One failure can make a success. It takes two to make a star. R.K. Laxman failed twice in his attempt to get ahead in life. We are immensely glad he did. Or we wouldn’t be talking today, years after his death, about this remarkable practitioner of a newspaper art, known for its fleeting impact.
Laxman failed to get into a proper art school and went on to become the country’s best regarded cartoonist. Not before he ran into a second big shock. The best workplace turned him down—New Delhi, then the new capital of a young and bustling democracy. That in turn made him set up shop in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Mumbai made him what he was and looks like, remaking him for an emerging generation of young Indians. In news cartooning the world over, the best of cartoonists are read, liked and celebrated in their lifetime and then, at best, recalled on occasion. Laxman seems to be destined for a fuller afterlife.
The life lived is hard enough to chronicle, a good part of it having been lived unseen within the walls of a corner office in Mumbai’s Times of India building. Six hours daily for six days a week over 68 years, the country’s favourite cartoonist vanished into his cabin. To understand this private, complex workaholic who routinely reduced the day’s news clutter to a chuckle, you have to look all over for random clues. For sheer convenience, we might as well begin at the beginning.
The Much-mentioned NO
In the not-so-eventful princely state of Mysore, now called Mysuru, where he was born and brought up, the first event that marked Laxman’s life was his failure to get into the celebrated JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, which has since been much mentioned. No write-up, intro or blurb on the cartoonist is complete without it. This is so because the story in retrospect lends itself to retelling; it has a dramatic twist sweetened by revenge at the end. Decades after rejection, the art school invited the celebrity cartoonist to preside over its annual painting competition. Laxman could have quietly returned after giving away the prizes. The organizers insisted on a speech and got what they asked for. The chief guest thanked the institute for making him what he was, a cartoonist. Had they admitted him when he applied, he said, he would have ended up as a full-fledged visualiser in an ad agency, promoting mosquito repellents. 1
For the boy who loved to sketch, the best part of schooling was the drawing teacher from Maharashtra, dressed in a silk suit, turban and all, munching scented betel nut. The master was trained at JJ School of Arts. He was reputed enough for young Laxman to convince his liberal, yet conventional, household that an art diploma from this school was as good as a university degree. He would at least have a career in advertising. Uneasy with the school curriculum, the backbencher saw the art course as a relief from the bigger boredom that awaited him at the university.
After high school, when it was time to seek admission to JJ School, he had piled up enough art work to send across. After a wait that lasted endless weeks the reply came. It was a ‘no’ that cited inadequate entry level skills. It was enough to shake the starry-eyed youngster who was already a locally liked prodigy. As a child, Laxman was prone to take things to heart and break down. His autobiography in the early pages has such teary instances every five pages or so. It has as many instances of bouncing back too. Making pictures was by then second nature to the boy. He had graduated from the homebound scrawling on any flat surface to compulsive doodling on notebooks in the classroom.
He had already secured the first recognition, which came from his mother. On a crucial forenoon she saw on the floor a scrawl in chalk of a bald head that bore a striking resemblance to her spouse, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer, the venerable headmaster of the local high school. Between the two, not without an argument, the couple decided not to wipe it off. Laxman’s mother Gnanambal read widely, was good at tennis and bridge and played chess with Mysore’s Queen. She had what it took to prevail over her stern husband.
By evening the five siblings had an eyeful of the youngest brother’s pictorial take on their father. It stayed on to entertain visitors for several weeks before it finally faded out. Laxman’s was an easy home to grow up in. There weren’t too many dos and don’ts. At some stage, his older brother R.K.Narayan, already a published author, was asked to guide the budding artist, who was a good 15 years younger. The mentoring didn’t go beyond the periodic reminder that a handkerchief was a better option than the front of his shirt for wiping pencil and chalk stains.
At school, like all budding cartoonists, the student had the mandatory brush with the teacher, with a vital difference. The usual story has the kid drawing the teacher’s face and getting caught, whereupon ears get tweaked or on that rare occasion the back gets patted. Either way the rite of passage is done. Here, Laxman had just doodled the figure of a tiger on the margins of the note book. The Maths teacher sighted it and blew his top, seeing it as his own caricature. This was farthest from the student’s mind but nobody believed it because the resemblance was uncanny. Caricaturing is inherently provocative, sometimes more than the cartoonist wants to be. Once a rough sketch is seen as a cartoon, the touchy viewer can read just about anything into it. Decades later, in a far more advanced India, Laxman’s cartoons faced similar overzealous readings by the official censor.
Excerpted with permission courtesy Niyogi Books, 2022.
- R.K. Laxman, The Tunnel of Time: An Autobiography (Delhi: Penguin Random House, 1998), p. 62.