To write, speak or even think seriously on the subject of laughter has to be absurd. London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) held a seminar many moons ago on Raj Kapoor. I was working in that city at the time and attended it, out of sheer nostalgia for the great actor and, even more, for Nargis. I remember doubling up in silent laughter at the ridiculousness of a super serious session in the seminar on ‘Laughter in Raj Kapoor’s oeuvre’.
And so, as I put these thoughts down occasioned by the Rajya Sabha’s erupting with laughter on February 7, I do so telling myself that I must not sound stuffy about laughter. Not easy! But let me try.
There was heard, that day, in the House, the laughter of scorn – Renuka Chowdhury’s. And, there was the laughter of derision – that of BJP MPs’. Both laughter-forms belong to what in India’s arts is called hasyarasa, one of the nine rasa-s that Indian aesthetics recognises. Bharata describes it in his Natya-shastra, Mahendravarman I (571- 630CE) the Pallava king gives a spectacular example of its varying moods in his one-act Sanskrit drama Matta-vilasa-prahasana, and all of us, ‘ordinary’ or ‘regular’ folk feel, practice, share hasya-rasa all the time.
The Rajya Sabha was the stage for this rasa. What do the Congress MP’s piercing solo laugh followed by the prime minister’s retort and BJP MPs’ collective guffaw tell us?
This, that our public life’s hasya-rasa has changed. It has in fact become hasya-less. Our politics laughs, yes, but not with the laughter that is about fun. It laughs with a humour that hurts, scars, excoriates. Our politics now uses laughter as a weapon, not a faculty of conversation.
Lalu Prasad is an exception. I loved his recent comment which loses its punch in translation: “We used to fear the tiger, we are now afraid of the cow.” Given that the veteran is in jail and turning 70, it is well no one thought of asking him if his fear of the bovine had anything to do with fodder.
By and large, political hasya-rasa has become mean, adversarial. This is not how it used to be. Until not all that long ago.
Sarojini Naidu could say to Gandhi that it cost the nation a great deal to keep him in poverty, Rajaji could tell Gandhi ‘First you tell us to make khadi to win Swaraj, now you are asking us to make salt to win Swaraj…What next?’, Patel could say to Gandhi when he ruminated about impending death ‘You have got us onto this boat, don’t you die before getting us safely to shore…’. And Kripalani could say ‘Gandhi taught us how to make friends of our enemies. The old man forgot to teach us how to make friends of our own kind.’
We could say those were different times. But even in more recent times, Hiren Mukherjee could describe the perfume-fond Satyanarayan Sinha as “His Fragrance”, the loquacious Speaker Ananthasayanam Ayyangar as “Ananthavachanam Ayyangar” and the many-times-over minister Babu Jagjivan Ram as “belonging to the Indian Ministerial Service” with Jagjivan Ramji, on his part, punning on AR Antulay’s name to say if Antulay (un-weighed) is worth so much, how much would his worth show up if he were to get weighed?
“Don’t spare me!” Nehru could tell Shankar Pillai, the ace cartoonist.
Civilised laughter has a protocol to it, the observance of etiquette, courtesy. It comes from vinaya, vinoda. One essential characteristic of the laugh that laughs non-derisively is that while it can laugh at what it sees, that is, at the world, it can also – and – and invariably does – laugh at its own self, the laugher. When did we last hear an Indian politician joke at his own expense? When did we last hear an Indian politician say ‘Sorry, if my crack caused you hurt; I stand by my view but I take my sally back’?
Our public life has become a stage for vyangya. Laughter has changed direction, become uni-directional. Political humour’s aim in India today is ridicule, not fun, frolic, joy. Letting go the many forms of hasya it confines itself to laughing at others in scorn and derision. It has in fact created a tenth rasa – upahasa-rasa. If SOAS were to host a seminar on upahasa-rasa in India’s political oeuvre today, it would attract a number of papers. And not one of them would occasion a laugh.