Free Press Journal

What a Life! A Kaleidoscope of Rajinder Puri’s Cartoons by Partha Chatterjee, Arvindar Singh- Review


Title: What a Life! A Kaleidoscope of Rajinder Puri’s Cartoons
Author: Partha Chatterjee; Arvindar Singh
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 148; Price: Rs 495

The one cartoon of Rajinder Puri that sums up his philosophy in life is the iconic one that graces the cover of his book What a Life! A Kaleidoscope of Rajinder Puri’s Cartoons. Aptly named, The Void, the 1964 composition holds at its centre a white silhouette of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, surrounded by a mass of people, representing the loss of a beloved leader of a devoted nation. The cartoonist and writer paid this rich tribute in spite of the fact that he had, on several occasions, trained his brush and inked at the Prime Minister without qualm.

A first-hand witness to the terrors of Partition, Puri’s mission as a political commentator never let him forget the Congress party’s accountability for the same. As a career cartoonist since 1960s, Puri had a dry, caustic style to call his own that regularly
found the then Prime Minister as its subject.

At once, when a whole host of peerless contemporaries ruled roost, Puri held his own. Arguably the most famous Indian cartoonist, R.K. Laxman was ‘neither a radical nor a crusader’, O.V. Vijayan’s cartoons were ‘political, but without the contentious wit’ which characterised Puri’s work, while Abu Abraham had a ‘lyrical, whimsical streak in him’, like his younger colleague, E.P. Unny…, Sudhir Dar had a ‘quiet, mischievous sense of humour’, and Mario Miranda had ‘sparkle and optimism’, but he wasn’t a daily newspaper
cartoonist really.

On the other hand, Puri, ‘through his cartoons and columns, lived entirely for politics—for him, it was the rendering of a public service…as vehicles for spreading public awareness on burning issues of the day’. His style was bold and free, whether he was assessing Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai or Narendra Modi. A browse through his oeuvre makes it amply clear that though his political stand is firm, it is not personal or petty. Yes, there is a distinct bite to the voice, but the vitriol is always directed to the politician and political parties, which he held to be the biggest villains of the nation.

This book is a posthumous collaboration between author, Arvindar Singh and journalist, Partha Chatterjee, and contains some of Puri’s best cartoons across 5 decades, from 1960s to 2010s. After he died in 2015, the duo organised a well-received exhibition of Puri’s cartoons in New Delhi, which led to the idea of reaching out to the younger generation with his work, in a more concrete manner; hence the book.

In today’s political climate, these cartoons may seem controversial, but the vision behind the compositions cannot be faulted, given the fact that beneath the wrath there is a capacity of considering the humour in the situations and holding it up for all to see.

As a chronicle of India’s journey through 5 decades of independence viewed through political cartoonist Rajinder Puri’s work, the book brings a wide perception of social and political matters to the table, and this is a must-have.