Thursday, December 18, 2014

Anthropologist's new book examines newspaper cartoons' importance to politics and culture

A University of Texas at Arlington cultural anthropologist breaks ground in media and South Asian studies with a new book focused on newspaper cartoons, the cartoonists and the public reception of cartoons in India.

"Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World" was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

In the book, Ritu Gairola Khanduri, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the UT Arlington College of Liberal Arts, reveals how cartoons serve as teaching moments about identity politics and democracy.

"We just have to look around to observe the frequency with which cartoons are debated in our world," Khanduri said, noting that unlike in North America, newspaper readership in Asia is growing and newspapers continue to be an important medium for political communication.

"Most leading national and regional newspapers in India have staff cartoonists. The sheer number of languages, 22 officially, produces a unique and vibrant visual expression of political humor in the world's largest democracy."

Khanduri's research included amassing a range of archival and ethnographic materials that date back to the 1870s. Her archival research took her to collections in The British Library (London), the Library of Congress and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (New Delhi), among several other places. She traveled widely in India, engaging in-depth with India's leading cartoonists, many who began their careers in the late colonial years. The result is a profusely illustrated 370-page account that received glowing advance reviews.

"Cartoonists Kutty, Bireshwar, Samuel, R. K. Laxman, Suresh Sawant and Mita Roy, among others, generously shared their stories about the rich history of their art in India," Khanduri said. "I have incorporated cartoonists as interlocutors, artists and political analysts."

"Kutty told me that the life span of cartoons is as short as that of a firefly, but its sting can linger on for a long time. This perspective offers a way to think about the enduring significance of ephemeral cultural forms, of which the daily newspaper cartoon is the finest example."

Khanduri said "cartoon talk" - what readers, cartoonists, and critics say about cartoons, pointed her to debates about democracy, free speech and the status of cartoons as a form of humor, news and art.

Beth Wright, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said Khanduri's interdisciplinary research in anthropology, history and visual culture enables "us to gain valuable insights about such important subjects as nationalism and India's transition from a colonial to a post-colonial entity."

She added: "Dr. Khanduri's work will advance scholarship in many disciplines."

Khanduri hopes her book will help people who consider cartoons esoteric to understand why they matter and mobilize political passions.

"Newspaper cartoons are a public turf where lines of empathy and politics are drawn. The world witnessed this generative force of cartoons during the Danish cartoon controversy in 2003 when I had just returned from fieldwork in Britain and India," Khanduri said. "Cultural anthropology prepared me to put my ear to ground and listen. This equipped me to combine textual analysis with people's experience of seeing cartoons and why they matter."

"Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World" is available at the UT Arlington bookstore, 400 S. Pecan St. Copies can also be ordered online through Cambridge University Press. UTA bookstore and CUP customers can receive a 20 percent discount at checkout when they enter the code: CCI2014.
EurekAlert. 2014. “Anthropologist's new book examines newspaper cartoons' importance to politics and culture”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 3, 2014. Available online:

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