Late RK Laxman was often called ‘keeper of the conscience’ in India. He kept the discussions flowing through his humorous take on grim happenings in politics and society.
The utterly mind numbing idiosyncrasies of politics, bureaucracy and lobbying are baffling at the best and unhinging at their worst. But, they did not baffle RK Laxman, the uncommon mapper of everyday struggles witnessed by bewildered eyes of Common Man and several other cartoons. His creations gave people a reason to smile, not to mention, in some cases, break into guffaws over their morning newspapers for ages. Spanning almost six decades, his career requires a resounding applause. Even the most uncharitable of us cannot help but acknowledge that it takes an extraordinary genius to come day after day with a humorous take on issues that have politicians and policymakers scratching their heads.
The youngest of six sons, RK Laxman was born in Mysore. He had none other than the famed RK Narayan as his brother. His creative instincts, unlike his elder brother took the form of cartoons and caricatures. No wonder the biographies and autobiography of Laxman talk about his fascination with illustrations in magazines such as Punch and Strand during his growing up days. Art fed his imagination and the ability to transform situations around him into illustrations transformed him into an unparalleled cartoonist who ruled the Indian panorama of humour for more than five decades. From illustrating the stories of his elder brother in The Hindu to immortalizing Common Man in his comic strip You Said It, RK Laxman said it all with his wry humour.
Laxman was one of those people who was born thinking the direction he would give to his life. He sketched everything that he could set his eyes on from childhood, a habit that later helped him in his professional life. Perhaps few would believe that the maverick was refused admission to the hallowed JJ School of Art located at Bombay. This did not deter him. He graduated from Mysore University and kept his passion for sketching burning. After completing his studies, Laxman entered the realm of cartoons, following into the footsteps of some of the cartoonists that he so admired. Some of his earliest works appeared in Swarajya, Blitz and Kannada Magazine, Koravanji. From there he shifted to The Free Press Journal and then to Times of India where Laxman’s cartoons graced the pages with their cutting humour.
While other people get frustrated at the servitude of the common populace to officialdom and liberally spread fiascos in politics, RK Laxman found an outlet for his exasperations, in the cartoons. He had said in one of his interviews, “Frankly our politics is so sad that if I had not been a cartoonist, I would have committed suicide.”Common Man was his inspired imagination. Clad in his dhoti and jacket, with spectacles styled after those of Mahatma Gandhi and a bald head except for a few tufts of hair on each side of his head, the Common Man became the unofficial critic of all that was official. The Common Man was Common without being ordinary. He somehow stood out of the crowd to become an iconic figure but resembled them enough so he could never be considered an alien. Always standing in a corner, the Common Man represented masses who could never understand power struggles and pursuit of mindless wealth. This entity created by Laxman was astonished at the unabashed audacity of politics, unbending pride of Superpowers and day to day struggle of the populace ranging from spiralling inflation to lack of space to park cars. If Common Man was Laxman’s inspiration, crows were the love of his professional life. His love for crows was often aired in not only the cartoons but the way he talked about them. While drawing anything and everything in his early days, he got invariably attracted to crows who remained his favourites. In Laxman’s own words, “Crows are so good looking, so intelligent. Where will I find characters like that in politics?” Over the years, crows found a number of representations and depictions in Laxman’s cartoons.
His cartoons represented politics, economics, society, travails of babudom and much more but most significantly, they embodied his veritable appetite for the world around him, his insatiable desire to dissect the world minutely and pin it with his uncanny insights, RK Laxman was the quintessential cartoonist with the old world charm, unapologetic for his quick and cutting cartoons. No one ever took umbrage because the twinkle in his eyes was enough to ensure that he bore no malice. And more so Laxman’s cartoons always attacked an issue or a quirk. He never became personal, invoking humour even in those targeted. He was fearless. Definitely his cartoons showed that he never became wary of speaking his mind and in the most powerful ways. When others bowed their head to the Emergency, RK Laxman lampooned the Emergency and gave people a reason to smile in uncertain times. He did not spare the U.S. for playing the role of mute spectator during the 1971 Bangladesh wars where the superpower did nothing to contain the situation. Laxman was quick to respond when the International Monetary Fund cut the aid for developing countries in 1984. While the powers that be were regularly on his radar, he did not shy away from taking a few liberties with the some of the most revered professions in the country. One of the cartoons that appeared in You Said It depicted an IAS aspirant drawing a chair on the floor and the cartoon had a UPSC interviewer saying, “I just asked the candidate to draw a chair and sit.”
Laxman’s ideas always had originality and struck a cord with people. He became the first Indian cartoonist to exhibit in London in 1985. The people who looked forward to his cartoon were regularly and pleasantly surprised as he doled out dollops of humour before they turned to the harsh realities brought forth by the grim headlines of the day.
It would be apt to say that he metamorphosed the banal into something phenomenal. He gave the masses of India a new icon which Laxman claimed was present everywhere. In his own words, “My Common Man is omnipresent. He’s been silent all these 50 years. He simply listens.” Just like the character he created, Laxman would forever remain etched in the memories of people as a brilliant artist, whose art spoke volumes with a single illustration and a bare minimum of words.