Review: The Avadh Punch: Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan

The Awadh Punch by Mushirul Hasan (Niyogi Books)
The Awadh Punch

Rarely does one come across a serendipitously discovered book worthy of going straight to one’s personal Five Foot Shelf. Though sometimes I buy books from bookstores at the whim just to show my (unannounced) support for them in this Amazonian world, but the discounts by online retailers are often too sweet to ignore.


Wit and Humour explores the world of cartoons and satire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As per the description on the dust jacket, “The Avadh Punch, a weekly from Lucknow, under the stewardship of its formidable editor, Munshi Sajjad Husain, was published from 16 January 1877 till its closure in 1936. Virtually the first Indian newspaper to publish cartoons as we know them today, it provided a platform for some fo the greatest comic writers in Urdu literature”. Soon “after the Punch appeared on 17 July 1841 in London, Hindi and Urdu magazines began imitating its style. Yet, none of the journalists deserve serious consideration as a satirist till we come to Sajjad Husain”. The six chapters by MushirulHasan cover the satirical landscape of Urdu literature; outline the rise of Punchis; a broad coverage of writers of the bygone era; and finally the eclipse of Avadh Punch. Appendix-I reproduces eight of Wilayat Ali Bambooque’s writings and Appendix-2 majorly covers ‘Plates’ from “A Selection From The Illustrations Which Have Appeared In Avadh PunchFrom 1877 to 1881”.


25-Nov-1909: On Syed Hussain Bilgrami's return to India (Courtesy: Niyogi Books) (Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan)
25-Nov-1909: On Syed Hussain Bilgrami's return to India (Courtesy: Niyogi Books)
The fact that satirical cartooning was in existence in India more than 100 years ago came as a surprise – being ruled by the British still being able to ridicule themselves without invoking charges was an achievement in itself. Sajjad Husain was the founder of The Avadh Punch. Brief outline is given about Munshi Nawal Kishore, Abdul Halim Shara, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Muhammad Iqbal, Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, Akbar Ilahabadi and Syed Ahmad amongst others. Almost every page of the book is delightfully plastered with cartoons or caricatures with apt descriptions, adding a spoonful of ephemeral visual delight to the literary one. The second chapter traces the beginnings in Lucknow and the themes which were written about – not just concerning colonial rule in the then undivided India but even international ones like plague, discovery of medicines, and international wars. The importance and historic value of this book can’t be overstated – it makes accessible to the general reader the literary gems of a past expressed in a now-dying language. The commentaries not only make for a hearty laugh but even a witty undertaking to relive the times when printed word was gaining ascendancy.

16-Nov-1905: Swadeshi movement and the boycott of foreign goods. (Courtesy: Niyogi Books) (Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan)
16-Nov-1905: Swadeshi movement and the boycott of foreign goods. (Courtesy: Niyogi Books)


That Avadh Punch led a spate of similar ones (Punjab Punch, Calcutta Punch, Indian Punch, Delhi Punch, Rajputana Punch, Meerut Punch, Gujarat Punch etc.) which comes as a surprising indication of how well people took to satire (tanz) in repressed times. When Sajjad Husain “suffered strokes in 1901 and 1904, Avadh Punch’s closure seemed imminent, though it took eight more years for the curtain to fall”. Another reason attributed to the decline is “growing ‘illiberal' outlook reflected in its vocal opposition to social reform, to women’s education and to the abolition of purdah”.

1-Jan-1881: "Celebrating New Year - Mr. Avadh Punch celebrates the success of the newspaper" (Courtesy: Niyogi Books) (Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan)
1-Jan-1881: "Celebrating New Year - Mr. Avadh Punch celebrates the success of the newspaper" (Courtesy: Niyogi Books)



Appendix 1 (Portraits by Wilayat Ali Kidwai ‘Bambooque’) will leave one not only bemused but in awe of the man himself, whose “satire was up to date” and “as a humorist Bambooque was unequalled”. The portraits are of: Patwari, Chaukidar, Revenue Agent, Hon’rary Magistrate, ‘England-Returned’, Assessor, Title-Hunting Association of Noisy Jee-Huzoors, and Hon’ble Mr. Gup in the council. His sharp observations and astute commentary gnaw on the threads of societal hypocrisy, exposing the underlying air of nothingness. For those ‘England-Returned’ he writes, “disdainful of grammar, devoid of euphony and destitute of sense the phrase ‘England-Returned’ well suits the types. For the England-Returned is the disappointment of foolish friends. He is the personification of false hopes, the embodiment of extravagant expectations and the incarnation of utterly vain delusions”. He continues, “the England-Returned is still the Secretry of the United Bar Recreation Association. He awaits the approach of Club-time with the impatience of a lover, and is the first to reach the Club to show that a neglected genius, if foiled of nobler purposes and loftier ends, by a malicious and misjudging world, can yet shine at badminton and ping-pong”.

1-Jan-1881: "Celebrating New Year - Mr. Avadh Punch celebrates the success of the newspaper" (Courtesy: Niyogi Books) (Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan) 13-Nov-1890: "Avadh Punch expressing its preference fot eh bill introduced by Charles Bradlaugh" (Reform Bill) (Courtesy: Niyogi Books) (Wit and Humour in Colonial North India by Mushirul Hasan)
13-Nov-1890: "Avadh Punch expressing its preference fot eh bill introduced by Charles Bradlaugh" (Reform Bill) (Courtesy: Niyogi Books)



A must-read book and must-have too, to peruse over a lazy Sunday when the pace is slow and thoughts numb. Editing however could have been better – in lot of places the cartoons and descriptions are on pages separated by dozens. The surrealism makes it one of my favourites and feels like the past, the history, the times bygone have all come together to make us a witness.


(Watch out this space for an upcoming review of "Empire of Books: The Naval Kishore Press and the Diffusion of the Printed Word in Colonial India" by Ulrike Stark)

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