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The joker in the pack! Return of Vidushaks from days of yore
It has been my good fortune that early enough in life I grew up under the shadows of some great personalities. One of our family friends was Padma Vibhushan Shankar, India's most famous cartoonist. Whenever he came home he regaled us with accounts of how different politicians reacted to his unsparing caricatures. What marked that generation was that they took criticism in stride and with a dose of humour.

In Shankar's wake followed a galaxy of cartoonists, leading to the inimitable RK Laxman. Shankar was Pandit Nehru's favourite, and Nehru had asked the cartoonist to send him autographed originals of those cartoons, in which Shankar had caricatured him. 

During the declining years of Nehru, Shankar published a cartoon showing an 'exhausted Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, with a torch in hand, running the final leg of a race, with party leaders Gulzari Lal Nanda, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi in tow.' 

To this Nehru remarked, "Don't spare me, Shankar"!

I wonder which politician of today, big or small, would have the type of humility and openness to criticism, which prompted Nehru to say, 'Don't spare me, Shankar'!

Cartoons, social and political humour show a mirror to our society. Bloated egos and dogmatism cloud our vision and prevent us to see the 'other side of the moon'! Wearing blinkers of sycophancy or the certitudes of our political and religious dogmas shred our social fabric apart. Humour and openness on the other hand act as a safety valve in our personal and social intercourse.

Earlier, in authoritative states when there was suppression of dissent, the creative energies went underground and pamphlets were secretly distributed, etc. Today our politicians show a singular lack of humour, and with the media seeming to be bought, the anxieties of the common folks find outlets in the social media. Political cartoons and satires by amateurs go viral in a jiffy.  Hopefully, the axe will not fall on this aspect of the social media. Humour and well meant criticism are pillars of a healthy and open society.

Court jesters and Vidushkas:

Mankind had early enough realised that it was vital to present the face of reality to the mighty and the powerful, in an inoffensive manner. So we have a long history of clowns and court jesters in Europe and Vidushaks in our country. The home truths which Birbal could tell Emperor Akbar, no other functionary of the court would have dared to utter! Or for that matter, Tenali Raman who 'entertained' his powerful ruler, Krishnadevraya of the Vijayanagara empire!

Talking of Vidushaks, Devdutt Patnaik writes: 'Once upon a time it was important for a king to have a clown in his court. The clown was called Vidushak in India. The Vidushak was the only person allowed to make fun of the king. He would mock the king, abuse the king, imitate the king's mannerisms, make light of royal declarations and decisions. In other words, he openly said what no one else dared say. The Vidushak's caustic words and barbs and jibes enabled the king to question his own decisions, challenge his own thoughts; become aware of reactions and opinions that were otherwise kept hidden out of fear of royal reprisals. For that he had to pay a price: he had to dress like a fool, and look like an idiot. He had to be the fool. This was important because if he crossed the line and offended the king he could claim immunity from royal rage on grounds of being not-so-smart'.

From my readings of Buddhist literature, I find that Tibetan monasteries had a mad man. Only he could deflate the pumped up egos of the monks!

It is encouraging to note that the Vidushaks of yore have now been reborn, as the stand-up comedians of today. They relentlessly lampoon both the rulers and the ruled!    

There is a new class of entertainers, who have sprung up in recent times. They make us chuckle to no end! These motor mouths rightly take pride in India's great heritage, but I wonder if they understand the basis of what they are saying and the weird examples they quote. They do not realise that mythology and its metaphors are a heady mix of a culture's aspirations and values, our role models and our anti-heroes, etc. Our ecstasies and our insecurities! Their ignorant gloating on our past is a matter of concern. 

The latest gem that 'Sita was a test- tube baby', came from a worthy Uttar Pradesh minister! We cannot blame him, when our own Prime Minister informed a galaxy of international doctors that Ganesha was proof enough of Indians having mastered plastic surgery. Of combining a human torso on to an elephant's body! Lord Ganesha is in fact a personification of a philosophical concept!  Sure, ancient India had made great advances in plastic surgery, but Ganesha? This way, the Greeks of today can boast that their ancestors had combined a human archer on to the body of a horse. We know this metaphor (half human and half horse) as Centaur, which was also the logo of Air India! 

Surely, there is mention of flying vimanas in our epics. If our ancestors flew in vimanas, let us research what was the method of levitation and propulsion that they used. Patanjali in his Yogasutras has mentioned techniques for levitation. Let's find out, how we can validate and fly around, using his prescribed sutras. 

Our ancient wisdom and sciences need to be intensely studied by scholars. We have to see what we can glean from them and find practical ways of using that past knowledge for our common good, today.

With uninformed empty boasts, these latter day Vidushaks no doubt send us into peals of laughter, but it reflects poorly on our regressive thinking. We seem to be stuck in a time warp and obsessed with our past. What about the ground reality of today! 

What we need is an Institute of Antiquity Studies to harvest the wisdom of our ancients. We certainly can do without our latter day Vidushaks, the motor mouth type of court jesters!!!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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