Of crows… and cartoons

Interview with R.K. Laxman.

Published : Feb 04, 2015 12:30 IST

“Look, I am tired of interviews. I don’t want to explain yet again that I still don’t know where I get ideas for my cartoons.” That is Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman, who has been tirelessly reflecting the bewilderment of the mute millions of this country through his check-coated common man, a daily witness to the Indian political panorama. Over the past four decades the cartoonist’s animadversions have continued to be witty, satirical and wholly funny.

Laxman’s talent for drawing and painting surfaced in childhood and enabled him to illustrate elder brother R.K. Narayan’s articles and stories (in The Hindu ) 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 Bombay. After brief stints with Blitz and The Free Press Journal , Laxman ensconced himself as the editorial cartoonist in The Times of India .

After the explanation, “I want to talk about your crows, not cartoons,” the eyes gleam, the smile appears and Laxman’s irritation is replaced by interest. What follows is an uproarious session. “You said it, Mr Laxman,” even more zany, irrepressible and wide-ranging than could have been planned. These excerpts from that rambling talk the artist had with this writer focus on the cartoonist’s passion for the common crow, a repeated subject of his popular paintings.

Since when did you become interested in crows as a subject for your paintings?

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, 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.

Granted, the crow is a perky thing to watch, but how does it generate aesthetic pleasure? It has no colour scheme or dainty shape, no beauty or grace to speak of.

It is beautiful for an artist. To me the peacock seems a very ugly creature. I cannot bear its overdeveloped harsh shades. Its colour separation is an inexpert job. Perhaps the great Creator, after shaping all the beings of the world, used the leftovers to make this hideous thing as a joke. Otherwise, is it at all reasonable to find a front blue, a rear you cannot make out, and that great sweep, the train, an imitation broomstick? It can’t fly much with that trailing tail, nor walk properly. This tail must have been an afterthought to feed vanity. And when it begins to dance, to me it appears most uncouth.

How much of your knowledge is backed by any ornithological study?

I know the birds, one picks up information as one reads and observes. But my main preoccupation is not scientific. I know that crows differ in colour and size in different regions, even within India. In Kashmir, the smaller, rather brownish crow has a call totally distinctive. Why, even in places near Bombay, crows have beaks bent at the tip like eagles. Some crow-fanciers swear that each locality in a city has its own brand—the Dadar crow is distinguishable from the Warden Road crow. As I see it, the crow is the only bird with a gregarious, vivacious nature. It is the only bird which gathers before sunset on rooftops in rows for friendly chitchat.

Do you think crows have a sense of humour?

I think they are nearer human beings than other birds. And they are terribly intelligent. They keep an eye on arrivals and departures. That is why perhaps we believe a single crow caws to announce visitors. And do you know, a crow will come very close to an infant to steal its food. But it knows that after the age of four, a man-child spells danger.

Have you made friends and established wider contacts through a shared love of crows?

People keep sending me articles and clippings on the subject from many sources, from many places. Like the Station Director of AIR, Bangalore, after my radio talk on crows. Many others seemed impressed enough by my comments and observations to write to me. For instance, crows are adept at stealing the soft lengths of wire used to tie high-tension wires above electric trains. They are nesting material for the thieves who take them away as many times as they are replaced. An official told me that this causes a loss of six to seven lakhs of rupees each year to the railways.

Aha! I can see you falling a prey to crow lore! That is why I said let me talk about something more interesting than my cartoons!

Just how many crow paintings have you done over the years? Have you drawn other birds besides crows?

I can draw any bird, of course. But I can’t work them up into a series. Owls, eagles, storks and hens are just birds—they have no character, no stories, no drama. I have painted hundreds of crows—singletons, pairs, threesomes, whole murders of crows (Don’t look so horrified! That is the collective noun, not a bloody scene!). I have sketched crows from different perspectives, from near and far. In many moods, too. The crow has great pliability and flexibility for varied treatment.

An artist makes viewers aware of the common things around us which go unobserved, in the human face, in light and shade, in a tree, in a landscape, mountainscape…. I want to bring those unnoticed aspects of the crow to viewer attention. And I think I have succeeded in making people see the crow as an essential part of our lives in this country. Visitors to India—diplomats and representatives of multinational corporations— often approach me for a crow or two because that bird is their most vivid memory of the country. One of my crows hangs in Iceland now.

Is your fascination for crows in any way related to your instinct for drama, for liveliness, for vivid humour as a cartoonist?

Well. . . I haven’t thought about it that way. True, cartooning is not a dead art, it hits the eye as does the crow. If you can stretch your imagination and bend your logic, you may say there is a connection between my crows and my cartoons!

Do you enjoy modern art?

I am a great admirer of the Impressionists. I used to like contemporary art, but they all look the same to me now. The eye is gouged out of a child or woman, the figures are distorted into impossible postures. I humbly admit that I don’t understand them and I don’t know how anyone can derive pleasure out of such compositions, colours, arrangements, themes. As for more abstract work, that is totally confusing. Because printing technology has improved so much, you find that such abstractions have crept into magazines and newspapers—to illustrate articles about water scarcity, floods or communal rioting! Somehow the editors have felt that symbolic representations would be far better than straightforward illustrations. This has led to irresponsibility among artists. They toss off anything—a stroke here, a smear there, and declare, “This is my vision of the Mandal Commission report.”

Is it that you dislike abstraction and distortion? Do you prefer realism?

It is a question of suitability and beauty, of how you do it. Our gods, our heroes, our demons, our mythic forms, have all been conceived in abstraction. Whether you go to Dwaraka or Udupi, you find the temple idol has a dynamic and powerful stance. The temple sculptors took liberties with reality, but retained the quality of Indianness and infused beauty into their forms. I have studied their deeply ingrained sense of proportion and originality at Hampi, Konark, Khajuraho, Belur, Badami....

I find their work radiant! What a splendid figure of action the Nataraja makes with hair flying, leg upraised! Or take Ganesha. Where can you find such an exciting and unique design? It has humour and a sense of pure mischief too. And what a contrast they offer! You strike a silence before Nataraja but chuckle when you see the elephant-headed god.

(Breaks off to look at a sari-clad Westerner passing by.) Just look at that. That sari is beautiful. But it is out of place on that large occidental frame, just as that brown and green clash with white skin and blonde hair. So, there is satire everywhere. You have to note it and shape it when you want it!

With your varied interests and zest for life do you sometimes feel oppressed by the fact of having to turn out a new cartoon each day as you have been doing for the last 42 years?

Not sometimes . Always. Every day I grumble, I plan to resign as I drag myself to the office. By the time I come home I like my work.

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