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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 06:10 GMT 07:10 UK
Drawing laughter amid Nepal's woes
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu


Nepalese cartoonist Batsyayana
Batsyayana caricatures Nepal's leading institutions
Nepal's foremost cartoonist, Batsyayana, has just had a book of his recent work published.

"Batsyayana and his Barbs" is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on life in the troubled country since the restoration of democracy in 1990, and its contents have sometimes landed the artist in deep water.

Batsyayana - a Hindu sage said to have had knowledge of every art - is the pen-name of 63-year-old Durga Baral, who from his home in the Nepalese town of Pokhara has been observing politics and society for some 40 years.

"I'm not a politician, I can't analyse the political situation," the gentle, silver-haired cartoonist insists. Instead, he says, from his first work in the 1960s, he has been involved in what he calls "mission journalism" - the mission being to fight for democracy.

Media censorship

At the time, under the rule of Mahendra, father of the current King Gyanendra, political parties were banned.

In such times "the cartoonist can have a great impact on politicians and common people", he says. "People can't express their own feelings but they find [them] in my cartoons - it's a kind of release of emotions."

Batsyayana cartoon depicting Nepalese Prime Minister GP Koirala
The prime minister has been the subject of numerous depictions

In Batsyayana's view, the "mission" of fighting for democracy continues today.

He started out as a painter, and remains one. He became a cartoonist by chance when a newspaper editor (who ironically later became a royally-appointed minister) asked if he would consider cartooning.

He agreed, but media censorship at the time was such that he only drew about 20 cartoons in three years.

It was around then that he assumed his pen-name. "I was teaching on a college campus in Pokhara," he says, "but teachers weren't allowed to comment on government policy. So I changed my name - it was so secret that even my best friend didn't know it was me."

The book mainly carries Batsyayana's work since 1990. It has been a turbulent period of unstable democracy, the rise of the Maoists, the royal massacre, direct palace rule - and then the revival of democracy with April's massive street protests.

"I drew a lot of cartoons against the Maoists," he says. "One showed [Maoist leaders] Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai carrying a load of human skulls. Vultures are circling around saying 'thanks for your generosity'."

Batsyayana cartoon depicting the army
The military are also frequent victims of the cartoonist's wit

Another, aimed against the army, shows a person composed of the letters "HUMAN" hanging from a tree while soldiers of the opposing sides remove the word "RIGHTS" on a plate. It is a drawing with international resonance.

As for the royal coup of February 2005, when for a time the army spread its tentacles throughout society, he "decided to draw cartoons against it, come what may. It was against the people."

One of Batsyayana's favourites shows a top-ranking military officer sitting at an office desk. "CHIEF EDITOR: IN" says the sign by the door.

'Easy character'

Another made headlines last August when it was published in the daily, Kantipur. From a large rubbish container Girija Prasad Koirala, now prime minister but then opposition leader, and a supporter of the ceremonial monarchy, has just salvaged a dead donkey labelled "Constitutional Monarchy".

Batsyayana's point was that it was King Gyanendra who had consigned the constitutional monarchy to the garbage bin. Royalist circles were not amused. Articles in the official press said Batsyayana's property should be confiscated, even that he should be executed. He survived.

Batsyayana cartoon
Cartoons at the expense of the king have to be a little more subtle

Batsyayana says he has most often portrayed the four-times Prime Minister, Mr Koirala. "Politics has revolved around him since the restoration of democracy," he says. "With his long nose, he's a very easy character to draw."

But he has never drawn King Gyanendra or his predecessor Birendra, depicting the monarchy indirectly instead. In one cartoon, entitled "Good Governance", a skinny man wearing only a loincloth is shown entering the royal palace carrying a Rolls-Royce on his back.

This is not so far-fetched. Until recently cars were indeed carried to Kathmandu; today in the city, a lone porter carrying a refrigerator is a common sight. So these cartoons - whether political or social - strike a chord among ordinary Nepalis.

An early work shows a smirking man with a newspaper headlined "Man has Reached the Moon". He is being carried in a basket by a mountain porter.

There are digs at bureaucracy: a scrum of waiting people while a woman bureaucrat knits, saying "Can't you see I'm working?" And gentle comments on the generation gap: a youth listens to his Walkman; an old man, traditionally dressed, retorts: "How foolish! How can you hear the radio with your ears covered?"

"I try to do cartoons according to what common people feel," says Batsyayana. He believes the more educated people become, the less they want a monarchy. But many have little idea what a republic is, he says.

"They want equality, equal opportunity," he believes. "Freedom to work. To express what they feel."


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