From the Archives: July 31, 1998

Laxman’s-eye view

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Chennai, 28-01-2015 : A cartoon by R.K.Lakshman. Photo : S_R_Raghunathan Photo: From N. Ram's Collection

50 Years of Independence: Through the Eyes of R.K. Laxman; The Times of India, Mumbai,1998; pages 176; price: Rs.525.

R.K. LAXMAN is, as is well-recognised, India’s greatest cartoonist. He also has the distinction of being the only journalist who, by means of his chosen medium, has covered perhaps every major political event in India over the last 50 years.

No newspaper person’s style is as instantly recognisable to India’s reading public as is Laxman’s, and no figure as familiar as that of Laxman’s Common Man. Laxman himself, describing the origins of the Common Man, his “companion of 50 years”, provides what is perhaps the best description of his signature character: “I had to create this mythical individual in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which perched a pair of glasses, and thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment. He voyages through life with quiet amusement, at no time uttering a word, looking at the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions in the human situation.” This book is a Laxman’s-eye view of 50 years of Indian independence, as recorded in his editorial cartoons in The Times of India.

The book is divided into five sections, each covering a selection of cartoons published over a decade, beginning with the decade 1947-1957 and ending with 1987-1997. Jawaharlal Nehru and his leadership of the Congress, inevitably, dominate the first decade; the second decade begins with Nehru, covers the Lal Bahadur Shastri interregnum and ends in 1967, with the rise to prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Over the next decade, Indira Gandhi consolidates her leadership over the Congress party, while the hegemony of the party itself begins to weaken. The selection ends with cartoons on the Emergency. And so through the Janata experiment to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the ascent of Rajiv Gandhi. The 1987-1997 decade records the succession of governments in New Delhi and, over the recent past, the communalism and political opportunism of the BJP.

This then is a useful selection of Laxman’s large-format editorial cartoons in The Times (the selection does not include the daily “You Said It” pocket cartoons). It is particularly useful for its selection of cartoons from 1987 to the present, a period for which a comparable selection has not been published. For the period before 1988, however, the best book of Laxman’s work in The Times of India remains The Eloquent Brush, the 303-page collection selected and introduced by Laxman himself ( The Eloquent Brush by R.K. Laxman, The Times of India Sesquicentennial Publication, 1988).

What characterises these cartoons? Irreverence, a sense of fun and the clear message that whoever be in power, Laxman cannot be tamed. The Congress, inevitably, has borne the brunt of Laxman’s satire—it has, after all, been in power the longest. Laxman has long been an opponent of religious obscurantism (he cartooned against conservative opposition to the codification of Hindu law as early as December 1949) and of the use of religion in politics (page 108). His post-Yatra Advani is a character at once menacing and ridiculous, outfitted invariably in a Hindu deity’s crown (it rests precariously on his head) and with an over-long angavastra around his neck (pages 103, 129, and 163).

Laxman’s regular targets are those persons in full-time politics whose self-seeking concerns and practice are far removed from the plight of the people they purport to represent (pages 104 and 123). There are two excellent cartoons on the BJP’s pre-election opportunism (pages 162 and 163) and a prescient cartoon published after the BJP’s Baroda meeting on the party’s use of the nuclear option for political gain (page 125).

There are also cartoons on the utter irresponsibility of the Congress under Sitaram Kesri vis-a-vis the United Front government (pages 143 and 160), on the United Front and the BSP and on Jayalalitha, a person who seems almost to solicit the satire of the master-cartoonist (pages 135, 162 and 166). And a running theme over the decades is that of the continuing reality, behind all ruling class claims to the contrary, of poverty and deprivation among the people of India (pages 101 and 134).

It is a matter of considerable interest that two of India’s most outstanding achievers—each pre-eminent in his field—are brothers. What is it about their background that played a formative part in the creative geniuses of R.K. Narayan and R.K. Laxman? I wrote to N. Ram, co-author of the biography of R.K. Narayan and a close friend of both brothers, to ask him this question, and I quote, at length, his reply:

“R.K. Narayan is India’s greatest writer in English of this century, one of the world’s major literary figures. His youngest brother, R.K. Laxman, is way and ahead India’s finest cartoonist, and one of the world’s best. Their autobiographies, Narayan’s My Days, published in 1974, and Laxman’s The Tunnel of Time, which I have just read, provide clues towards an explanation of how one family can produce two such outstanding creative figures. It happens very rarely but it has happened elsewhere. They express individual genius, which has always defied explanation, but they are also products of a particular family and social milieu that has been congenial to creativity: liberal and modern in outlook, yet imbued with strong values and laidback integrity and respectful of independence and originality.

“The link between childhood and adult creativity is now well recognised in the social science, especially psychological, literature: that is, the importance to the creative mind of a childhood in which exploration and curiosity are encouraged, not restricted or stifled. Laxman, a decade and a half younger than Narayan, is very different in make-up, temperament and experience. But he is a product of the same kind of upbringing and social milieu that have fostered creativity, although they cannot of course ‘explain’ it.

Further, Laxman (who, in his autobiography, tells us that ‘I do not remember wanting to do anything else except draw’) has clearly benefited, from the beginning, from having Narayan around him: to mind him as a child, to encourage his independence and creativity, to have him illustrate his Malgudi stories and novels, to take pride, without ever making a fuss, in his gift and accomplishments. I have observed the two brothers together: so close, yet so different and so independent from each other—creative contrasts from one distinctive, difficult to replicate, pool.”

“I am grateful to my leaders,” Laxman writes in an introduction to this volume, “for keeping my profession flourishing.” Just as the many people who follow his work are grateful for the incisive wit and art of R.K. Laxman.

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