Wit and Humour in Colonial North India

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Item Code: NAB711
Author: Mushirul Hasan
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 8189738186
Pages: 188 (Illustrated Throughout In B/W)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 12.3 inch X 8.3 inch
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: In today’s world, cartooning is becoming a contentious issue, unfortunately perceived as a deliberate attempt at demonizing the ‘other’. This was not so in late 19th-century colonial India when a fine cartoonist could summarize a welter of perspectives.

The Avadh Punch, a weekly from Lucknow, under the stewardship of its formidable editor, Munshi Sajjad Husain, was published from 16 January 1877 till its closure in 1936. Virtually the first Indian newspaper to publish cartoons as we know them today, it provided a platform for some of the greatest comic writers in Urdu literature.

Inspired by, and like the London punch (1841-2002), it became a household name notable for dignity, geniality of satire and good taste. It laid the foundation of the Urdu short story and of literary journalism, and rendered the same service to the Urdu novel as The Tatler and The Spectator did to the English novel.

Such was the popularity of the Avadh Punch that, by the end of the 19th century, 70 Punch papers/magazines had appeared from more than a dozen cities across the nation. Each of them reflected mainly on British rule from the experiences of over 300 million Indians with a long and proud past, but who were subjugated by force of arms and by commercial and diplomatic duplicity. Equally lampooned were those who abandoned their own inherited cultural and intellectual legacies in preference of Western models.

Wit and humour as pacifist tools of devastation constituted an apt response to the situation.

A thought-provoking tome, Wit and Humour in Colonial North India also presents a selection of Wilayat Ali Bambooque’s writings, and Archibald Constable’s commentary on some of the illustrations that appeared in the Avadh Punch.

Mushirul Hasan, an eminent historian, has authored Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims Since Independence (1997); John Company to the Republic: A Story of Modern India (2001); Islam in the Subcontinent: Muslims in a Plural Society (2002); From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (2003); A Moral Reckoning: Muslim Intellectuals in Nineteenth-century Delhi (2004); The Nehrus: Personal Histories (2006) and Partners in Freedom: Jamia Millia Islamia (2006).

He edits the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, a project of the Nehru Memorial Fund, and Towards Freedom (1939), a project for the Indian Council for Historical Research.

In 2007 the Padma Shree was conferred on him.


R.K. Laxman has noted that ‘a cartoonist born with a cock-eyed vision manipulates a face or a human situation and distorts it without losing the essence of humour’ (The Tunnel of Time, Delhi, 1998, p. 15). This applies to the caricatures of Akbar Ilahabadi, Munshi Sajjad Husain and Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar published in the ‘Tanz-o-Mizab Number of Nuqoosh (71-72) in January-February 1959, a weighty journal edited by Muhammad Tufail and published in Lahore by the Idarah-I Farogh-I Urdu.

Earlier, in March 1941, the journal Saqi had carried a thoughtful essay by Anwar Mukhtar Siddiqi dealing with the psychological aspects of Mizab. In 1953, the Aligarh Magazine issued the ‘Tanz-o-Zirafat Number.’ In May 1974, Aaj Kal (Delhi) produced a ‘Tanz-o-Mizab Number’, in two parts. Raza Kazmi compiled a selection of essays as Intikbah-I Avadh Punch (Lucknow, 1964). Misbahul Hasan Qaiser’s Muawaneen-I Avadh Punch (Lucknow, 1984) offered details on Nawab Syed Muhammad Azad, Akbar Ilahabadi, Munshi Ahmad Ali Shauq and Machhu Beg Sitam Zarif. Wazir Agha’s Urdu Adab mein Tanz-o-Mizah (Aligarh, 1990) is a fairly comprehensive study. Urdu Adab mein Tanz-o-Mizab ki Riwait (Delhi, 2005), by Khalid Mahmood (ed.), is a collection of essays based on a seminar held at Delhi’s Urdu Academy.

Wilayat Ali Bambooque’ essays appeared in Comrade and New Era. These newspapers are housed in the Dr. Zakir Husain Library, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Plates 1-18 are from Archibald Constable’s book entitled A Selection From The Illustrations Which Have Appeared In Avadh Punch From 1877 To 1881 (Lucknow, 1881). I have carried, with some minor editing, his excellent notes. The description of the opium den in Lucknow is outstanding. So is his estimate of Syed Ahmad Khan as a reformer. The rest of the cartoons are drawn from the files of Avadh Punch. I have added brief explanatory notes to each of them.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi read the first draft of this book and made many invaluable suggestions. Rakhshanda Jalil, Ameena Qazi Ansari. M. Asaduddin, Shamim Hanafi, Obaidur Rahman Hashmi, Syed Jamal Abidi, Mohamad Shakir, Javed Alam and Maqsood Alam have aided my research in various ways. Dipa Chaudhuri has worked extremely hard over this book; full credit to her for editing and designing. For translation and transliteration I have depended on Naqi Husain Jafri and Shamim Hanafi. Zafar Nawaz Hashmi managed the office of the Vice-Chancellor to let me pursue my researches.


A drawing depicting a humorous situation, ‘cartooning is a negative art form, so we kind of enjoy,’ says Mike Luckovich, the Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist. Muslims are, however, divided in their views on pictorial representations and yet they have been largely approving of cartons until the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, depicted the Prophet in a dozen editorial cartoons on 30 September 2005. Muslim organizations unanimously declared them to be blasphemous. They organized both peaceful and violent protests in countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim, across the globe.

Cartooning in today’s world is becoming more and more contentious, and, in some cases, a means of demonizing the other. This was not so earlier, in late 19th-century colonial India, for example, when a good cartoonist could shine in summarizing a welter of perspectives.

This book endeavours to introduce a new chapter in the field of social studies by publishing a selection of cartoons from Avadh Punch, once described by the famous Urdu poet, Akbar Ilahabadi, as the treasure-house of wit and humour-Gaubar makhzan-I zirafat. It was virtually the first Indian newspaper to give us cartoons, as we know them today. We believe that such cartoons published worldwide fall into the historian’s province and some knowledge of them enhances our understanding of social and cultural histories.

From the 1840s onwards, changes in locomotion, dress, games and social customs can be viewed in the pictures of London Punch. A discerning reader can seen many such changes in the cartoons of Avadh Punch, for they supply a running commentary on the history of the time, illuminate regional and local issues that impinged on the readers’ day-to-day experiences and chart a significant passage in our cultural history. One might call this process the sophistication of literary taste or perhaps its gentrification. Most simply, perhaps, cartoons signify an expression in the number of people who cared about wit and humour, in the ways they cared about them, and in the available expression of that concern.

In an earlier work, From Pluralism and Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (Delhi, 2004), I have attempted to capture the social and cultural ethos of Lucknow, a city that recovered from the tremors of the 1857 revolt, and Bara Banki district. At both these places, I engaged with writers and poets who were mostly qashati men. To that account I now add wit and humour in order to recover some vital themes that have become lost to the social and cultural historian. One does so in the hope that, as the English poet Alexander Pope (1988-1744) had written in The Rape of the Lock:

For me, this is largely a happy story, in which a heroic vanguard of poets, writers and journalists lead the readers out of a world of dull, cautious, standardized prose into a home of freshness, variety and some degree of sophistication. Some of them are well known; others are more obscure. Some others served as benevolent authority figures for the generations to follow.

A major portion of this book deals with Avadh Punch, a weekly published from Lucknow, and its indomitable commander, the editor Munshi Sajjad Hussain. This is followed by an analysis of the writings of Wilayat Ali ‘Bambooque,’ who wrote mostly in English. His name is less frequently mentioned in histories of literature; yet for generations he has been read. His read merits are higher than they are supposed to be. Although his thoughts are too fragmentary and incomplete to serve as the basis for any far-reaching conclusions about his world views, they provide readers not final statements but tentative queries, as seeds from which brilliant essays might have grown. The enjoyment a modern reader finds in Bambooque comes rather from the witty jibes he takes at his opponents than any real sting in his satire. They are still fun to read.

In 1881, Archibald Constable, a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and the first to introduce The Avadh (Oudh) Punch to the English-speaking readers, referred to the widespread belief that Indians were a humourless lot impervious to a joke. Refuting this view, he pointed out that ‘a great number of the old, witty or grotesque, stories and songs, that have long been current in the West, owe their origin to the East.’ Indeed, he found ‘unmistakable indications’ of Western scholars taking ‘a kindly and sympathetic interest in the vast unworked mine of Indian popular literature, both oral and written.

Wit (bazla-sanji), humour (mizah) and satire (tanz) have had a long-standing career in South Asia. Urdu, too, produced its share of satire (bajv), a generic term applied to wit and satire alike, and to jibes, sarasm, jokes and sallies that were often directed against stereotypical rulers, religious preachers, publicists and the elite. Urdu writers took their cue from the 11th-century author of Qabus Nama, who had advised his son: ‘Learn anecdotes, rare quips and amusing tales in abundance, and repeat them to your patron. It is an exercise indispensable to the poet. Some like Qazi Muhammad Sadiq Khan Akhtar, Lucknow’s late 18th-century author, recalled the Prophet of Islam jesting with his noble wives and companions, and the witty raconteurs who made him smile with their remarks.

Avadh Punch was published from 16 January 1877 until its closure in 1936. During this period, it published some of the greatest comic writers in Urdu literature. Like the London Punch (1841-2002), it became a household name, notable for dignity, geniality of satire and good taste. Avadh Punch stood clearly at the head of the satire produced in the late 19th century. It laid the foundations of the Urdu short story and of literary journalism, and rendered the same service to the Urdu novel as The Tatler and The Spectator, the earliest periodicals founded by Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719) respectively, did for the English novel. The following assessment lends weight to this view:

Sajjad Husain was extraordinarily comprehensive, analyzing vices, manners and customs, classes and institutions, literature, education and religion. He detested doctrinal excesses, including Shia-Sunni differences. He was equally uncomfortable with the attempts to create a Hindu-Muslim cleavage. He was most original in censuring the colonial government’s excesses, deplored the wrongs connected with the Crown’s rule, and imputed it to the official’s willful neglect of the people’s welfare. His writings have a basic sincerity that redeem them from flattery. If, as some suggest, much of the world’s satire is the result of a spontaneious, or self-induced, overflow of powerful indignation, and acts as a catharsis for such emotions, then we need to examine its expression in Avadh Punch.

By the end of the 19th century, 70 Punch papers/magazines appeared, quite remarkably, from more than a dozen cities. Each one of them reflected on British rule, not from the colonial government’s standpoint but from the experiences of over 300 million Indians, who had a long and proud past, but who were conquered by force of arms and by commercial and diplomatic duplicity. The rule of any people by the sword of a foreign conqueror,’ wrote the Rev. J.T. Sunderland, ‘is always a bitter thing to those who feel the sword’s pitiless edge, whatever it may be to those who hold the hilt of the sword. Some other writers made fun of those who had abandoned their own inherited ideas and institutions in preference to the Western model.

As early as 1906, the outstanding Tamil poet Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) front-paged a cartoon in the India weekly he edited to reinforce his fiercely nationalistic views. He would often pose for his cartoonist to emphasize the gestural effects he desired the cartoons to reflect. Indeed, given India’s folk and classical tradition of satire, it was easy for the cartoonist to relate to a form-comic art in the form of cartoons-that freezes mime and movement into a single stinging visual. By the 1920s, most newspapers carried cartoons. As a child, R.K. Laxman saw one opposite the editorial page. It made no sense to him, but ‘the brilliance of the craftsmanship’ held his attention for a long time. The cartoon was by David Low (1891-1963), who created the character ‘Colonel Blimp, a fat, pompous old gentleman with a walrus moustache, who opposed all change and became a symbol of British conservatism.

Even though Urdu writers and poets preceding Subramania Bharati may not have shared the same degree of patriotic fervour because the nationalist movement itself had yet to mature, they nonetheless criticized the blind following of the West and felt estranged or distanced from the symbols of the Raj. In 1855, two years before the fire of revolt ignited in Meerut and Delhi, Hakim Ahmad Raza Lakhnavi launched Mazaq (‘Humour’) from Rampur, a princely state in the Rohilkhand region. Madras Punch (1859), Farbatul Akhbar (Bombay, 1876), Rohilkhand Punch (Moradabad) and Al-Punch (Patna) Followed.

From John Strachey (1823-1907), lieutenant governor of the North-West Provinces (1874-76), to H. H. Risley (1851-1911), Director of Ethnography for India (1902), Census Commissioner (1899-1902) and author of The People of India (1908), British civil servants made strenuous efforts to prove that India was not a nation in the ordinary sense of the world. Anil Seal, the high priest of the ‘Cambridge School,’ echoed the same view in the mid-‘60s in his book, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later 19th Century (Cambridge, 1968). The essays and cartoons in Avadh Punch prove just the opposite. Likewise, the colonial administrators produced vast amounts of literature to argue that left to itself India would fall apart. There is no support for this view in Avadh Punch. On the contrary, the idea of freedom was echoed in the paper even before it became the main plank of the Indian National Congress. Equally powerfully expressed in the idea of ‘Unity in Diversity’ (see Plate 2)-a theme that figured in the nationalist discourses in the late 19th century.


Foreword 7
1Wit and Wisdom in Urdu Literature21
2The Punchis35
3Caricaturing the Raj53
4In Defence of Tradition85
5Political Satire in the 20th Century93
6The Eclipse103
Appendix 1
Portraits by Wilayat Ali Bambooque: The Raj and its Allies111
1The Patwari113
2The Chaukidar117
3The Revenue Agent121
4The Hon’rary Magistrate125
5The England-Returned129
6The Assessor133
7The Title-Hunting Association of Noisy Jee-Huzoors137
8Hon’ble Mr. Gup in the Council139
Appendix 2
1Raja Mohamed Ghulam Husain145
Plates 1-19
Commentary: Archibald Constable149
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