"Not every cartoon is humorous"

Between sharp lines and subtlety, cartoonist Abin reminds that good things don’t need to be satirised

While Argentina and France tussled for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar’s Lusail Stadium on December 18, a different kind of match was taking place in Nepal’s political arena. The results of November’s provincial and federal elections were out, with Nepali Congress (NC) emerging as the largest party after winning 89 seats in the parliament.

The NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba and CPN-Maoist’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal were competing to be the country’s next prime minister. On 19 December, Kantipur daily ran a cartoon by Abin Shrestha depicting this scuffle: Deuba stood at No1 on a winner’s podium holding a golden cup, reminiscent of Argentina’s win the night before in the World Cup, as K P Oli took second place, watching on with no sense of urgency. In contrast, Dahal leapt from third place, one hand outstretched towards the cup which Deuba caught close with trepidation.

The cartoon was a clever premonition. The coalition collapsed and on 25 December and the two estranged Communist parties, Maoist and UML, reunited for the next government in a repeat of the agreement Dahal and Oli made after the 2017 elections. Dahal was appointed prime minister for the third time this week.

This was not a prediction as it was an evaluation of Nepal’s political climate. Abin Shrestha reminds us that cartoons are not news but editorials or analyses, and a political cartoonist aware of the happenings in the country depicts what they understand and expect based on their studies and observations. But satire is the medium with which the message is conveyed.

“All I wanted to show in the cartoon was that Dahal, who came third in the election, wanted to be prime minister when Deuba’s party got first place,” Abin explains. “Practically, this is a little strange, isn’t it,  as the winning party usually gets the position?”

Abin, 50, started out as a cartoonist almost 30 years ago when he joined the Nepal Times daily in 1993. Today, his daily single column cartoons on Kantipur under गजब छ बा !  are widely recognisable, with their characteristic geometric political figures, sharp, witty one-liners, a daura-surwal clad silent man standing in for the ordinary citizens, and his unique signature. But it was not until he was 30 that he felt attuned to cartooning, later becoming the president of Cartoonist Club of Nepal form two terms, from 2014 - 2021, and reviving the almost-defunct group with regular programs and workshops for up-and-coming Nepali cartoonists.

“When I began, I was very young,” he recalls. “I did not fully understand the politics or the parties, did not know how Congress was or UML.” His editor would sit him down and explain to him the intrigues, the policies and the workings of Nepal’s politics, both external and internal. Based on these and the day’s happenings, Abin would then make his cartoons.

After the end of the Panchayat system 1990, the major political parties in the new multi-party democracy were NC and UML, and they had their own partisan media. “Congressi newspapers would criticise the UML ones, and vice versa,” says Abin. “And one could distinguish a newspaper’s party alignment based on its cartoon.”

But Abin did not want to contribute to the one-sided, partial satire. He would often switch papers to poke fun at the other parties. “But people would call me दूधचिउरे, an opportunist, rather than see that I was trying to be impartial in my art and my work,” he says.

“Democracy was freshly reinstated after the Panchayat rule, there was freedom of expression, and also new developments in printing technology.” Media was unshackled and there were new newspapers, which in turn gave more opportunities to cartoonists.

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Before, cartoonists would often have to use pseudonyms to keep their identity and work separate. “Many veteran cartoonists who worked during the Panchayat-era recount how they would be startled to hear knocks at their door on the day their cartoon would be published,” he says.

This is not so much the case now. “Personally, I have not had to face censorship to that degree,” he adds. “There was a time, not too long ago, when party cadets – never the leaders themselves, mind you – would threateningly call or email me after a cartoon was out, telling me it was inappropriate. This has not happened in recent times.”

This, he attributes to the changing attitudes among people regarding the leaders and politicians. “No one considers them god-like anymore, incapable of any wrong,” Abin says. “And perhaps the audience has also got more mature, knows a thing or two about satire and humour.”

Even then, sometimes people will comment on social media, purposively chiding or bullying, but Abin does not engage with them. “As there is no point in trying to explain things to people who already understand them but pretend not to,” he says.

However, this does not mean a cartoonist does not listen to the public at all. “A cartoon is not just a picture but a form of journalism as well, and there is always a sense of duty and responsibility to being a cartoonist,” he adds. “In the name of creative freedom, one cannot go around chastising any particular gender, religion, ethnicity or class. There needs to be discipline.”

A cartoonist, Abin emphasises, observes, analyses and expresses a society’s climate and temperature. And perhaps for this reason alone, most cartoons are political in nature. “Especially in Nepal’s case, if one digs deeper, one finds that issues of education, health, and society are intrinsically tied to politics,” says he. “As such, it is difficult to not be political in our cartoons.”

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There are sometimes complaints too, that his cartoons almost exclusively depict frustrations and society’s negative aspects, but Abin reminds that his works are forms of satire after all. Satire, he explains, aims to shame or expose the vices, follies or  shortcomings of individuals, corporations, governments and society to ridicule. There is humour involved but not always, and the intention is to improve, as a form of social criticism. “And good things, events don’t need to be satirised at all,” he adds.

This has so far been the trend of cartoons in Nepal. Single-column gag cartoons or wider editorial ones lampoon the government’s deficiency and detachment from the general public, issues of corruption and elections. In 2022, Abin’s cartoons reflected the waves of hope that Nepali felt with the two elections in May and November, and were sharply critical when the elected leaders did not deliver as promised.

“There are new, younger people elected now, hinting at a touch of freshness,” Abin says. This also means newer characters to draw and newer expectations to express. “As a cartoonist, I hope that we also get to draw our cartoons differently this time, breaking the same tired tropes of the same people in power,” he adds. “Otherwise what is new, even?”

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