The chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, recently said in an interview that the late Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray was given the honours after death not because he was a politician but a cartoonist and an artist. The Maharashtra CM's also said that his government abide by the law in the case of laying a memorial for Thackeray in Shivaji Park. Was an under-pressure chief minister desperately doing a balancing act?
The view that an artist should be given recognition for his creative contributions is beyond doubt. But do all cartoonists and artists get such applause in this country like Thackeray? Where have we seen millions assembling in a park to witness a cartoonist being cremated amid state honours and gun salutes? How much significance do we Indians really attach to creative artists like cartoonists that when one die, we play bugles in their honour?
Chavan's viewpoints reveal how the state utilises its power to influence mass sentiments. Once Thackeray was gone and his party seemed to be in danger of losing direction under a weaker leadership, it was a great opportunity for the ruling coalition to win popular sympathy by staging a mega cremation programme for political mileage. It got its back patted by the emotional Shiv Sena, those saddened millions present at the funeral and also by itself for it had organised a peaceful rally. Why does the mention of 'peace' arise after a cartoonist's death?
Cartoonists, as far as I know, are creative people, and artists are not associated with words like unrest and peace. Did the tense state reaction and general apprehension that prevailed in Mumbai indicated that it was not a cartoonist but a politician with a huge mass base who was being cremated?
Why we deify some artists and demonise
It is surprising that the Congress-led government of Maharashtra decided to honour a cartoonist, who had ridiculed its former leaders in many of his creative works. Now, some Thackeray supporter will say there should not be any politicisation while acknowledging a creative artist.
My counter-question to that agreement is: Then why a cartoonist like Aseem Trivedi was treated in a harsh manner when he protested against the state? He did not inflict physical damage like the other cartoonist had done but yet his rights were violated in the most unjust manner. It is quite difficult to buy Chavan's goodwill theory and particularly, the way in which the state police handled two innocent girls for posting an innocuous comment on Bal Thackeray on Facebook, perhaps under immense political pressure, give a simple explanation.
Artists are not respected forcibly and nor do any artist in the history of the world had gangs of loyalists ready to hurt and humiliate innocent people. If anybody is speaking about Adolf Hitler, then I must say India is not the Germany of the inter-war period.
R K Laxman could have also retaliated, he did not
Kamala Laxman, wife of famous cartoonist R K Laxman, who had once worked together with Bal Thackeray and remained a close friend with the Shiv Sena patriarch, said: "Sometimes he (Laxman) said he (Thackeray) shouldn't have gone this far. But we understood he perhaps had his own reasons for doing what he did..."
According to Kamala, her husband said he didn't understand why was there a need for violence as Thackeray had preached around. Laxman never retaliated through his own cartoons and according to Kamala, Thackeray apperciated his silence.
The restraint that was shown by R K Laxman reflected the true spirit of an artist, i.e., hatred should not be fuelled. You have a pen or a brush to express your mind and should ensure that the need of a gun never arises. Laxman, as a south Indian, could have also retaliated against the Shiv Senas' activities, but he did not do it for creative people believe in individuality. Aseem Trivedi also did whatever he could in his personal capacity.
There was no effort either by Laxman or Trivedi to instigate masses and gangs to target innocent people just because the latter were earning a livelihood.
We have seen cartoons provoking sentiments but a cartoonist fuelling violence? Never
This makes them different from Thackeray who transformed his cartoon-making skills into crude ethnocentric instincts that was instilled among his followers. Artists transcends across borders and never encourages parochialism.
May be Bal Thackeray was a man of great political wit and skill. But was his will above suspicion? Yet the state honoured a man who never honoured the state. Did November 18, 2012, made us a bit cynical about the word 'artist'?