey.

An early 17th century Mewar painting in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, from a `Ramayana set' shows `Kumbha-Karna Asleep'. The war with Rama was at a critical stage and Ravana needed the services of his brother Kumbha-Karna, who was a great warrior but also a great sleeper. In the picture a veritable army is shown arousing him from sleep. Kumbha-Karna is lying in a courtyard. Some people are playing with great gusto on all the available musical instruments, the Naphiri', drums and cymbals etc. Around him are some dogs barking lustily sitting on his belly. The services of an elephant have also been pressed in, to trample his feet. A man is discharging gun-shots into the air. But all the efforts seem to have been in vain for Kumbha-Karna is still sleeping undisturbed. The popular conception of Kumbha-Karna is very well brought in this picture and it is perhaps one of the finest caricatures on this theme.

A painting of `Rama and Ravana at War' from the Deccan School of 19th century in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, shows the warring armies in full action. In the lower portion of the picture we find Hanuman and Kumbha-Karna fighting. The monkeys also take a hand in the fight in an amazing manner. Some of them hang on to Kumbha-Karna's moustaches, some come out of his nose, one sits on his tongue and some strive to knock off his headgear.

Obese persons have always been the target of poets, story-tellers and painters. One fine portrayal is that of `Triloka Khatri as a Bridegroom' in an American private collection. Thispainting, of 18th century from Bikaner in Rajasthan, shows him as an old man with a colossal paunch, a huge protruding under-lip and long moustaches, magnificently dressed as a bridegroom. The funniest thing is that flies are shown buzzing around his head and entering his half-open mouth as and when he breathes. This seems to be a satire directed against rich but old and fat persons very anxious to marry -- a theme for laughter and ridicule through the ages in all countries.

Opium eaters were often chosen as a subject for caricature in ancient Indian literature, folk-lore and paintings. There are several Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures in which these drugs addicts are depicted with devastating satire. They are always shown making much fuss about nothing. A typical example is met with in an 18th century painting in Sri Karl J. Khandalavala's collection, Bombay, other versions of which are in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, and Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad. These lanky-bonny addicts are shown waging a war against a mouse. Though equipped with many arms and weapons they are incapable of capturing the little creature. It seems to be a pungent satire on the evils of opium-eating.

There are also some drawings of buffoons which depict them quaintly dressed making into funny faces.These seem to have been based on some European prints which were pouring into India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Several Pahari paintings of late 18th an 19th century display a keen on sense of humour. "There are some amusing studies in Lahore Museum. One is of a dancing and singing scene in which men afflicted with goitre take part. Apparently the artists who settled in the hills were much amused at the grotesque appearance of those who suffered from this ailment. Another humorous suffers miniature depicts a marriage process with the rotund bridegroom, who suffers from goitre, riding a half-starved nag. There are also two domestic scenes in the same Museum, in one of which a woman is giving a man, perhaps her erring husband, a good shoe- beating. There are also several large-sized caricatures drawn by Pahari artists either in the late 18th or early 19th century depicting Vaisnava religious personages."' A fine study also of Pahari School in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, shows three musicians making funny gestures while playing on their instruments.

On every humorous variation of genre subject is that of `Gaddis' at a halting station of mountain route', in the collection of Sri Karl J. Khandalavala, Bombay. This seems to be a genre scene which though capable of provoking laughter and with a deliberate intention of mockery, is a study of the day-to-day life of these simple folk notorious for hard bargaining. In this painting they are shown making purchases at a wayside store on the halting station. One is shown in a heated argument with a shopkeeper while three others are engaged in a violent scuffle. A small mural of the 18th century in the old palace of Kulu shows two persons slapping one another holding each other's moustaches. A similar Mughal painting of the early 19th century depicts two Sadhus doing the same thing.

In Indian literature heroes and heroines are classified as ‘Nayaka' and `Nayikas’. One of the eight ‘Nayikas' is `Svadhinpatika'. She is one who dominates her husband, or lover. We have some very fine descriptions of this theme in Hindi poetry and comparable examples in Rajasthani and Pahari paintings. The Nayaka usually Krishna-is shown massaging the feet of the seated heroine, or washing or painting her feet with ‘alta’ (lac dye). In the Vaisnavism of the medieval period the conception of gods was so human that they could be dealt with in a playful and gay manner. For the common folk there was nothing irreverent in spinning jokes out of religious themes.

I have seen some Pahari paintings of Shiva in which a strange episode is illustrated. These show Parvati, Shiva’s wife, as Kali when she goes to eat a corpse. Shiva appears instead of the nude corpse and erects his genital and enjoys an intercourse with her. Such scenes may seem to be obscene by present standards, but our gods were many a time shown as ordinary human beings with human instincts.

Henpecked husbands have also attracted the fancy of artists and authors alike. A Kalighat pat painting, of about 1900 A.D., in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, depicts an irate women trampling her erring husband.

The ghosts, devils or genii were sometimes portrayed in a humorous manner by the Mughal and Deccani artists. One manuscript named ‘Malejate Aseb’ (18th century A.D.) is found in the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad. These books were designed for the simple folk. Whenever a man or woman was in trouble, the ‘Amil’ showed them a genii or ghosts who troubled them. Ghosts of which there are many varieties, and devils more venomous than the ghosts, are conceived to be frightful beings. The artist has made unbridled use of his fancy, in giving them concrete forms. Some are shown with bodies of quaint animals of a mixed sort and fantastic human heads; some have two heads with the body of a cat or donkey and feet of an elephant and so on. There is no end to the combinations of animal and human forms. These often confirm to be conceptions of these being in folk-lore. Although the artist was actually doing it for a different purpose, he himself was not perhaps terrorised while conceiving these images. He devoted himself to this kind of fancy only to relax and have pure fun out of the job.

A very interesting caricature of the 19th century was published in ‘Musalman Painting’ by Blochet. A person is shown walking on stilts, with coils of a snake making his turban, another snake hanging down his neck, a child or toy in his pot and a bellow, a root and two pots on his shoulder. This has been interpreted as caricature of an orthodox brahmin, which is highly doubtful. Perhaps it is a fanciful drawing of a devil. But the mode of its depiction is undoubtedly very amusing.

Some animals are symbolic of human pranks, stupidities, vanities and frolics. Rats, jackals, monkeys and donkeys are conspicuous examples. In fables like ‘Panch Tantra’, we have very entertaining stories of them. In a Kalighat painting of mid-nineteenth century, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, we have a very interesting comic scene of a jackal Raja’s court.

Throughout the length and breadth of India we find masks for dramas and dances like Kathakali. These masks of gods, like Hanuman and Ganesh or of demons like Surpanakha, Ravana and others of his army are significant for their exaggerated facial types. With their hooked or flat noses, open or laughing mouths peculiar teeth and ears, these masks have been moving the spectators to laughter through the centuries at the village fairs, folk dances and folk dramas. Most of them are personages from mythology butdescription of their character and role in the stories was taken advantage of by the artist for such portrayals. Some of them may look awful and ugly, but according to the ancient concepts, ugliness was reduced to a comic burlesque.

Some people have tried to justify scenes of flagellation, daily life of dervishes and Sadhus, Majnu and Narikunjar (elephant formed of a number of damsels) as comic. Although their mode of representation may amuse some but they arose out of different impulses in the artist or the patron. We can at least say that scenes of flagellation are the outcome of a sadistic outlook, however much the artist enlivens the representation by clever caricature.

The above are but a few typical examples in which either deliberate or unintentional caricaturish elements are manifest. Probably some more examples may be added to this small list with more extensive research. But it must be admitted that such examples are relatively rare in Indian art as compared to those from Western Countries.

Indian culture developed on the basis of ‘Karma’, ‘Gyan’, ‘Yoga’ and ‘Bhakti’. These enriched us in various ways but disciplined our outlook towards life and the world in a way that there was no scope for over expression of humour. Rasas like ‘Sringara’, ‘Karuna’, ‘Vir’ and ‘Shanta’ have found a dominant place in ‘Indian literature and fine arts. ‘Hasya-Rasa’ is no doubt one of the recognised ‘rasas’ and even its various types have classified, but it was rarely used. Literary works of Prakrit, Sanskrit, Apabhramsa and other provincial languages prove this fact. Although we get many humorous descriptions on the classical and medieval dramas, satires, stories and other literary works, they are lesser in quantity than in the West. Even in quality they rarely reach great heights; subtle irony, sarcasm and caricature are not to be found in them. The type of humour or sarcasm in ancient India depend on a set of formulae which lost all charm due to repeated use, or they were only obscene descriptions. Even when there was any exception, the purpose was to idealize rather than caricature. This need not be surprising. The classical outlook on art in India has been solemn and dignified. It cared more for the permanent and elevating values in life than anything else.

The humorous and the satirical themes seem to have received their impetus and vitality from folk life and folk art. It is partly due to the simplicity of their outlook on life and unsophisticated capacity to derive pleasure from little things. This accounts for the fact that most of the humorous incidents depicted in the arts relate to simple facts of life like eating, sleeping and deformities of the human form. The folk mind could take in its strides even the gods and goddesses and deal with them at the human level attributing to them weakness such as jealousies, appetites and various idiosyncrasies. It could worship them and at the same time laugh at them.

The social life of the times was also so conditioned that there was no scope for caricaturing kings, brahmins, social customs and manners. Nothing could be dealt with lightly.

Finally, the art material also restricted to some extent development of the comic and caricature. A satirical saying, a poem or a humorous anecdote can spread by word of mouth but it is not so with media of ancient Indian art like stone, walls or manuscripts.

In spite of the fact that we find innumerable examples of exotics in Indian sculptures at Khajuraho, Konarak and various other places and also in miniature paintings, the scarcity of the comic and caricature in Indian art is baffling. Even here we can content ourselves with the fact that erotic depictions found religious sanction from the Kaula Kapalika cult of Saivism and had patronage from the rulers who were taken as representatives of God.

Published in Roopa-Lekha, Vol XXXIII, No. 1 & 2

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