How RK Laxman, the creator of the Common Man, was nothing like the character he created
Several years ago when examining the success of the The Times Of India Group, the late journalist Khushwant Singh, who had served as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly for nine years, wrote an article claiming that almost everything about the newspaper was dispensable. These included editors and book reviews that appeared in the newspaper. There were just three things, he said, the proprietors knew they couldn’t touch — God and religion, titillation, and RK Laxman.
For over half a century, as the old lady of Bori Bunder underwent reinvention after another, with a steady roll of editors coming and going, some of them the country’s most well-known names in journalism, Laxman and his pocket cartoons remained the newspaper’s only constant. Over the years, the importance of a cartoon may have diminished in the country, with many newspapers not keeping a cartoonist one on their payrolls, but Laxman’s work was always there, glaring at the reader from The Times Of India front page, often summing up a story better than its text, reminding everyone of the quality and importance of political cartoons. In the space of a single column, his ‘You Said It’ cartoon and its protagonist, the Common Man, came to capture not just the mood of the nation, but represent the average Indian’s predicament in a fast-changing modern world.
Born on October 24, 1921 in the southern city of Mysore, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman was the youngest of six sons, one of whom was the famous Indian novelist RK Narayan. His father was a school headmaster. Cartooning came to Laxman's life almost with an inevitability when still a child. In the very first page of his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, he talks about never wanting to do anything except draw. “I do not remember a day when I have not sketched, whether it was the time to prepare for examinations or lying in bed recovering from a bout of fever.” In his father's room in their large house in Mysore, he would browse through magazines like Bystander, Wide World and Punch. At an age when he couldn’t understand the jokes under the cartoons, he would still “spend hours studying each and (cartoon) would critically judge their quality. This exercise helped me to develop a visual sense of humour and also the rudiments of perspective, drapery and human anatomy, without being conscious of these.”
Once, when still in primary school, he saw a cartoon in The Hindu and was enraptured by it. The name of the artist below, he read as ‘cow’. He then began to look out for cartoons by the artist in the newspaper. “I spent hours gazing at the drawing and observing its finer points; the gentle caricature of faces, the effortless flow of lines, the perspective, the drapery — all done in controlled distortion — a masterpiece of visual satire.” He was too young to understand what the cartoons were about but later realised that the name was not 'Cow' but 'Low'; it was the world-renowned UK cartoonist David Low. Laxman became obsessed with him, started collecting his books and soon knew all about Low there was to know — the name of his dog, how many children he had and so on. He also began to imbibe Low’s style, from the manner of his brushstrokes to the quality of his quiet humour.
As a youth, Laxman began illustrating his brother, RK Narayan’s stories that would appear in The Hindu. Later, he unsuccessfully applied to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. The dean of the school wrote to him that his drawings lacked “the kind of talent to qualify for enrolment at the institution”. Several years later when Laxman was invited to the institution as its chief guest for a function, he would bring up that remark. He eventually got a job as a political cartoonist at the Free Press Journal, where he worked along with the then cartoonist Bal Thackeray. Laxman later joined The Times Of India. In Mumbai newsrooms, it has often been joked that both Laxman and Thackeray applied for the same post at The Times Of India. When Laxman was chosen over Thackeray, it ignited the latter’s dislike towards South Indians and how they were taking away jobs from Maharashtrians.
Decades later, in 1952, Low resurfaced in his life. He had been with The Times of India for five years then and would be the first to arrive in office in the morning. One day he saw an aged couple sitting opposite his desk. It was his idol, Low, and his wife. They were on their way to Hong Kong when the ship had stopped in Bombay for a few hours. They had been walking along, chanced upon The Times of India building, entered and was then led by a reporter to Laxman’s desk. Laxman then took them around town and showed them the sights of the city. And then, at one point, Laxmman remarked how the impression of India as a land of sadhus, snake charmers, elephants and tigers had changed. “At that very instance I thought I heard a faint musical note. It increased in volume. We could tell it was unmistakably emanating from a wind instrument. It was soon followed by a snake charmer. He had made himself resemble the Hollywood idea of an India snake charmer. I was greatly embarrassed by the sudden appearance of this fellow on the scene…I took refuge in a loud guffaw and said gallantly, ‘Let us go before the rope-trick fellow, the sadhu, the elephants and tigers follow, Mr Low.’”
The Common Man came gradually. He started off as a stray entrant and then slowly as Laxman filtered out the clutter around him became the character he would become associated with. And he was almost stillborn. In his autobiography, Laxman writes that he had become aware of a peculiar problem that the political cartoonist faces in India, that of its diversity. “I had not only to show the ministers who mooted policies or programmes, I also had to convey the reactions of those who were affected by government programmes — namely the masses. Each time I had to show in my cartoon not one India citizen but several: Tamils, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Punjabis, Maharashtrians. All were Indians of course but their looks, habits, dress varied vastly. I had to draw quite a crowd to indicate the common citizen. Sometimes when I had to work against time because I wasn't inspired early enough in the day, I used to reduce the number of these common citizens…I eliminated a few more in the course of time. Finally there was only one left. He was bald and bespectacled, his bulbous nose propped above a bristly moustache. He had a permanently bewildered look and was dressed in a dhoti and a checked coat. This man finally minimized my deadline agonies and took over the strenuous task of representing the mute millions of the country.”
Around the same time he also mooted to his editor a daily single column. It was agreed to at once and while Laxman was about to begin it, he received an offer of a job from the UK newspaper Evening Standard. Everyone thought he was going and even gave farewell parties. But Laxman was himself caught between his insecurities of starting life anew in a new country and to seize this opportunity to make an international career. He decided to solve the problem by just delaying it. He asked for more time to make a decision and after a few weeks got a telegram from the paper that they couldn't proceed on the offer. “My problem was thus amicably settled through no effort of mine. I plunged into my routine life with renewed vigour. My diligently-planned new single-column feature 'You Said It' started to appear. I worked with great gusto, freed from real characters like ministers and bureaucrats. I invented my own symbols for these. I liberated myself from the shackles of habitual realism, and indulged in a sort of political fantasy.” It was a fantasy that all of India soon began to participate in.
Laxman lived a disciplined life. He would turn up to the office every day before nine in the morning, well before anyone else from the editorial staff. Always dressed in black trousers and a white bush shirt with deep pockets, a pair of black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and another pair, reading glasses, hanging from his neck, he would disappear, often with a scowl on his face, into his cabin grumbling about how there was nothing in the news for a cartoon. Mohan Sivanand, the editor of Reader’s Digest in India, who in the late 1970s was a young trainee at the now defunct Science Today, another Times Of India publication for which Laxman would contribute, remembers Laxman saying, “No damned news. Nothing for a cartoon!” But by late evening, before his 4.30 pm deadline, he would be giving final touches to one or two drawings, depending upon how many he had to submit that day. He would tell Sivanand, “I start every morning certain I won’t get an idea, but I’ve managed at least one every day for the last 40 years.”
Apart from his choice of clothes, one of Laxman’s quirks was that he always drove a black Ambassador, right throughout his career. When asked about why he didn’t purchase another car, he would tell Sivanand, “When driving I don’t like people looking down upon me through my car window.” He preferred the Ambassador to a low-slung modern car, because through it he could look down upon figures outside his car window and not the other way round.
According to the cartoonist Sudhir Tailang, who knew Laxman well, one of the great qualities of Laxman was how his humour was always refined, and never below the belt. “He caricatured and made fun of everyone and everything. He was convinced with the importance of satire and freedom of speech. But he was also responsible about these freedoms,” he says. The former The Times Of India cartoonist, Neelabh Banerjee, says, “In his freedom of speech, he never abused anyone or provoked to get attention. He was not merely an artist. He had a deep editorial sense.”
It is hence perhaps not strange that Laxman never really got into trouble for any of his work. He caricatured everyone, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, but save for that period during the Emergency, when like other journalists and cartoonists he found his work getting censored, his work was always admired and never objected to. During the Emergency, when his cartoons were getting censored, he would apparently introduce himself to people as someone who used to draw cartoons. He even met Indira Gandhi to complain about how his work was getting affected and she told him not to worry and to go on drawing. Despite this, one cartoon, depicting the Common Man being pushed by DK Barooah (then Congress president) in a perambulator, so ticked off the then information and broadcasting minister, VC Shukla, that he was issued a warning. Laxman then took a break and moved to Mauritius. In an interview to Reader’s Digest in 2005, he said, “I had a wonderful time in Mauritius. Then I saw a newspaper in a hotel which said ‘Mrs Gandhi is to have elections soon.’ So I came back. And you know, she lost and I won!”
Laxman’s popularity as a cartoonist perhaps lay in the simplicity of his work. The cartoonist Manjul who works with the newspaper DNA says, “A lot of cartoons, especially nowadays, are like a puzzle. They are meant to confuse you and to be open to different interpretations. But in a Laxman cartoon, there is never any confusion. You know exactly what he wants to say.”
But Laxman’s works are not without its detractors. Some point out how despite the changing years, his style remained old-fashioned and bereft of experimentation. His cars were always Ambassadors, and his planes were old models. The captions of his cartoons were unusually long and clunky, and his individuals too pleasant and gentle. Some years ago, the journalist Aakar Patel argued in a column how Laxman was essentially the middle-class’ mascot and how in his cartoons, the problems of the country always lay outside. “In this view,” he wrote, “it is the politician who is vile and the system that is faulty. The corruption, the anarchy, all of that is inflicted on the middle class. They (“the common man”) are victims. Laxman has sketched this cardboard caricature of India for six decades, with no penetration of reality.”
His impact, however, has been deepest with modern cartoonists. “Irrespective of your style or whom you choose as gurus,” Manjul says, “you cannot be a cartoonist in India and not be influenced by Laxman’s work. When you walk around on the street or read the newspaper, you can’t but reflect on a Laxman cartoon to best explain the situation.” Banerjee remembers how as a child in Lucknow, he had offered, according to him, a silly cartoon done on the square boxes of a mathematics book, to Laxman who was visiting his home. “He signed my work,” he says, “and, quite subconsciously, I realised that I had to become a cartoonist.”
In 2003, Laxman suffered a stroke. He continued to draw, but the earlier control over his craft was lost. Moreover since he had little control over the left side of his body, he couldn’t use his left hand to hold down the sheet while drawing. After sometime ‘You Said It’ stopped appearing on The Times Of India. In 2010, another stroke robbed him of his power of speech.
When Mario Miranda passed away in 2011, in her obituary of the legendary cartoonist, The Times Of India columnist Bachi Karkaria recounted her experiences of first joining The Times Of India Group when she joined the Illustrated Weekly several years ago. She wrote endearingly about Miranda, calling him her friend and someone whose cubicle could be been barged into a dozen times a day. Even her editor, the legendary journalist, Khushwant Singh, could be troubled anytime, with him even entertaining suggestions by trainees for changes in his copy. But the RK Laxman, was a man of another quality altogether. “No one,” she wrote, “would dare enter the domain of the haughty genius Laxman.”
Nobody could enter Laxman’s cabin without being summoned. Laxman was not the humorous individual many of his admirers imagine him to be. He was, as one cartoonist said, not at all like the Common Man Laxman had claimed he was. He did not mingle with everyone. He was moody, short-tempered, dismissive of other people’s work, and held a grim view of the world. He was also resentful of the success of other cartoonists, especially those that worked within the organisation.
One cartoonist recounts how Laxman sneered at his cartoons in front of a mutual acquaintance and called them Anglo-Indian cartoon humour. It is said that he was most bitter towards the success of his contemporary Miranda, whose creations Miss Nimbupani and Miss Fonseca became very popular. According to one cartoonist, Laxman would speak about Miranda with rancour and pass cheap remarks about his work and call his drawings of female characters obscene.
During his tenure at Science Today, Sivanand and Laxman got to know each other well. Whenever Sivanand would visit Laxman’s cabin to collect the senior cartoonist’s contribution for the magazine, Laxman would be friendly and chat with him in his cabin. Sivanand, who paints and draws cartoons apart from working as an editor, was then as a youngster who also occasionally turned in the odd cartoon for publications within The Times Of India Group. During this period, he began to draw cartoons for Evening News, a now defunct publication, for a few weeks. The cartoons always appeared on the last page of the newspaper, until one of them, on the then Maharashtra Chief Minister AR Antulay and his involvement in a cement scam, got published on the front page. But once he hit the front page, no cartoon of his was ever carried. “When I asked the editor, he told me, Laxman doesn't like him publishing them,” he says. “I understand there would be a mean streak and jealousy in every genius. But he was too established to be perturbed with something like that.” Sivanand was a journalist who occasionally dabbling with cartoons, so the setback didn’t affect him much. “But I wonder what this would have been like for a young cartoonist,” he says.
Laxman wasn’t known to be particularly humble either. According to Tailang, when the famous American cartoonist Ranan Lurie met Laxman and asked him, who, according to him was the best Indian cartoonist, Laxman told him, “I am.” “When Lurie asked him who was the second and third best, Laxman continued to repeat, ‘I am.’” According to another anecdote, told by a senior cartoonist, when Laxman was asked what he thought of the work of Ravi Shankar, the well-known cartoonist and journalist, Laxman told him, “He is a good musician.”
Given the reputation he held in the newsroom, Laxman was answerable to no editor. “That’s one of the most remarkable things about him,” Tailang says. “He enjoyed absolute freedom. The Times Of India had some of the biggest names in the business as editors, yet no one could direct him to do something or suggest changes in his work.” Editors, it is said, were afraid of his temper. His captions became long, and sometimes they were grammatically unsound, but no one could suggest a change. In 2011, during a programme on CNN IBN on Laxman, Karkaria revealed how she had once edited the caption in one of his cartoons. “I really never forgot that lesson,” she said. “He told me, ‘I don’t write like you people in this convoluted fashion. Me and my brother write in a straight-forward way. Don’t you ever dare touch my copy again.’ I said, ‘No sir’.”
'HE SAID IT' by Dipankar Gupta