Awadh Punch: India’s Charlie Hebdo of Past

This was brewing for sometime now, with last evening’s conversation with an art historian bringing it all to a churn. Turns out that her father wrote for the legendary Awadh Punch, a satirical Urdu weekly published from Lucknow, which began in 1877. It was edited by Munshi Sajjad Hussain. Recollecting stories of the post-independence days in India, she recollected how charged and energetic were the times in which she grew up. There was, in her opinion, greater room for sharp, incisive and on-the-face criticism by the way of humour and satire, unlike the current years, especially with a BJP led government ruling India. Awadh Punch ( referred as AP hereon) was an Indian version after the tremendously successful Punch which began in 1841 in England was the heydays of the British Rule in India. This Urdu weekly contributed in another big way – the development of Urdu short story. Here is a chapter from Huseyn Suhravardy‘s work on AP and its contribution to Urdu short story and journalism. The satire and cartoons of Awadh Punch repeatedly poked a finger in the British government’s eyes with every opportunity and at every occasion. Another newspaper in the Deccan started around the same time was Kesari by B.G. Tilak which was a prominent voice for self-rule or swaraj.

In the similar league was another interesting newspaper – The Comrade. It ran  from 1911-1914 and an essay on the British mistreatment of the Turks but still encouraged them to join the Allies during WW1 did it in. The paper was shut down under the Press Act of 1910. What is remarkable about the journalism of this era in India is that the times (colonial administration) and the odds (state of technology and high costs) were several times greater than the present and yet there were these bold and fierce initiatives. This is quite a contrast to the current range of newspapers in India which seems to be ever so flexible in their willingness to pull down articles, not touch controversial issues and play safe.

The larger point is that political satire in India has had a rather long history which needs to be known. It might help recast the current intolerance of political opinion and the ways of presenting them in a comparative light. The current direction of thought is that political commentators in India are doing a fair job of criticizing the government and shaping public opinion. But a quick look at the late 19th and early 20th century newspapers and periodicals in India would tell you that this is a far cry from the early action in political commentary.

Mushirul Hasan, a noted Indian Historian writes,

The political uncertainties and the proliferation of newspapers in early 20th Century offered a variety of themes for political satirists to explore.

In another place he refers to cartoons as a medium and refers to AP’s work, which should be interesting to know for those thinking about the state of freedom of expression and intolerance of opinion post Charlie Hebdo attack:

Cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication. The volume of humour produced by this weekly had both variety and range. One of its offshoots was that political/social satire became an accepted and legitimate medium of experience. Indeed, the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore.

Further,

We need to be aware of and express, in an inventively humorous manner, the relationship between seemingly incongruous and disparate things. For this to happen, we must draw some wisdom from wit and humour in public life, past and present. Cartoons offer such rare insights into our political and cultural histories that they can be read as a document without undermining their artistic achievements.

His book Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: Awadh Punch, and Wit andWisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, 2012 offers a glimpse into the Indian versions of the Punch which came up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A selection of plates from AP are archived in the Digital South Asia Library of U. Chicago.

And here is a cartoon from AP on Afghanistan published in 1879, for a flavour (courtesy: The Public Archive) :

A cartoon from Awadh Punch on Afghanistan, 1879. Courtesy: The Public Archive http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=1921

A scene from the second phase of the late war, the ex-Amir sitting on the ground with one end of a rope around his waist, the other in the hands of a British officer who is preparing to lead him away to exile; to the left, Sir FrederickRoberts standing by the side of a female figure, representing the Afghan nation, with an arm placed on the General’s shoulder.

The legend at the top is taken from a poem by “Ghalib” in which a Lover is supposed to say to his Mistress, when parting from her, “I have heard of the ignominious way in which Adam was forced to leave Paradise, but I am certain that he never felt half the remorse I now experience, when leaving your pleasant paths and sweet companionship.”

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