THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

2 posts from December 2018

12 December 2018

Bombay satire: Rudolf von Leyden's political cartoons in India in the 1930s and 40s

This guest blog post is by Mollie Arbuthnot, the Visual Arts section's doctoral placement. Her project focuses on political cartoons during the early 20th century.

 

It's not easy being a satirist. Rudolf von Leyden (1908-1983), a German-born cartoonist who lived most of his life in Bombay, is the main figure in this cartoon self-portrait.

IMG_1909
'Denley in search of happiness' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. British Library, P2349(146). Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 24 March 1946. 

Surrounded by discarded drafts and piles of newspapers with depressing and terrifying headlines, he desperately searches for inspiration. Meanwhile his editor pokes his head round the door demanding "something really funny this week."

This is just one of a collection of von Leyden's satirical cartoons at the British Library. They were made in the 1930s and 40s, and the library has both original drawings (WD4491) and a set of the cartoons (P2349) as they were published in Bombay newspapers at the time.

The cartoon series in The Illustrated Weekly of India ran from the mid-30s to the late 40s, a tumultuous time in Indian and world history. Both von Leyden's personal life and the cartoons themselves give a fascinating insight into this period.

Life and times of Rudolf von Leyden

It’s not entirely clear why von Leyden moved to India in 1933. He was born in 1908 in Berlin to a middle-class family, the younger of two sons, and lived in Germany throughout his youth. Of course, as a man of Jewish descent and with leftist political interests, it would have been dangerous for him to have stayed in the country for long after the rise of Nazism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that that was his main motivation for choosing India, or that he was fleeing persecution at the time that he left.

Rudolf’s elder brother, Albrecht, had been living and working in Bombay since 1927. Rudolf had just finished his studies (he received his PhD in geology from the University of Göttingen in 1932) and was looking to embark on his own career. Perhaps it just seemed an opportune moment to start a new adventure. Whatever the reasons, Rudolf arrived in Bombay in 1933.

He swiftly left geology behind, and began working in publicity a textiles firm, but also soon showed his interest in visual art. He set up the Leyden Commercial Art Studio, produced watercolour scenes on his travels around India, and began working on his series of political cartoons.

He was a central figure in the art scene in Bombay, working as the main art critic of The Times of India, collecting Indian artworks from various periods, organising exhibitions, and actively promoting young, contemporary artists. He was a contributing editor of the leading art review MARG from 1946 and served as an adviser for the acquisitions and art commissions of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which owned one of the most important collections of post-independence Indian art.[1]

He also became a collector of, and later an authority on, antique board games and Indian playing cards. It was, however, as an art critic that he was probably best known in his lifetime.

Von Leyden was clearly a man of great energy and full of enthusiasm for his new life in India. Krishen Khanna, one of the artists who had been supported by von Leyden as a young man, reminisced: ‘[His] wanderlust was something everybody knew about. [He] thought nothing of going to the most inaccessible of places to see an old sculpture or a disused and ruined temple. Sleeping under an open sky and eating what the local population would provide with relish. […] [He] seemed to take it all so blithely. “While Lolly and I were trekking in Kashmir, we spent a day climbing Hara Kukh” as if that was some little hillock on [their] way. So when I expressed my surprise at [his] prowess for climbing, [he] came out with a long list of places which [he] said [he] had to traverse as a part of [his] doctorate in geology. My goodness, I’d always thought [he] had a doctorate in art history.’[2]

Wartime tensions

The position of a German national in British India was somewhat precarious, even before the outbreak of the war. Many were arrested as enemy aliens from 1939. Von Leyden had managed to acquire a British passport by that time, and used his contacts to help other German-speaking emigres to navigate the British authorities.

One fellow cartoonist, Walter Langhammer, and his wife Käthe were rescued from exile and arrest when von Leyden sent Langhammer’s cartoons to several influential people in Bombay, to prove his political disposition and loyalty to the British government. It worked, and both Walter and Käthe were able to return to Bombay, where Käthe worked as a censor for the British Army for the remainder of the war.[3]

It seems that von Leyden himself may have been able to use his own cartoons and position at The Times of India to protect himself from suspicion in a similar way.

All of von Leyden’s own cartoons were signed with the pseudonym ‘Denley,’ and were vehemently anti-German during the war. The gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy, a personal friend of von Leyden’s, attributed his use of a pseudonym to modesty. [4] But, the specific choice of the very English-sounding Denley must have been partially motivated by the desire to fit in at the Times and to distance his cartoons from his German roots. (Denley is, of course, also an anagram of Leyden.)

This all goes to highlight von Leyden’s unusual position, straddling several worlds: he was a European in a colonial space, but nonetheless with an ambivalent relationship to British colonial powers due to his German roots; a political émigré, part of a small but significant community of European Jews in cosmopolitan Bombay during the war; and a man deeply interested and invested in Indian culture and especially the flowering of Indian contemporary art.

The cartoons

His cartoons are characteristic for their freshness and sense of urgency, which is especially evident in the artist proofs. You can imagine von Leyden finishing his latest effort and cycling pell-mell across Bombay (as he apparently often did to get his work to the newspaper office in time to go to press) with the ink still wet.

They all share a signature style, featuring a bold black outline, minimal colouration, and a gentle political wit that poked fun at local government as well as heads of state, military leaders, and the ‘resident foreigner’ in India, including himself.

During the war years, the cartoons were jingoistically anti-German, albeit with an irreverent eye on international affairs. One example is captioned ‘Moscow Ballet’ and features Anthony Eden, Viacheslav Molotov, and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull as three ballerinas performing for their allied leaders (you can make out Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in the front row), while a disgruntled Hitler turns to Goebbels, saying: “I thought you told me they could not keep in step…?”

Leyden 2
'Moscow ballet' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1943. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 14 November 1943. British Library, P2349(37) 

This fragile corps de ballet didn’t last long, of course, and von Leyden’s post-war cartoons show the beginnings of Cold War tensions. One casts Stalin in the role of Zeus, depicted as a huge moustached bull, carrying Europa off eastwards on his back (to the despair of the other Grecian maidens, Truman, Atlee, and de Gaulle).

Another major theme from this period was Indian independence. Von Leyden was unsparing in his depictions of the divides in Indian society, with several images focussing on the conflicts and unwillingness to compromise between different groups.

A 1946 cartoon shows ‘The House of India’s Freedom’ precariously balanced on scaffolding as construction work grinds to a halt, the two builders, Hindu and Muslim, refusing to speak to one another, and the solid foundation stones of unity, compromise, and goodwill languishing unused. Another pokes fun at the state bureaucracy, depicting politicians feverishly drafting plans and proposals by candlelight, as a larger-than-life Clive of India muses: ‘Fancy having so much trouble giving it back…’

IMG_1912

'The freedom of India' by Rudolf von Leyden, 1946. Copyright held by Rudolf von Leyden, first published in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 2 June 1946. British Library, P2349(166) 

 In the family

In the late 30s, von Leyden’s parents also moved to Bombay to join their two sons, fleeing the worsening situation in Nazi Germany. It turns out that this was a whole family of amateur artists.

After the war, in 1948, the four of them held a joint charity exhibition. Their father exhibited his sculptures, their mother watercolours, Albrecht, who was apparently the best painter of the lot, showed oil paintings and Rudolf sent his cartoons.

The Times carried an exhibition review, which claimed:

‘All four of the Leydens are amateurs. In Bombay one has become so accustomed to seeing professionals putting on shows of amateurish merit that it is refreshing to come across a family of amateurs presenting an exhibition of professional standard’.[5]

On Rudolf’s cartoons, and making reference to his fame as an art critic, the reviewer wrote:

‘Of the many inherent injustices of life in our civilisation some of the most galling are that pupils cannot give marks to their teachers, that motorists cannot summon the traffic constable, and that artists do not get a chance to criticise the art critic. Once in a lifetime there comes this chance but – alas – paradoxically, the victim at hand is not the sort of fellow one would relish running down.

R.V. Leyden’s cartoons are outstanding for their political wit. In the execution of the actual drawings he works so hard to overcome his lack of training that, in the end, most of his cartoons are better drawn than the average “professionals”.’[6]

 

By Mollie Arbuthnot, doctoral candidate at University of Manchester, department of Russian and East European Studies. She is currently at the British Library as a doctoral placement in autumn 2018.

 

 

[1] Devika Singh, ‘German-speaking exiles and the writing of Indian art history’ in Journal of Art Historiography no.17 (December 2017), https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/singh.pdf, accessed 5/11/2018, p.15.

[2] Krishen Khanna, ‘To Rudolf von Leyden: A Letter out of Season’ in Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt eds. Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945 (New Delhi: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1999), pp.186-189 (p.188).

[3] Margit Franz, ‘Transnationale & transkulturelle Ansätze in der Exilforschung am Beispiel der Erforschung einer kunstpolitischen Biographie von Walter Langhammer,’ in Margit Franz et al. Mapping Contemporary History: Zeitgeschichten im Diskurs (Vienna, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2008), p.251.

[4] Kekoo Gandhy, ‘Some Personal Reminiscences of Rudi von Leyden,’ in Rudolf von Leyden: Cartoons (exhibition catalogue), p.3.

[5] ‘Leyden Family’s Art Works: Bombay Exhibition’ in The Times of India, 22 May 1948, p.9.

[6] Ibid.

05 December 2018

Tales of cats and dogs

The new exhibition in the British Library’s Entrance Hall, Cats on the Page (until Sunday 17th March 2019), provides a fascinating glimpse of how cats come to life in books. One of several items from the Japanese collections in the exhibition is The Boy who drew cats, rendered into English by Lafcadio Hearn. This story was issued in the Japanese fairy tale series published by Hasegawa Takejirō from 1885, which also included another cat-related tale, Schippeitaro, by Mrs T.H. James, published in 1888. Although the cover illustration of Schippeitaro showing cats dancing in a circle is rather light-hearted, these cats are not simply cute creatures.

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The cover of Schippeitaro, showing a dog in the basket and cats dancing around him in a circle. Mrs T.H. James, Schippeitaro. Tokyo: Kōbunsha, 1888. British Library, ORB.30/4013 Noc

Interestingly, the preface of the tale has nothing to do with cats, but concerns a dog and his image on an Ofuda. Ofuda are paper or wooden amulets issued by Japanese religious institutions to protect their owners from various evils. This image is described as “The picture of the dog, a copy of one now issued from Mitsumine or Mitakesan to the faithful who reverence it as Okuchishinjin, the large mouthed god”.

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Close up of the first page of the tale, showing a fictional Ofuda of Shippeitarō Daimyōjin. Schippeitaro, 1889. British Library, ORB.30/4013 Noc

'Okuchishinjin' must have been a mis-transliteration of the characters 大口真神, which should have been read either as Ōkuchi no magami or Ōguchimagami, a Japanese wolf who plays the role of a divine servant in Shintō belief. Traditionally people affectionately call him Oinu-sama (お犬様), meaning a holy dog. He is strongly associated with Yamato Takeru (日本武尊), a legendary prince of ancient Japan, who is believed to have established Mitsumine Shrine (三峰神社) on his way to the East Country, where the power of the emperor of Japan had yet not been accepted. There is a well-known story of the wolf who guided Yamato Takeru, when he lost his way in the deep mountains of Musashi province. Latterly Yamato Takeru entrusts the protection of the Musashi mountain area to the wolf, so this is why both Mitsumine Shrine and Musashi Mitake Shrine (武蔵御嶽神社) worship Oinu-sama, and his Ofuda is believed to ward off devils and thieves.

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This Ofuda (far right) is possibly from the Mitake Shrine. [The original place of worship in Musashi province was believed to have been founded in 91 BC. Later it joined the Grand Head temple of the Kinpusen Zaō Gongendō (金峰山寺蔵王権現堂) in Yoshino (吉野) and became well known as Mitake Zaō Gongen (御嶽蔵王権現). In the late 19th century, the Meiji government ordered religious institutions to follow the policy of the separation of Shinto from Buddhism, and the name was changed to Mitake Shrine (御嶽神社) in 1874.] The Ofuda shown is from a collection of c. 330 Japanese amulets printed up to the 1880s, mounted in 5 albums. Ofuda harikomichō : Daiei Toshokanzō お札貼込帳 : 大英図書館蔵. British Library, 16007.d.1(1) 60-63 

The legend of Yamato Takeru and the wolf may be an early example of a theme familiar in Japanese tales, of the hero’s journey with a faithful dog. However, in Schippeitaro (竹篦太郎) the true hero is probably not the warrior, but the eponymous dog of the story. A young travelling samurai warrior gets lost in a thick forest on a wild mountainside, with no human inhabitants in sight. Fortunately, he comes upon an empty and half-ruined temple, to serve as his shelter for the night. In the middle of the night, he hears a strange noise and witnesses an extraordinary scene, of a troop of cats dancing in a circle under a beautiful full moon, singing “Tell it not to Schippeitaro! Keep it close and dark!”

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All the cats are depicted standing on two legs, chanting and dancing under the moonlight, with one on the left page with a Tenugui, Japanese traditional towel, on his head. Schippeitaro, 1889. British Library, ORB.30/4013 Noc

The mysterious night passes and by the time dawn arrives, the cats have gone and the samurai manages to discover a path to reach a village. The villagers are overcome by grief because they have to send a fine maiden to a mountain spirit as his sacrifice. The villagers have no choice but to put the victim into a bamboo trunk and leave her in the ruined temple where the samurai warrior had just spent the night. He wants to help the girl and the villagers, so he tells them what he saw the previous night, and asks who Schippeitaro is. He finds out that Schippeitaro is actually a strong and beautiful dog, belonging to the master of the area. The master agrees to send the brave Schippeitaro to the village, and it is Schippeitaro instead of the maiden who is put into the bamboo trunk, and then waits quietly in the ruined temple.


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Schippeitaro, the dog of whom the troop of cats are so afraid, in the bamboo trunk while on his mission to save the maiden and the village. Schippeitaro, 1889. British Library, ORB.30/4013 Noc

At midnight, the troop of cats arrives, led by a huge black boss cat. The fearless Schippeitaro attacks the boss, seizes him with his teeth and holds him fast, so that the young samurai can finish the monster off with one stroke of his trusty sword. The village no longer has to provide a sacrifice and Schippeitaro returns to his master, showered with gratitude by all.


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The boss black cat approaching the sacrifice with his troop, while Schippeitaro patiently hides inside, waiting for the best moment to attack. Schippeitaro, 1889. British Library, ORB.30/4013 Noc

Superstitious Japanese used to believe that if Japanese cats lived too long, they would turn into monster cats Nekomata (猫又) by practising a mysterious ceremony, dancing in a circle in the middle of the night, ideally covering their head with a Tenugui towel.

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Shown on the right is a Nekomata 猫又, cat monster, standing on two legs, wearing a Kimono and putting a Tenugui on her head. Hashimoto Sadahide 橋本 貞秀. Nekomata baba keshō yashiki 金花貓婆化生鋪. Edo : Tsuruya Kichiemon 江戸 : 鶴屋喜右衛門, 1893. Woodblock-printed book. National Diet Library

Although the mountain spirits are depicted as cats in this particular tale, they are usually baboons or monkeys in variations of the original Japanese legend. It was thought that when Mrs. T.H. (Kate) James was working on the English text of Schippeitaro, she probably replaced baboons, which were not familiar to 19th century English readers, with cats.

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Close up of a Nekomata pretending to be an ordinary cat, but her forked tail clearly indicates she is not just a cat. Hashimoto Sadahide 橋本 貞秀. Nekomata baba keshō yashiki 金花貓婆化生鋪. Edo : Tsuruya Kichiemon 江戸 : 鶴屋喜右衛門, 1893. Woodblock-printed book. National Diet Library

We don’t know the exact reason for Mrs James' choice of cats instead of the other options available to her; perhaps, she was inspired by the legend of the mysterious dancing cats. All we know is that the motif of the dancing cats added a somewhat more humorous flavour to the story than savage baboons would have done.

References:

The Boy who drew cats (Japanese fairy tale series,no.23). Tokyo, 1905. British Library, 11095.a.20.

ちりめん本『竹篦太郎』に表れる「踊る猫

Chichibu Mitsumine shrine (秩父三峰神社)
Murashi Mitake shrine (武蔵御嶽神社)

Blog post: Ofuda: in with the good, out with the bad (Part 1) and (Part 2)

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections Ccownwork