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October 30, 1997


Through A Coloured Glass

R K Laxman All my life I have painted crows. Singly, in pairs, threesomes, whole murders of them." He breaks off to chuckle. "Don't look so horrified. Murder is the collective noun for crows. Even as a child I had been fascinated by them. They are smart, lively and have a strong survival instinct. The common crow is really an uncommon bird."

The speaker is the uncommon creator of that common man who represents the mute millions of this country -- who else but Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman, India's most celebrated cartoonist? Forty years of cartooning have dimmed neither Laxman's brilliance nor the bafflement of his check-coated man who blinks at the political scene from his front-page corner in The Times of India.

When I approached him for an interview, Laxman refused point-blank to talk about his profession. "You will ask me what every damn fool asks me - 'How do you get your ideas everyday?' As though I could explain. And if I did, as though you could understand!"

But he was willing to talk about his passion for crows, with many digressions and sly digs at the sacred cows in the Indian mind.

A year later I found myself in his office cabin listening to descriptions of his childhood. Quick pencil sketches showed me what he was talking about. His words had all the distinguishing features of a Laxman cartoon -- the fine eye for detail, the pungent wit, the puckish sparkle, the sudden probe below the surface, and hearty guffaws at the absurdities of line.

What is it that makes R K Laxman so special among cartoonists?

Laxman's own answer would be, "My genius, what else?"

"A little humility is not a bad thing if you are at the top," writes fellow cartoonist Sudhir Dar (The Illustrated Weekly of India) as he recounts this story of the cartoonist Ranan Lurie's meeting with Laxman. When the American asked him who the best Indian cartoonist was, Laxman flashed back, "I am." The second, third, fourth, fifth best man on the job? Laxman continued to repeat, "I am."

Colleagues list other faults -- naiveté, inaccurate caricature, old-fashioned style, lack of experimentation, repetitiveness, verbosity. Even while admitting that he has no peers in pocket cartoons, they call his political cartooning atrocious. No acid-throwing or lava burst -- Laxman is too cosy, pleasant, decent, gentle. "He doesn't take the debate forward," says O V Vijayan. "There is no political comment, only political statement," says cartoonist Ravi Shankar. "He is not easily provoked. And doesn't want to provoke his readers either," comments Abu Abraham.

Laxman may not impress an international, particularly the Western, audience. "Why should he? He draws for us," says my friend Keshav (a cartoonist for The Hindu). "No other cartoonist has understood the average Indian as Laxman has. This gives him a far wider reach than his sophisticated colleagues. From garbage disposal to nuclear physics, he can make you see every issue clearly and in a new light."

We leaf through Laxman's cartoon collections, illustrations, even doodles. One of them shows a room in the space centre where scientists are busy with the 'man on the moon' project. Pictures of a rocket and a cratered moon loom over them. A long-coated scientist enters, points to the common man standing at the doorway and says he has found the perfect space traveller. "The man from India can survive without water, food, light, air, shelter."

When we stop laughing, Keshav asks me, "Can you call this superficial? A Laxman cartoon has two characteristics. It is drama frozen at a crucial moment with something before and something after it. He puts us on the spot. We feel the whole ambience. The common man is helpless in his country, he chokes with frustrations and fury. Laxman's cartoons convert this rage into humour."

R K Laxman cartoon Laxman's missilic rise began every early. While still at the Maharaja's College, Mysore, studying politics, economics and philosophy, he began to illustrate his elder brother R K Narayan's stories in The Hindu. He drew political cartoons for the local papers, and for the Swatantra, edited by doyen Khasa Subba Rao. He held a summer job at the Gemini Studios, Madras.

After graduation Laxman went to Delhi to find a job as cartoonist. The Hindustan Times told him he was too young, that he should start with provincial papers. The Free Press Journal in Bombay had no such qualms. Laxman found himself seated next to another cartoonist who was furiously drawing a bird in a cage. His name was Bal Thackeray. ("Is that an Indian name?" wondered Laxman who knew only of William Makepeace Thackeray.)

One day the Journal's proprietor banned him from making fun of communists. So the twenty-three-year old Laxman left, caught a Victoria, and walked into the The Times of India office. From that day "I had a table and a room to myself which I have used ever since." And used with a freedom unknown to any Indian journalist for as long.

Laxman feels oppressed by having to turn out a cartoon everyday. "Each morning I grumble, I plan to resign as I drag myself to the office. By the time I come home I like my work."

Laxman plays with every shade of humour -- wit, satire, irony, slapstick, buffoonery, tragicomedy. Such versatility dazzles as does his unwearied discipline. Through the long, prolific years the man from Mysore has never hit anyone below the belt. And that makes him India's most beloved cartoonist…


Excerpted from Past Forward, as told to Gowri Ramnarayan, Oxford University Press, 1997, Rs 275, with the publisher's permission.

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