The uncommon man

Print edition : February 20, 2015
An admiration that began in the art gallery and grew with the years.

GROWING up in Chennai, one knew of R.K. Laxman by his reputation and the occasional drawing or cartoon that appeared in The Illustrated Weekly of India. The facility of his strokes, the economy of lines and the mastery of the subject were fascinating. Would he exhibit in Madras? Mine was a fledgling gallery and his was an awesome reputation.

This was the early 1980s and cartoonists did not quite have a place in the hallowed precincts of art galleries. But I decided to approach him for an exhibition of his works, unmindful of the fact that I would receive a lot of criticism for this.

Quite soon, I was in his “studio” in The Times of India, Mumbai. A stark, airy room with a view of the Victoria Terminus, or VT station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), the busy road below, and the overhanging branches of an ancient tree. Visitors were allowed only after the red light outside his door had been switched off at 4 p.m., his daily deadline for the next day’s cartoon.

It was an easy meeting. Soon we lapsed into Tamil. He agreed to exhibit a series of “Crows” in watercolour. I got busy with the preparations for the show. Akkama Alexander, the wife of P.C. Alexander, the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, agreed to inaugurate the exhibition. Chennai was waiting. This would be the first exhibit of Laxman’s drawings in an art gallery.

Laxman was particularly fascinated with crows. He found them intelligent, endearing and mischievous. They would come for the crumbs placed on a windowsill in his home in the mornings. This was the time he would draw and paint them with deft strokes; it was as if they were “sitting” for him. He recognised a couple of crows that were regular visitors at his window, and had names for them.

The Chennai exhibition was a huge success. And there was demand for more. We held another exhibition a few years later.

I moved to Mumbai in the early 1990s. Laxman and his wife, Kamala, decided to take me under their wing. I became a regular to their home on Warden Road for weekly sessions of coffee and evening snacks prepared by Masam, the resident cook. Laxman and Kamala both shared a passion for collecting images of Ganesha. Although Laxman was a non-believer, he liked the form. He regularly painted or drew images of Ganesha. Hundreds of Ganeshas lined the shelves in their home along with moppets, which was another interest they shared. Theirs was a special and rare bond.

The visits to his studio, too, became a regular occurrence. Sometimes, I would visit at lunch time to share his curd rice. Journalist friends in The Times of India, who stayed clear of Laxman’s path and his caustic tongue, were quite intrigued. Laxman chatted about his projects, politics and contemporary art, for which he had nothing but disdain. M.F. Husain in particular was a pet peeve.

Laxman was in great demand in the 1990s. All the State Tourism Departments were vying with one other to invite him to tour their State and capture his impressions of them. Then there was the Asian Paints mascot that he invented as well as the numerous calendars he did for national banks and other institutions. He was busy. And, of course, he had to do the illustrations for his brother R.K. Narayan’s books. I think Laxman enjoyed working on Narayan’s Malgudi Days the most.

There was a ritual his studio followed. His clients and The Times of India had to photograph his cartoons and drawings and return the originals to him. All his original drawings and cartoons were then filed neatly and kept in a cabinet which his secretary always ensured to lock. I had the privilege of acquiring some of the originals. In fact, a new trend developed: his daily cartoon became so popular at one time that people started gifting the cartoon of the day to friends. Requests would come to me to book the cartoon that was to appear on a certain date well in advance. The cartoons became collectables, especially in Mumbai.

Until the cartoon was dispatched to the press, Laxman was a picture of concentration... reading dozens of newspapers, analysing politics, policies, politicians. Once the day’s job was done, he would not linger. He would drive back home in his black Ambassador car (which he would trade for another black Ambassador every five years) to unwind.

After he shifted to Pune, I missed the warmth of this generous couple. The last time I met Laxman was a few days before he went into the hospital in January. The world shall miss him and so will I.

Geetha Mehra is the founder-director of Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai.

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