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He's not a common man

"You will be an artist one day. Keep it up," said the teacher to his young pupil. And R.K. Laxman, now recovering from a stroke, went on to prove the prophesy right. MALA KUMAR meets the man who does not mince words, or even cartoons for that matter.

Crows are the most interesting creatures, says Laxman. — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

HE APPEARS as restless as a schoolboy, eyes darting here and there. The boy who once cycled down to the Mysore market to sketch the vegetable seller, today sits in a posh office and comes out with delectable cartoons every day. Sitting now in the lobby of Taj Westend (where he came to inaugurate Fusion, an evening of arts and dance organised by the K.K. Hebbar Foundation and Renaissance Gallery), he wonders how people in Bangalore know him enough to ask for his autograph. He also wants to know why people want to interview him, and wonders what stupid questions this interviewer would come up with!

R.K. Laxman does not mince words. He has been conferred the Magsaysay Award for Journalism, and hundreds of other awards, but this man with a sharp tongue and a sharper intellect feels that awards should go to more deserving candidates — magicians and circus artistes.

The stupidest thing anyone can ask him, says the cartoonist, is this: "How do you get your ideas, sir?" "How can I answer such a question? That is my job. Cartooning is a creative art that one has to have a talent for, and I seem to have it. Apart from the ability to draw, one has to be a keen observer and have the power to see the critical side of society. No one can teach a person how to draw cartoons." !

Going through Laxman's autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, one paragraph jumped out of the book. It describes the time when he and his classmates were asked to draw a leaf and show it to their teacher.

"He (teacher) twisted a boy's ear or brought the cane down on the leg of another. When it was my turn, he stared at the drawing for an alarmingly long time and asked me: `Did you draw it yourself, Laxman?' I was frightened and stepped back, expecting a shower of blows. But to my great surprise and joy, he held my slate up before the class and announced, `Attention! Look how nicely Laxman has drawn the leaf!' He turned to me and said, `You will be an artist one day. Keep it up.' I was inspired by this unexpected encouragement. I began to think of myself as an artist in the making, never doubting that this was my destiny." Destiny compelled Laxman to send a few of his cartoons to the Dean of Bombay's J.J. School of Art, asking for admission. Wrote back the Dean: "I see no talent whatsoever. Please continue your studies." This at a time when Laxman was already contributing to local publications including Koravanji, and illustrating his famous brother, R.K. Narayan's stories in The Hindu.

"I managed to finish my B.A. degree from Mysore University and set off for Bombay," says the cartoonist. He worked at the Free Press Journal and later joined the Times of India, next door to J.J. School. Since then he has illustrated many books, has written two novels (Hotel Rivera and Messenger) and a collection of short stories (Idle Hours), and published a selection of 50 years of political cartoons, apart from his autobiography.

But Laxman's worthiest creation has undoubtedly been the Common Man he drew 55 years ago. The silent citizen in the checked coat and dhoti has endeared himself to people across the world. "He does not belong to me. He belongs to the whole universe," says his creator lovingly. The patience and flair with which he draws me a Common Man straddling a globe, and one for an autograph seeker, is proof of Laxman's fondness both for the little man and for cartooning.

Taking his time appreciating a diary with cartoons by Walt Disney Inc., Laxman nevertheless turns down the offer to be given it as a gift. "It is a bad human habit that makes us want to possess anything that we like."

The remark takes us to the subject of pets and animals and his well-known penchant for crows. "They are the most intelligent creatures. I like nothing better than watching a murder of crows. Dogs and almost all other animals are interesting too, but I have never wanted to have one at home."

Married to niece and writer of children's books, Kamala, home to Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman is Mumbai and Pune. It is in Pune's educational institute, Symbiosis, that a 10-ft. Common Man smiles down at people. This statue and the fact that the stamp brought out to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Times of India carries one of his cartoons are recognitions that he is happy about. He has conceived a film called Wagle's World, based on the life of the Common Man, for television.

Laxman's political comments in the form of cartoons have ruffled feathers often.

The most recent one was the one that followed the Government's decision to exempt Sachin Tendulkar's Ferrari from import duty. "I never meant it to rake up a controversy, and I have nothing against Sachin... though cricket is a stupid game... " "More encouragement should be given to promote different talents. How come we don't have writers such as P.G.Wodehouse and Priestley, composers like Thyagaraja and artists like Michelangelo?" he wonders.

And looks around. "I've been all over the world and have been offered jobs in so many countries. But India is the best. Where else do you have this much variety, and colour, and life?"

You said it, Mr. Laxman!

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