In an unexpected move, late evening on March 24, 2020, prime minister Narendra Modi told the world that India would go into an unprecedented nationwide lockdown at midnight to stop the spread of Covid-19. With just around four hours to prepare for the curfew—that was initially supposed to last only 21 days but continued for over 10 weeks—most Indians scrambled to stock up necessities or to rush back to their hometowns.
One person, however, saw the humour in this adversity and started drawing comics.
On April 5, 2020, PenPencilDraw posted its first graphic on Twitter, taking a dig at the short notice that was given before the lockdown.
Over a year later, the handle has become a go-to for pandemic-related political satires and memes in India.
PenPencilDraw—a name derived from “pen-pencil,” a generic Indian term for the mechanical pencil—currently has over 26,500 followers on Twitter and over 15,400 on Instagram.
Most recently, as thousands of Indians grappled with a deadly second wave of Covid-19, a graphic by the handle, which showed the timeline of absurd statements by Indian lawmakers, went viral—shared not only on Twitter and Instagram but widely passed around on WhatsApp groups.
As hundreds of new followers flock to PenPencilDraw, the creator behind the handle has chosen to remain anonymous. In an email interview with Quartz, they said they were a lawyer and learned to draw during a work sabbatical some years ago, adding that their “drawings of feet are a terrible giveaway” that they aren’t formally trained in art.
“I stay anonymous because it gives me some distance from the work, which is good for creative freedom,” they said. “People who know me have been excited and a little too pleasantly surprised at what I’m doing. I hope to soon convert that to raging envy.”
Getting political with cartoons
The mind behind PenPencilDraw grew up reading many comics and cartoons—they still do—and wondered about what it would be like to make them. But it’s only once India’s lockdown was announced they felt compelled to nudge the thought into action. The initial inspiration for the handle and artwork came from “the sheer absurdity of giving four hours notice for a total nationwide lockdown,” the creator said. “I still can’t wrap my head around that decision!”
But since then, PenPencilDraw has tackled several controversial subjects from the Covid-tracker Arogya Setu app and teardown of labour laws to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) being used to crack down on activists and the undercounting of Covid deaths. Most of the work is unabashedly political. One of the artist’s recent favourite, which was “interesting and challenging,” is a snakes-and-ladders-type board game about the trappings of India’s vaccination system.
“A lot of the work is related in some way to what’s happening around us, so it can’t but be political,” they said. “This is a particularly dark time in India, and I’m lucky to have the privilege to channel some of my frustration and anger (that many others also feel) into art.”
The board game was one of two cartoons of PenPencilDraw that got featured in The Economist in a story about Modi being missing-in-action. (The other one was about Modi’s Central Vista project.) “It’s nice to see other publications using the work to say something broader,” the artist said.
The artwork has become much more popular than the illustrator ever imagined. So much so that followers of PenPencilDraw frequently produce better punchlines or captions than the existing ones.
“Somebody pointed out that this cartoon about Friends should more aptly have been called M.I.T.R.O.N, which is, of course. spot-on,” they said. “Another person had come up with ‘Finding Namo’ for this cartoon, which is a super caption.”
No topic is taboo for PenPencilDraw but they won’t don’t draw “anything which punches down or makes fun of any kind of suffering.” They also don’t like drawing animals to represent bad human behaviour. “Snakes and vultures are magnificent creatures; stop comparing them to evil people!” they said. “Other than that, there isn’t really anything off-limits.”
The anonymity behind PenPencilDraw
Given that dissent is often presumed anti-national in India, staying nameless and faceless helps the artist get a “(small) protection that anonymity provides from trolls and governments.”
After all, at the start of 2021, Indian comic Munawar Faruqui spent weeks in jail for a joke he did not even tell. And in December 2020, contempt proceedings were initiated against Rachita Taneja, the co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation and the cartoonist behind the account Sanitary Panels, for two stick figure cartoons that insinuated the supreme court is biased towards BJP. PenPencilDraw stood in solidarity with Taneja through art.
Censorship isn’t only a government issue. Even the platforms come with their own idiosyncrasies. PenPencilDraw, for instance, prefers Twitter.
“While Instagram offers more control over comments and a better format for multiple-image comics, it also deleted one of my pro-refugee rights cartoons saying it amounted to hate speech(!), and is less user-privacy-friendly in general,” they said. Instagram’s parent Facebook temporarily took down a Sanitary Panels comic that criticised the platform.
And although both have trolling and online abuse issues, Twitter “seems to have a bit more spine than Facebook in standing up to the government,” they added.
Twitter has tried to resist blindly following government orders in the past despite being strong-armed. In February, founder-CEO Jack Dorsey “liked” tweets related to farmer protests. Most recently, Twitter labelled a Congress “toolkit” being circulated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as manipulated media, after which the Delhi Police even attempted to raid Twitter’s Delhi office.
While the India-based PenPencilDraw illustrator said they’d rather not reveal specificities around their age, gender, or location, they did acknowledge “all these factors, including others like caste and religion, shape outlooks on life and the world. They’ve definitely influenced what I find disturbing, or scary, or funny.” Going forward, they don’t have concrete plans for the account besides a hope to “continue enjoying drawing and getting more Hahas and Hmms into the world.”
Some of the artist’s favourite comic illustrators are Priya Kuriyan, Sandeep Adharwyu, and Surendra, among others. All of these creators, like PenPencilDraw, have also been critical of the Modi government’s handling of the pandemic.