R K Laxman was born on 24 October, 1924 in Mysore, India - he started sketching on the wall when he was three. His strict headmaster father passed away when he was young; his educated and cheerful mother encouraged him in what was his favourite pastime: to sit on a bench in the market square with his sketch book, observing people and recording impressions. He had a keen eye, a gift for recalling details and read cartoon magazines avidly. The owner of a bookstore let him browse through his art books.
When an astonished art teacher in his school complimented him his career was made. It was the beginning of his understanding of the role of a cartoonist: ‘a cartoonist born with a cock-eyed vision manipulates a face or a human situation and distorts it without losing the essence of humour.’ His first commission was illustrating articles for the magazine of Mysore University, he also contributed cartoons to a new humorous magazine called Koravanji that was launched in Bangalore. He exhibited some of his drawings of ordinary people in everyday pursuits, like vegetable sellers, gypsies, children in myriad moods. He painted murals on the walls of an elite kindergarten and drew postcards for the war effort, WW1 – these were then printed and sold. He illustrated short stories and drew inspiration from the work of British caricaturist David Low, whose drawings appeared in The Hindu. Laxman applied for admission to the renowned Sir J J School of Arts in Mumbai and was turned down only to be admitted a year later after sitting for the necessary exams. He had identified himself as an ‘artist’ and saw no point in attending a university or college.
Laxman was invited by another cartoonist to participate in a film project but though he worked hard on it and drew umpteen figures and facial expressions he found the exercise an ‘anti-climax’. But there was a better payoff: a brainwave. This was the time Laxman came up with his first political cartoon. Postal employees were on strike across the country demanding higher wages and negotiations for a settlement had fallen through. As he read the news item, a brilliant idea for a cartoon struck him - he took time off from his work at the studio and drew it. Too timid to take it to The Hindu or The Indian Express, Laxman approached a friend who knew the editor of a monthly called Swarajya. The editor saw the cartoon and accepted it straightaway for the latest issue. He also - rather apologetically - offered Laxman Rs 50 as payment, saying it was all he could afford, adding that he would like Laxman to contribute every month.
After completing his graduation in Mysore, Laxman went to Madras to get a job. Though he was getting freelance work he had set his goal much higher aiming to make an impact on the national stage. At the Indian Express he was told there was no opening for a political cartoonist. So he moved on to Delhi. The editor of the Hindustan Times agreed to meet him and complimented his work, but was unable to give him a job as political cartoonist because the paper already had one.
Frustrated, Laxman decided to return to Madras but on the way stopped over in Mumbai. It was a decision that, ultimately, transformed his life. He was fascinated by the vibrancy of the city and the jostling crowds, ‘people seemed busy around the clock’.
Fate looked upon him kindly. The editor of Blitz, an outspoken Left newspaper, offered to pay him 1000 rupees for a weekly cartoon series. The editor of The Free Press Journal offered him the job of political cartoonist for Rs 250 a month, the job included illustrated comments, cartoon strips and story illustrations. Over time, Laxman's work became sharper, more incisive and his strongly held views became
irksome for the proprietor-editor of The Free Press Journal. The latter was beholden to some politicians and asked Laxman to toe the line – instead Laxman handed him a two-line resignation. It was to be a moment of destiny.
Leaving The Free Press Journal Laxman went straight to the Times of India offices. Most of the staff there then were English, the atmosphere was formal, smart and friendly. The art director was visibly impressed by his work and gave him the job at twice his previous salary but it was to draw illustrations for The Illustrated Weekly of India comic strips and other odd assignments. Political cartoons were the preserve of the editor.
Laxman accepted but soon he felt his intellectual capacity was getting atrophied. According to him: ‘I was losing the sharp satirical perspective and eye for absurdity that forms the soul of a political cartoonist.’ So he began to draw political cartoons for his own pleasure.
One day he offered to share them with the editor who responded positively and seemed to enjoy them. A cartoon he had drawn for the Berlin Blockade caught the editor’s eye and sure enough, it appeared the next evening in The Evening News of India and Laxman became a regular contributor to the Evening News.
A few weeks on, the editor called for a cartoon Laxman had done on the World Bank's niggardly loan to India. It appeared in The Times of India and Laxman found his home: the front page.
Over time, the ownership changed to Indian hands and Laxman was shifted from the art section to the editorial department, with the designation, 'Chief Political Cartoonist of The Times of India' – a post he held for the rest of his career.
The primary job of a political cartoonist, of course, is to lampoon the establishment and Laxman excelled at this task. He ‘thanked’ the leaders for providing him with bread and butter and bringing him rewards and fame. In his words: ‘I like all
governments; they work for me. If there were no governments, there would be no cartoonists . . . A politician is one who talks, walks and behaves as though he is perpetually modelling for the cartoonist . . . And cartoons can reduce them to clowns.’ Morarji Desai, who was one of his favourite subjects, once held a cabinet meeting to try and muzzle him. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was much more gracious, after blaming zealous bureaucrats, she urged him to carry on with his work, calling his satirical comments about her ‘as essential as checks and balances in a democracy’.
Nevertheless Laxman thought it prudent to take a well-deserved holiday in Mauritius where he expressed his views thus: ‘Largely, politics was the profession of school dropouts; I observed that politicians were endowed with immense vitality but little intelligence . . . politicians were the most durable among the human species. They were tough, impervious to humiliation, failure, defeat, insults, shocks. They led a conscience-free existence hungering eternally for power even when charged with corruption, fraud and murder!’ As soon as Indira Gandhi lost power and the Janata Party took over, Laxman was back to his drawing board.
Laxman’s routine at work remained consistent throughout his brilliant career. From 8.30 every morning to 1 pm. 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 to get him through the nightmare of a political cartoonist - the deadline. When the idea did at last dawn, the rest was comparatively. He would swiftly sketched the idea in pencil, use ink and brush, write the caption and add final details. By then, Laxman would have put in some six hours of continuous work. Mentally and physically exhausted but intensely satisfied, he would go home. His editors were satisfied too - through his entire career, not a single cartoon or caption has been edited or amended.
Another constant was the tools of his trade. Laxman used black ink and a 0.6 inch brush with art sheets of 11 x 15 inches size for cartoons that appeared in three columns and card sheets sized 7.5 x 11 inches for his daily single column.
In his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, Laxman describes his manner of working. ‘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 satirizing. Then came the punch line, full of self-importance and self-satisfaction mouthed by characters unaware that they were ridiculing themselves.’
Besides the regular cartoons Laxman also started a started a single-column daily feature, You Said It in which he tackled civic problems such as garbage clearing, water shortage, poor drainage, and roads pitted with potholes. In this he liberated himself from the shackles of habitual realism and indulged in a sort of political fantasy. The art of caricature he developed was quite unique: he followed the standard rules of perspective, drapery and anatomy and exercised ‘controlled distortion’. His readers began to see him not just as a cartoonist but as a thinker, social reformer, political scientist, and critic of errant politicians.
EVOLUTION OF THE COMMON MAN
The creation of this marvellous character was actually born out of necessity. Laxman wanted to portray the ‘average Indian’, but to be inclusive he had to represent all the different communities – Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali – all Indian but each with very distinctive features, habits and attire. So to show a common citizen he had to draw a crowd! In 1950 he began to narrow down the ‘crowd’ and, ten years later, after a series of trials and adaptations the Common Man emerged: bald and bespectacled, his bulbous nose propped above a bristly moustache, with a permanently bewildered look and dressed in a dhoti and checked coat. He was a silent observer, through him Laxman could express his own views on contemporary social and political realities. Witty and sarcastic but never venomous, Laxman’s cartoons captured the thoughts and feelings of millions of Indians. A closely guarded secret is that this Common Man that Laxman drew was none other than the cartoonist himself!
Amazingly Laxman had time for other activities, such as drawing his favourite
crows which he found ‘clever, cunning and cautious, just like humans’. ‘The common crow is really an uncommon bird,’ he would say. He painted various forms of the elephant god Ganesha and sought to portray the deity's playful character and astonishing, eccentric power. He wrote short stories and travelogues and novels such as The Hotel Riviera and The Messenger, illustrated his brother R K Narayan's short stories and novels, children's stories written by his wife Kamala, books of son Srinivas Laxman and others and did promotional drawings for commercial products. He continued to do illustrations for the Illustrated Weekly as a freelance contributor and started a feature called 'Personalities', where he drew colour caricatures of prominent leaders in various walks of life – he travelled the globe and met with famous individuals as well cartoonists in many countries.
Most astonishing was his fascination for machinery - he never missed a chance to visit an industrial plant. He turned down a film producer who wanted to document the Common Man’s everyday experiences saying: ‘the Common Man was not real; he had never uttered a word in all his life and it would look odd if he spoke in a film.’ But he did participate in a film version of the You Said It cartoons.
On the future of cartooning Laxman’s view was that computers had eroded the quality of this art making it ‘stereotypical and utterly soulless’. In addition the sinister motives and evil intentions of politicians had become just too transparent!
LAXMAN THE MAN
Laxman was an intensely private individual whom few people can claim to know well. He chose to observe conversations rather than participate in them, and cherished seclusion, except when he was exploring new destinations and studying different people. He avoided crowds and disliked being photographed. He had a razor-sharp memory and incredible power of recollection. His own lifestyle has remained Spartan, his food very simple, his only indulgence was his imported Scotch whiskey.
In September 2003 he suffered a stroke which paralysed the entire left side of his body body and devastated him mentally and physically. But not for long – his beloved wife, Kamala, made sure that he got back to his drawing board again. And sharp at 3pm. a Times agent would come home to collect his cartoon. Childhood sweethearts; Laxman was three years old when he first saw Kamala, his elder sister’s baby. It was a love marriage that met with no opposition as unions between uncle and niece were common practice in southern India. This close-knit family comprises of son Srinivas, 59, a correspondent for The Times of India, his wife Usha, 50, and their teenage daughter.
R K Laxman, creator and defender of the Common Man, passed away on 26 January, 2015 in Pune, India. By then he had been a fixture on the front page of the Times of India for almost half a century. In 1988, when the newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary, Laxman's creation, the Common Man, was immortalised on a stamp issued by the Indian government to commemorate the occasion. He was awarded some of India’s highest honours in 1973, 1984 and 2005 as well as an award from the Philippine Government.
Laxman held up a mirror to his readers forcing them to see their true selves. Best of all, he enabled them to smile – at themselves and at the world around them – lightening their load and brightening their days. He converted the common man’s rage into humour. This article is a salute to this uncommon man; and to his biographer, Dr Dharmendra Bhandari whom AwaaZ was unable to contact in spite of several attempts and to whom attribution is made with much appreciation. Laxman’s autobiography, the Tunnel of Time was also consulted.