One can almost imagine the ‘Common Man’ scratching his balding head and his crow cawing away a commentary over the events of the day, India’s 66th Republic Day, an affair of much pomp and celebration. The creator of that much loved and closely followed figure, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Laxman, better known as R K Laxman, breathed his last at a Pune hospital on Sunday evening, after a prolonged illness.
With his long career as staff cartoonist of The Times of India, Laxman is considered the foremost chronicler of India’s political history. His most enduring contribution to the annals of cartooning is undoubtedly the ‘Common Man’ character and the pocket cartoon series, ‘You Said It’, that popularised political cartoons and satire since everyone's grandfather was a child. Laxman, who hailed from Mysore in Karnataka, was a creative genius who started early, drawing inspiration from looking at illustrations in magazines such as Punch and Bystander. The budding artist even took to drawing on the floors and walls of his house; one of his earliest targets for caricaturing were his school teachers.
Turned away by Mumbai’s JJ School of Art, ironically on grounds of lack of talent, Laxman graduated from the University of Mysore. By then, he had also started to draw illustrations for his equally illustrious brother R K Narayan’s stories, along with making political cartoons for some Kannada magazines.
Laxman joined The Times of India in the early 1950s and it remained his workplace for the next five decades. It was here that he immortalised the Common Man, with the characteristic checked coat and bemused expression as he observed life and politics in India.
From petty politicians to all-powerful premiers, Laxman’s keen eye and deft lines spared none, bringing droll smiles to hapless millions caught in the quagmire of ineffectual governance.
As Time magazine remarked in a review of a book of his cartoons: “For half a century, The Times of India has thoughtfully provided an antidote to all the bad news brimming on its front pages. It’s a sketch, a single box, inked by R K Laxman, the country’s sharpest cartoonist and political satirist. Each morning, Laxman’s frazzled character, known as the Common Man, confronts India’s latest heartbreak with a kind of wry resignation. Meek, doddering and with a moustache that bristles like an electrocuted mongoose, he’s a witness to everything: Scheming politicians, rapacious bureaucrats and gossiping housewives. What’s common about this character is that like most Indians, he sees his country being forced through endless indignities by its leaders and yet doesn’t even whimper in protest.”
When Ritu Gairola Khanduri interviewed cartoonists for her recently published book, Caricaturing culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World, no conversation was complete without some reference to Laxman. “That should give us some measure of his stature in the profession,” she says.
Khanduri first met Laxman in 2003, where he emphasised that he was an artist and a political analyst. “Laxman’s immaculate drawing, simplicity of ideas and topicality that daily cartoons demand made his cartoon the snapshot of the news of the day. His insistence that a cartoon be a work of excellent draftsmanship and convey a political perspective came to define political cartooning in India,” she says.
His art and observations, benign rebukes more often than coarse condemnations, made his cartoons a significant and lasting part of our political culture. “Laxman’s cartoons became entwined with life in India. His cartoons did not merely record and reflect events, they also shaped life in India,” says Khanduri. “Laxman’s cartoon’s gently revealed the paradox of democracy and developmental agendas.” Repeatedly caricaturing public frustration with bureaucratic failure, Laxman sparked an everyday critique of government machinery. “Of course, this did not inspire revolt but it gave cartoons an important role in our daily ritual performance of complaint,” she says.
His Common Man character was brand ambassador of the now defunct Deccan Air. It had promised to make air travel economical for the general public and its owner, Captain Gopinath, showed Khanduri the cartoon that inspired him to conceptualise Deccan Air, eventually also choosing Laxman’s character as his airline’s mascot.
His cartoons had a broad appeal and could evoke a range of emotions, from laughter to tears, effectively conveying the depth of news without its superfluousness. His cartoons were translated in many Indian languages and catalogued in coffee table books as well as affordable paperbacks, establishing their immense popularity in the entire country. Laxman was undoubtedly the only true star of Indian cartooning. One amateur cartoonist Khanduri met in Mumbai explained to her that Laxman was the “Lata Mangeshkar of Indian cartooning.”
“We all grew up with Laxman. Our interest in cartoons was inspired only from him,” says Keshav Venkataraghavan, staff cartoonist of The Hindu. “We used to draw his cartoons and practice. His cartoons were laced with satire and humour in a way that even the person who was his target used to enjoy them.” Laxman, he says, was a fan of David Low and moulded himself to the standards set by Low. “The Common Man is legendary now because it converted the anger of the common man into humour — that was the secret of its success. It went one step ahead of anger,” says Venkataraghavan.
Laxman was a great dramatist as well. “He conceptualised and scripted shows such as the wonderful Wagle ki Duniya. His humour was subtle and natural, not a sledgehammer invective,” says Venkataraghavan. “Once, during a chance meeting at Pilani, I asked him to give some words of advice to young cartoonists such as myself. He responded with a beautiful coinage: ‘Cartoonists should have a dignified irreverence.’ And, that has formed the intrinsic credo of his cartooning, and a lifelong motto for all of us.”
Ajit Ninan, former cartoonist of India Today and Outlook, and who is now with The Times of India, once declared Laxman his favourite cartoonist in the country, in an interview for Star of Mysore,“because he was a typical South Indian genius. He was a big crowd-puller and by nature he was funny, sharp and witty”.
Laxman’s unrivalled success and popularity as India’s premier cartoonist did not spare him critics. Who have, on occasion, pointed out his hesitation in striking a bold position on politics.
Laxman suffered a stroke in 1993 and later retired from active work. But for millions of us, who grew up on a daily diet rich with dry witticisms and astute observations on the country’s problems and politicians, his cartoons will remain inked on our memories. Describing his beloved Common Man in an interview to Outlook, Laxman once said: “My Common Man is omnipresent. His simple dhotiand checked coat could be anybody’s. His bald head could belong anywhere... his dhoti could be the Malayali mundu, too. He’s been silent all these 50 years. He simply listens.”