The Sketch of a Legend

  • Haroon Mirani
  • Publish Date: Aug 17 2017 1:40AM
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  • Updated Date: Aug 17 2017 1:40AM
The Sketch of a Legend

How the cartoonist Bashir Ahmad Bashir became a cultural icon


On the morning of Bashir Ahmad Bashir’s wedding in the mid-70s, Srinagar Times carried his cartoon depicting a bride riding a horse with the groom holding the reins. The idea, explains BAB, as the legendary cartoonist is popularly known, was to convey that after marriage, the women is the master of her husband.

Sheikh Abdullah, then chief minister, was among the guests at BAB’s wedding. He couldn’t help but remark, “You have made a good cartoon of yourself in today’s paper.” The quick-witted groom replied promptly, “Sheikh Sahib, it can happen to all people. It has happened to you. Indira Gandhi has mounted the horse and you are left holding the reins.” The Sheikh forced a smile and said, “Now don’t make such a cartoon in tomorrow’s paper.”

That is BAB for you. Love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. “In those times,” recalls the now silver-haired artist, “I was often called rude, and someone who is always looking for trouble. But all I did was draw cartoons depicting the situation.”

BAB describes himself as an “accidental cartoonist”. He comes from a family of writers and intellectuals but his own interest in literature was limited. One day in 1971, his brother,Srinagar Times editor Sofi Ghulam Mohammed, aware of BAB’s artistic talent, asked him to draw a cartoon showing two bulls fighting each other, one wearing Karakul cap and another sunglasses. BAB did as he was told, and left home not knowing what was it for. Until, that is, the next morning, when everybody started praising him for drawing a great caricature of infighting in the Congress.

“I had no idea what had happened,” BAB says. “I took the paper and saw the bulls labelled as GM Sadiq and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed. At that time, I was least interested in state politics. I did not even know knew who the two gentlemen were. But it became a huge hit for our paper. It was all Sofi Sahib’s imagination that did the magic. After that, it ran every day.”

In the decades since, BAB’s daily cartoon became a cultural icon, a witness to and chronicler of Kashmir’s tumultuous history. It’s said about Srinagar Times that it’s the only newspaper read by even illiterate people – for its cartoon. BAB confirms: “Many of our subscribers can’t read but they see news through these caricatures.”

In four decades of caricaturing, BAB has ruffled many feathers, angered powerful people, starting with the Sheikh himself. He couldn’t care less.

One time, he lampooned with entire state assembly, depicting MLAs as monkey, lambs, donkeys and other animals. It was a comment on a nasty brawl involving the MLAs inside the assembly.

He has been threatened many a time, the first call coming during GM Sadiq’s rule. “I made a cartoon wherein I showed voters from NC, Jamat, Congress and other parties casting their ballots and the ballot box turning every vote into Congress vote,” he describes the offending caricature. 

Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a frequent target of his rapier wit, even during the Emergency, when the press was censored and dissenters thrown in jail by the thousands. After lifting the Emergency and losing power in 1977, Indira visited Kashmir. BAB greeted her with this cartoon. 

“She liked the cartoon a lot,” he recalls. “It was a depressing time for her.”

Some of BAB’s work has been prophetic. In one cartoon, he depicted Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with a gunny bag of MLAs, with one MLA at the bottom, Sheikh Jabbar, cutting through the bag. Seeing the cartoon, a young engineer in Srinagar who had been promised a job by a minister got worried. “I knew the government will fall when I saw the cartoon. I rushed to the minister, pleading with him to issue the order immediately otherwise I would lose my chance. He assured me that nothing of the sort would but I insisted and got the order issued,” the engineer recounted. “And within three days, the government fell.”

For his work, BAB has earned wide acclaim. He has been honoured with the British Journal Critics Award and the Gold Medal by the Jammu and Kashmir Editors Foundation, among others.

For a man with such artistic finesse, BAB has no formal training in the art. What’s the secret of his unparalleled insight. “I try to see people differently. For example, when I see a leader I watch him through his character and that makes me easy to draw,” he says. “People are extremely intelligent and they get the point easily.”

Not surprisingly then, BAB is a great believer in destiny. “I never chose this life and it is this life that chose me.”