Back in the days before offset presses, the dull regularity of the black-and-white Gutenberg-era Nepali media would come alive with a splash of colour once a year.
The letter press days were also the days of the Panchayat and its accompanying press controls, so readers looked forward to Gaijatra to enjoy a brief day of freedom. Journalists looked forward to Gaijatra as the only day they could let off steam that had built up over the year. Newspapers came out with Gaijatra Specials and these were snapped up by a voracious public.
The origins of the "cow festival" are buried in legend: the attempts to make a queen forget the death of her child by come up with funny antics. It is the very frivolous ness of the festival that the newspapers picked up to lampoon political characters and make people laugh. And the fact that it was tolerated by the authorities on the day of Gaijatra had special significance in an era when freedom was restricted.
Interestingly, although media curbs have now been lifted, the tradition of Gaijatra lampooning continues. But somehow, it\'s not the same anymore. It could be that the post-1990 freedom press has taken away the zing of waiting for the satire and the cartoons that made you gasp with the sheer audacity of challenging authority.
"Now even.\' day is a Gaijatra day. The ways of the leaders is made fun of every day that there is nothing different for the magazines to print for the Gaijatra issue," says satirist Chatyang Master.
The tradition of Gaijatra Specials began in 1960 when the weekly, Naya Samaj, under the editorship of Bal Mukunda Dev Pandey, came out with an edition that shocked and amused readers with its satire against the then oppressive political atmosphere and conservative social mindset. After it was picked up some years later by the other papers, people began identifying Specials as a way to express their angst.
The early days Gaijatra contained high-quality humour and satire. But after I964, the press went for vulgarity. A favourite motif was to show political figures in various transsexual avatars, ministers with mammaries and exposed backsides. Subtle humour and biting political satire rapidly gave way to the direct portrayal of sex and of women as objects of ridicule. The slide continues to this day.
One example of the changing taste of the audience is the fact that this year\'s Gaijatra will not see Bhandbhailo, perhaps the most acclaimed Gaijatra magazine of all time. Explaining why they had to close down after 18 years of publication, Rajan Kafle of the Young Artists Group, the publisher of Bhandbhailo, says: "There is no market to support us. People demand cheap thrills. We tried giving them quality humour, but especially utter the advent of democracy, more of our artists and writers chose to turn professional. They do not have time to volunteer anymore. It seems the charm of satire is lost to everyone, even to cartoonists and satirists."
As readers\' taste veered towards sex and slapstick, cartoonists found themselves responding to the demand: and they mixed politics with pornography. "it signifies the conservative view of women as symbols of cowardice. Androgyny is considered the weakest point in men. The bizarre forms the characters are given shows that Nepali humorists are up to their necks in a pool of patriarchy," says Arun Gupto, a teacher of English at the Tribhuvan University. Chatyang Master hasn\'t given up trying to make Nepalis laugh at themselves and has even set up an organisation devoted to satire called Sisnu Pani. And despite all the problems in Nepal there still seems to be plenty to laugh about, he says. "In fact laughing about our problems seems to be one way to keep our sanity."