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Shishir brings the charm of his cartoons to Japan

Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan holds exhibition showcasing the work of Bangladeshi newspaper cartoonist

The Daily Star
Friday, September 7, 2007

By Monzurul Huq

Shishir Bhattacharjee has by now become a well-known personality in Bangladesh, as readers of country's largest circulated daily have been accustomed to seeing his witty drawings of known figures from the world of local and global politics in the front pages of the newspaper almost on a regular basis. They also adore those drawings, which provide a welcome relief from the harsh reality of the otherwise gloomy atmosphere of the political arena that we are used to seeing.

The messages Shishir's cartoons carry are unique in the sense that, at a single glance, they can make readers laugh or feel sad, or arouse their sympathy for the personalities being drawn, or even get a sense of relief to know that what they think to be true deep in their minds can also be so beautifully portrayed through the touches of the brush of a master painter with the mindset of a deep social analyst.

Take the example of Tarique Zia offering a live, roasted, mini-cow to his mother by opening the lid of a large tray, as the leader of the opposition peeps with hungry eyes from behind the curtain at the back. You see the charlatan in our political world, with the same face that we were accustomed to seeing on TV screens, but with the figure of a strangely shaped mini-cow, sitting right in the middle of the tray with a satanic smile on its face, and you need no further explanation to understand the crooked world in which all of them dwell.

Or in a slightly broader perspective, you understand the same surrounding of crookedness seeing US President George W. Bush kicking the back of the former secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, as the latter tries to get rid of the burden from his shoulder. And in another completely different setting, you feel sad seeing Saddam as a caged lion waiting for the irony of fate.

Cartoons, particularly those of political nature, have the power to convey the message on a particular topic much more forcefully than any written text on the same issue is capable of doing. And if the cartoonist turns out to be a master of controlling his pen and the brush, then we indeed get the message conveyed much more easily and many times more meaningfully. Shishir has that rare talent of being capable of not losing control and of keeping the touch of reality despite twisting the faces that he draws. His Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina are undoubtedly the same faces we are accustomed to seeing on TV screens. But a closer look reveals the ugly side of human nature that they nurture, or are simply ignorant of possessing.

And in dealing with the Islamic fundamentalists, Shishir is not hesitant at all to expose the behind the scene maneuvers of influential political figures who carefully nurture their existence with the sole purpose of scoring political gains over their rivals. In one of his more forceful cartoons, an ugly and devilish looking Bangla Bhai is seen being given caring massage by a number of known and influential figures from our own political world.

Political cartoons in the media have a long history, probably running back to the days of early newspapers when illustrators played the role of photographers before the advent of the camera and the techniques of reproducing photos in newspapers. It was also during that early period that some of those illustrators tried to use a different method of conveying the message indirectly, by intentionally distorting figures and shapes of important personalities.

For the media of the time, there was indeed the need to be on the safe side, as powerful figures of the society could easily become vindictive and resort to intimidation if something had directly been said or written about them. Cartoons, seen largely as producers of laughter, diffused such possibilities to a certain extent, and allowed newspapers to carry the message they otherwise were not allowed to do in a slightly different form.

The advent of photographic technology has virtually outmaneuvered illustrators from their known trade of being part of the newspaper industry. But one genre that survived the onslaught is the cartoon. It is particularly true of the society where there is little option left for people to speak their mind. Cartoons in such societies keep hope alive, amid the all-covering darkness. Even in the fully controlled media empire of the Soviet era, the satirical weekly "Crocodile" dared to touch issues that for others were considered to be simply taboo and, hence, untouchable.

It is said that when you cannot speak, you draw pictures. In fact, all our writings are the end product of pictures that our ancestors used to draw while expressing their feelings and thoughts during the early days of human civilization. We now live in the world of information, where pictures are no longer considered the right form for expressing the realities of modern life. So, in painting we've moved to an ever-complicated form of abstraction, where the painters leave much of the task of interpreting the content and fathoming out the real meaning to us, the viewers. But one particular genre of painting that not only proved immune to this onslaught but also flourished is the genre of political cartoons that most of the print media all over the world are using extensively till today.

A number of renowned cartoonists, like David Levine of "New York Review of Books," have even elevated the position of cartoons to such a high level that there is not only respect and admiration for the artists and their works, but also a deep sense of affiliation and attachment with the messages the cartoons they draw carry. From this particular understanding, Shishir can be rightfully called as our own David Levine, as he too elevated the position of cartoons in Bangladesh from being a kind of filler in newspaper pages to something essential for understanding the reality of our society.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, the prestigious club of media representatives from around the world stationed in Tokyo, is for the first time focusing on Bangladesh throughout the month of September, as the exhibition committee of the Club decided to hold a cartoon exhibition of Shishir Bhattacharjee. The noted Japan-based Bangladeshi painter, Kazi Ghyasuddin, played a crucial role in arranging the exhibition of Shishir at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, and it was through him that the Club negotiated with Shishir who has sent 32 of his selected original drawings for the display in Tokyo.

All the works now being displayed had already been published in Prothom Alo, and the media representatives of Japan as well as the guests of the Club are now having the rare opportunity to see for themselves the cartoons drawn by Shishir. Among the works are quite a few focusing on international politics, and also some of his noted works depicting the political reality of Bangladesh.

Monzurul Huq writes from Japan.

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