R.K. Laxman

King of cartoon

Print edition : February 20, 2015

R.K. Laxman. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

The statute of "The Common Man", a fictitious cartoon character created by R.K. Laxman, at Worli Seaface in south Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Laxman sent this, one of his last three cartoons, showing his common man reaching Mars, to the Indian Space Research Organisation a few weeks before his passing away. Photo: Courtesy: ISRO

There is much to be celebrated in R.K. Laxman’s (1921-2015) extraordinary life: his magnificent talent, his ability to conjure up Indian faces, and his uncommon wit.

WHEN I joined the Sunday Review of The Times of India as a feature writer-cum-copy editor (FWCCE, or fookies, as we were called), no one took the artworks we received seriously. Mario Miranda cartoons littered the floor of The Economic Times. I found Lalitha Lajmi illustrations for short stories in the waste paper on the floors of Femina and there were sketches by everyone from Badri Narayan to Baiju Parthan for the taking. There was only one exception: a sketch or cartoon by R.K. Laxman. When the editor asked for one, the personal assistant (PA) was required to go with a fookie to the library and select some photographic material. This would then be delivered to the cabin on the third floor—right next to the resident editor’s cabin—and then the sketch would be delivered from PA to PA with the air of someone handing over a masterpiece. (And an invoice would be raised. Don’t ask. One day someone will tell the story of how a “simple man from south India” treated the suits and every creative person who has ever wondered why his salary never matched that of the management madmen next door, will cry and scream and cheer and want posters. You all know R.K. Laxman, master of the pocket cartoon. May you one day know about R.K. Laxman, the master of the management of maddened money managers. Like many of the best stories, I suspect, this one will never be told.)

What is a masterpiece? The drawings on the floor? The ones on the wall? Cut to an auction for charity, handled by the theatre personality Keith Stevenson in the Jehangir Art Gallery. Various big-name artists had contributed their works. M.F. Husain sold at a record price but many paintings went unsold. Then came Laxman. It was Mahatma Gandhi drawn full-length in pastels and the reserve price was Rs.5,000. For once Stevenson did not have to work the crowd, did not have to urge them to dig deep into their pockets. Bidding was brisk and by the end the sketch was sold for six times its worth.

“And it’s not even a crow,” said a bemused young man next to me. “It’s just a cartoon.”

Laxman was right. His works were art. They deserved to be treated as such. In an age where I could take Sunil Padwal sketches home and frame them, he was sure that he was sending you something precious, he wanted you to treat it that way and he wanted it back intact. But he was alone, it seemed in this intent. In The Times of India archive, I found an iconic drawing he had made of Nehru contemplating a rose. It has been treated with whitener, the usual way in which art directors made cutouts in the days before computers.

There has been a long tradition in India of not being sure how to handle the cartoon. There is no doubting its suitability for the mainstream newspaper. Most newspapers will have a cartoonist who works for them. Many will have a regular contributor. But it is still a picture with words and these come very close to becoming comics and we don’t trust comics. What are they doing, pretending to be books? Why do they have all those pictures? Surely that can’t be good for us? For our children? Yes, yes, Amar Chitra Katha and all that but comics are comics, middle-class parents would say. There was always some allowance made for the child who wanted to buy a book. A child who wanted to buy comics was obviously walking down the road to ruin.

And so it was, I think, up to Laxman to establish and guard his own work, which he did with a ferocity and savagery that few could imagine in the way he presented himself, as the mild-mannered south Indian gentleman who took the bus so he could feel the pulse of the reader and find out what he was thinking. Or as the other cartoonist in the newsroom of The Free Press Journal, where one Bal Thackeray was also working. Or as the brother of R.K. Narayan, the other great mild-mannered south Indian gentleman of letters.

I was once sitting in Ranjit Hoskote’s cubicle when Laxman deigned to visit.

“I say,” he said. “these chaps are going too far.”

Hoskote cocked a quizzical eye at him. The Mandal Commission had submitted its report and reservation was being discussed in every editorial. While care was being taken to present both sides, it was always clear the upper-class upper-caste India—as represented by the newsrooms of the English-language press—felt as Laxman did. Those “chaps” were indeed “going too far”.

“You chaps should write about this,” he said.

It was clear that he was speaking to Hoskote, not to me. Hoskote’s face took on the elegant neutrality of someone who was willing to respect an opinion so as not to have to contradict it. It is a facial expression I have never managed to conjure up.

“But Mr Laxman,” I said. “Whatever any of us writes will hardly have the impact of one of your cartoons. People may or may not read the rest of the paper but they read your cartoon.”

Unknowingly, I had achieved a masterstroke. I had said what everyone believed and what was, at least in this case, probably true. But I had also called on Laxman to make a statement and that he, master-craftsman, master-statesman, master-non-statement-statesman, was never going to do.

The next day, I opened the newspaper and I was presented with another cartoon in which a rich and corrupt politician was saying something improbable while the Common Man looked on. This was what Laxman did so brilliantly. He gave you a laugh which never upset you because it did not make you look at the world differently. Instead, it ratified your view of it. Did you think politicians were corrupt? There was Laxman to tell you they were. Did you think the potholes were terrible? There was Laxman offering you a mildly satiric vision of a sportsman training for mountain-climbing on a pile of rubble near a pothole. Did you feel that you had no voice in the way the world was run? Well, then you did notice that the Common Man didn’t speak? (He did. Once, at least.)

But pause a moment with this iconic figure. He’s mild, he’s chinless, he’s wearing a coat and a dhotar. He is wearing round spectacles in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose, take your pick. He is a witness to crudity, vulgarity and atrocity and his gaze is always the same. It seems to suggest that he has no judgements to offer as if this Grand Guignol, this Comedie Humaine, were destined to pass. He was the philosophy of India wrapped up in a small sympathetic package. He would fit right into Malgudi, that fictional universe his brother created, rarely disturbed by caste atrocities, never bothered by infanticide, untouched by communalism, where everything is settled quite nicely in the end and the town goes back to snooze in the sun and the reader is left with a feeling of nostalgia for a place never visited, a time never experienced.

But he did have his moment of triumph, this little man. It is the one Laxman cartoon I remember clearly. A goon lies prostrate, his club fallen by his side and the Common Man walks away, his face filled with righteous rage, his sleeves rolled up. He has spoken, his word is writ, his ways are the ways of truth and justice. The demon has been slain. This was Laxman’s cartoon after the Emergency was lifted, elections were announced and Indira Gandhi’s Congress was defeated and the Janata Party emerged victorious. I remember it because it spoke for me and because the Common Man had done something other than offering witness.

There is much to be celebrated in Laxman’s extraordinary life, his magnificent talent, his ability to conjure up Indian faces (he was less successful with people from other nations), his handling of Bennet, Coleman and Company Limited, the one media organisation guaranteed to make journalists as unhappy as possible while keeping them on the fix of a guaranteed huge audience. But he was a cartoonist who no longer travelled by bus. He had begun to be sure of his own talent. He would not allow his words to be edited at all, which was sad because the captions were often wordy, pendulous and took far more words to get to the point than was strictly necessary. They lacked the bite that crisp editing would have given them.

But for all that he was a habit in a city that has many other and much more embarrassing addictions; but after he had a stroke, he was an embarrassing habit. Before it, his line was sure and his draughtsmanship unparalleled even if his subject matter was repetitive and his ideas hackneyed. Now it was like looking at someone pretending to be Laxman and there were already enough imitators.

When he died at the age of 94, there was a genuine outpouring of grief. It was as if a neglected uncle had suddenly died somewhere out of our ken. The Common Man is no more, we were told, again and again. It took an uncommon man to create him, to defend him and to maintain his integrity. It will take a lot of uncommon men, with no capitals attached, to be witnesses to our political scene today. And Laxman would probably be the first to admit that silence is now dangerous and may be seen as assent.

Jerry Pinto has been a mathematics tutor, school librarian, journalist and columnist and is now associated with MelJol, an NGO that works in the spheres of child rights. His published work includes the book of poems Asylum, and Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, which won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 2007. He has also edited an anthology of writings on Goa, Reflected in Water, and co-edited (with Naresh Fernandes) a similar anthology on his native city, Bombay, Meri Jaan. His most recent work, which is also his first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, is a poignant, moving and inspiring story of family relationships.

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