The uncommon man: R.K. Laxman (1921-2015)

It was not always politics that inspired him.

January 26, 2015 08:06 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 07:40 am IST

Mumbai 20/11/2012  Cartoonist R K Laxman at the inaguration of cartoons and caricatures exhibition by Shreyas Navare in Mumbai on November 20, 2012.  Photo:  Vivek Bendre

Mumbai 20/11/2012 Cartoonist R K Laxman at the inaguration of cartoons and caricatures exhibition by Shreyas Navare in Mumbai on November 20, 2012. Photo: Vivek Bendre

“Since childhood I do not remember wanting to do anything else except draw,” R.K. Laxman says in his autobiography, > The Tunnel of Time . And he has done very little else in over five decades as a cartoonist. From objects that caught his eye as a child outside the window of his room, to “the pretentious dignity of Mrs. Gandhi to the grumpy face of Narasimha Rao.” Famous for his acerbic cartoons lampooning political figures, Laxman at one point said, “What politics is all about today. Blah-blah-blah. The day that stops and the quality of our leaders improve, I will have to retire and go away.”

Fortunately for the world, politicians remained consistent enough. But he also complained of present-day leaders that, unlike those of an earlier generation, “they all look the same today.” Lalu Prasad and Jayalalithaa were the two exceptions, he said. Nehru, Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi and the others of that time had personalities which made them a joy to draw. The present crowd lacked personality!

Some of the cartoons out of the 1960s and 1970s would be alive and meaningful if reproduced today without a date. Like the one where a policemen is reporting to his superiors saying, roughly, that there had been looting, rioting, stone-throwing and “then the situation took a turn for the worse” and there was — looting, rioting, stone-throwing. So too, the innumerable cartoons on price rise that he did in the early decades — they would be as alive today as they were then.

But it was not always politics that inspired him. “As a child I drew objects that caught my eye outside the window of my room — the dry twigs, leaves and lizard-like creatures crawling about, the servant chopping firewood and, of course, and number of crows in various postures on the rooftops of the buildings opposite.”

The man known as > R.K. Laxman was born Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman on October 24, 1921 in Mysore. The youngest of six brothers, Laxman had as his older brother, the legendary R.K. Narayan, the creator of Malgudi. Admonished by one of his siblings never to copy from the many magazines that he used to read in the house, Laxman impressed his school teacher with a drawing of a peepul leaf. He later drew a caricature of his father sitting in an armchair, using a piece of chalk on the ground, much to his parent’s horror. Laxman inspired his brother’s writing instincts early in life. R.K. Narayan’s Dodu, the Money Maker , based on Laxman, won him a literary award. In an essay in Frontline (issue of January 18-31, 1992) Laxman writes: “I did not know that Narayan was a writer, till one day the postman delivered a magazine called The Merry Magazine . An announcement in it said that Narayan had won a literary prize for his short story, Dodu, the Money Maker . The story was about a boy struggling for financial independence from his elders so that he could buy groundnuts from an old woman selling them under a tree — whenever he felt like it. I was excited because the plot had a remote suggestion of my own activities and needs as a boy of eight. Besides, the hero bore my name!”

Later he sketched for his brother’s stories which were published in The Hindu , and his novels too. While Narayan worked his way towards becoming India’s leading writer, Laxman was busy sketching. “While all this was going on, my own creative urge was driving me in another direction. I used to visit, with sketch-pad and pencil in hand, the crowded localities of Mysore like the Town Hall compound, the city square, public parks and the vegetable market in order to sketch people in action, study their faces, their dresses, their postures and other characteristics. My sketch-book was filled with drawings of whatever caught my fancy including the local railway station, weather-beaten houses, ruminating cows, meditative donkeys, schoolchildren, lawyers, passengers at the bus terminus and so on,” he writes in the Frontline essay, which was titled O, brother!

It was in The Hindu , too, that Laxman saw the name of Sir David Low, the political cartoonist from Evening Standard , London, who has inspired people around the globe. > Laxman was much struck by his work and it was a high point in his life to meet him while working at The Times of India in Mumbai in 1952.

While the death of his father, a headmaster, early in life was a setback, Laxman, never one for school, chose drawing and painting as special subjects. He later became a cartoonist for a popular Kannada magazine called Koravanji , published from Bangalore. His sketches were displayed along with prominent painters from Mysore and he managed to win an award for pencil drawings of his nephew, called Glimpses of Thumbi . He sketched his brother’s stories while still at the Maharaja’s College, Mysore, studying politics, economics and philosophy. He drew political cartoons for Swatantra , edited by Khasa Subba Rao. For six months he was part of an animated film unit at Gemini Studios in Madras before shifting to Mumbai.

Thanks to failing in Kannada he could not continue his studies for a while, something which broke his heart. Consolation came again from his brother Narayan who became an English novelist despite failing an entrance examination in the subject. Now averse to college degrees, Laxman decided on a Diploma in Fine Arts and applied to J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai. To his dismay he was told that he did not have the talent to qualify. Much later, after he made his name as a cartoonist in The Times , the same J.J. School of Arts felicitated him, as a chief guest, much to his amusement. Laxman did not forgive the Dean, though he thanked him for the rejection saying he had become a cartoonist as a result and was not languishing in some advertising agency writing jingles.

After trying his luck in various newspapers, he was finally introduced to the Editor of Blitz in Mumbai. Some of Laxman’s earliest work on arriving in Mumbai was done for R.K. Karanjia’s weekly publication. Laxman never forgot that break and Karanjia’s table would, decades later, often sport the original of a Laxman cartoon that Karanjia had liked. Laxman was to write a tribute to that relationship in Blitz ’s 50th anniversary issue in 1991. One of the classics that adorned Karanjia’s table was the cartoonist’s take on the exit as Maharashtra Chief Minister of the late Babasaheb Bhosale. Bhosale was Chief Minister for less than 14 months — with every week bringing rumours of his removal. Dissidents seeking his removal were advised by the High Command that the “time was not right” just yet. Laxman had the rotund Bhosale as a large and rather nervous-looking Ganesh idol about to be immersed by a rowdy bunch of Congressmen — with one senior leader asking them to wait as the time was not right just yet.

He joined the Free Press Journal in 1946 as a political cartoonist, where his colleague was none other than a young Bal Thackeray, also an admirer of David Low and an aspiring political cartoonist. Darryl D’Monte, former resident editor of The Times of India , Mumbai, recalls a popular story at that time that Thackeray started the Shiv Sena because Laxman was a better cartoonist.

He did a variety of jobs for the paper, far beyond what the salary justified, including producing a political cartoon every alternate day. “I used to sit bent over my drawing board for nearly ten hours a day,” according to Laxman (from R K Laxman: The Uncommon Man - Collection of works from 1948 to 2008, by Dharmendra Bhandari, 2009).

Laxman later left the Free Press Journal over differences with his bosses and came to The Times of India in 1947 on a princely salary of Rs. 500 doing illustrations for the Illustrated Weekly of India and comic strips for a children’s magazine. Ironically, The Times ’ editor did not initially encourage Laxman’s genius as a political cartoonist and his first cartoon appeared in the Evening News of India , the group’s tabloid. Soon, his cartoons made it to The Times of India ’s front page, where they stayed for decades. He became the paper’s chief political cartoonist. His ‘You Said It’ series of pocket cartoons took shape later, and he was even offered a post at the Evening Standard in London.

Laxman was married to the writer Kamala and has a son Srinivas, who had worked with The Times of India . Every morning, he would drive up in a black Ambassador to the imposing Times office with Srinivas sitting next to him. He would walk up the stairs to his office and had no use for the lift. A brisk, no-nonsense man, Laxman in his white, short-sleeved crisp shirt and black trousers was as much a trademark of the newspaper as was his cartoon of the Common Man with a moustache and spectacles. His devastating humour trashed politicians while looking at the pathetic plight of common persons who still do not have the basic necessities. His humour did not always make you laugh: it was often grim, ironic, and impaled politicians for their generally corrupt and exploitative ways.

“Laxman established a routine at work that remained consistent throughout his brilliant career. He would wake up at around 7 a.m. and be at the drawing board in his office at 8.30 a.m. every morning. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., he would read newspapers, concentrating on news items, political analyses, editorial commentaries and opinions. From 2 pm to 5 pm, he would torment himself, waiting for the muse of satire to oblige him with an idea for the next day before the deadline. “It was like shooting a movie,” according to him, “choosing a suitable setting, selecting the characters and compressing the script into a brief caption.” He swiftly sketched the idea in pencil, used ink and brush, wrote the caption and added final details. By then Laxman would have put in eight to ten hours of continuous work.” (From R K Laxman: The Uncommon Man - Collection of works from 1948 to 2008).

Darryl D’Monte, who has worked with Laxman at The Times of India , recalls there was a lead story on the ceiling on agricultural land being lifted. He had sent a cartoon showing a slab being lowered on a bewildered farmer. “I thought it was too literal, but Laxman called it back and quickly drew a politician sitting on the slab looking down at the farmer triumphantly. It was just that touch, that genius for converting a literal illustration into really something that made you smile. It was the pocket cartoon and common man that people identified with. He has done so many illustration, it’s an amazing output of work,” Mr. D’Monte adds.

Laxman talks about his work in The Tunnel of Time : “As was my habit, I put my legs up on the table and scoured each page, mulled over possible ideas, cogitating, pondering, contemplating, rejecting and choosing. After deciding on my subject I weighed its potential relevance in the paper the next day visualising its graphic possibilities. I mentally formulated the entire cartoon down to the carved legs of the furniture, if it happened to be that kind of setting, the pictures or graphs on the wall, the view outside the windows, the pattern on the curtains, the designs on the carpet and last but not least, the clothes, stance and physical attributes of the politicians I was satirising. Then came the punch line...”

Laxman has held exhibitions of his favourite subject of crows and the Ganesha. His cartoons have been compiled into several books. Apart from being an acerbic cartoonist, Laxman also wrote novels. The first one, The Hotel Riviera , was inspired by his move to a hotel from his paying guest lodgings. He visited London to draw caricatures of David Low, Graham Greene, Bertrand Russell, J.B. Priestly and T.S. Eliot.

His love for crows was abiding. “As far back as I can remember from childhood, the crow attracted me more than any other bird because it was so alive on the landscape. In our garden it stood out against the green of the trees or the blue of the sky, against the red earth or the cream compound wall. Other birds are afraid and get camouflaged. But this canny scavenger could look after itself very well indeed. As a three-year-old I observed it carefully, my hands always itching to sketch its antics. My mother noticed that I was becoming rather good at drawing crows and encouraged me because the crow is the avian mode of transport for Saturn, Lord Saniswara of the Hindu pantheon. By drawing his mount was I averting his evil eye? Of course, I ignored this religious interpretation. For me looking at the crow affords pure aesthetic pleasure,” he said (in a Frontline interview titled ‘Of crows… and cartoons’, published in the issue of January 18-31, 1992).

Laxman’s association with The Times of India , spanning over five decades, must rank as something of a record of its kind. His ‘Common Man’ cartoons are in many ways a better chronicle of some aspects of India’s independent history than the “first draft of history” that newspaper front pages are said to be. Political upheavals, space research, price rise, joblessness, life on the footpath, slum-dwellers, changing cities, water scarcity — those were just a few amongst thousands of subjects he covered. But the travails of the everyday citizen were those he returned to quite often. Yet, Laxman’s Common Man never spoke out in his cartoons. The cartoonist was to say in 2002 of his Common Man: “He remains the same and has not spoken a word. Quietly watching the world, he represents the silent majority of India, who have no voice.”

Laxman also kept a sharp eye out on what the newspapers were writing, often complaining about silly errors which he would circle with a thick black pen. Those dropping in on him at his office would be regaled with the stories behind those errors. Another thing you would find him doing if you dropped in unannounced at his cabin was > Laxman drawing crows. He may well have done hundreds of sketches of crows, which he considered “a most intelligent bird.” Crows, he would also point out, were the subject of many tales in Indian folklore. As he said once, “Crows are very intelligent creatures and that’s my art. Not cartooning. I love my crows. I draw them whenever I find the time.”

The citation as part of the Ramon Magsaysay award, which Laxman received in 1984, said: “The preface to an early volume, reprinted in six editions, gives the flavour of his occupation: ‘A cartoonist works for an industry in which time is of the essence. The Damocles’ sword of deadline rules his days, which for him follow one another in a bewildering order of importance: tomato shortage, nuclear threat, five-year plan, potholes, corruption, monsoon forecast, adulterated drugs, prohibition and mission to the moon ....” Laxman’s trademark is his portrait of the Common Man — a small figure with a bulbous nose, caterpillar eyebrows, the bushy hair behind the ears below a bald pate, and a moustache like a brush. His dress is unchanging — a dhoti, long shirt and checked coat. His mien suggests a determined staying power. As his creator wrote: “You cannot do away with the Common Man. They have tried it for centuries and not succeeded... he is the mirror image [of millions of readers]... the conscience that pricks the evildoer, the social offender, the practitioner of all those trades which we might have liked to practice but for fear of the police, if not of God.”

He was winner of many awards, including the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan. Laxman suffered a stroke in 2003 but that did not put him out of action. He continued working with one hand, although the lines were not as sharp, and the Times sent someone home to pick up the cartoons. He had moved to Pune since a while with his wife. People invariably connected with the Common Man, and Laxman’s work represented the bewilderment of the poor, contrasting it with the corruption of the ruling classes. His work will always bring a smile or draw a laugh and make you realise the grim irony and unchanging nature of the world we live in.

>'R.K. Laxman, an unambiguous genius'

"There are would-be geniuses in the field of Indian journalism, and there are individuals aspiring to be geniuses, but I have long been clear that there is only one unambiguous genius among Indian journalists, and that is R.K. Laxman"

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