It’s ironic that on the day India celebrated its 66th Republic Day, India lost the voice of the ‘Common Man’ – legendary cartoonist RK Laxman.
It was RK Laxman who gave the common man a voice, who ‘said it’ the way it was, bringing out the travails of daily life, while reflecting the times gone by.
The silent voice of the common man, was after all, our voice. India’s most iconic cartoonist decided years ago to say it and how! He created his unique space on the front page of the Times of India, giving us our daily food for thought, in his quintessential acerbic style. Beyond the black and white of life, he covered various shades of grey with his unique humour.
There were many amongst us who would look at his cartoon “You Said It”, before we read the headlines. Such was the draw of his cartoon that it could make us smile, laugh, reflect, introspect and most of all set the tone for the day! That was RK Laxman and he became a part of our daily life as the years rolled on, without us realising it.
So do we mourn R.K. Laxman or do we celebrate his legacy? Depends on how you read it. That’s how his cartoons were. Many of his creations are timeless and will remain relevant, as long as the common man exists.
Youngest of six siblings, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman was born in Mysore. Few would remember today that his older brother, RK Narayan was an equally talented and a noted English author, who wrote the famous ‘Malgudi Days’.
Growing up under the shadow of a watchful brother, Laxman would spend his days sketching whatever was around him. While his elder brother started making a name for himself through his writings in English, Laxman began drawing cartoons for his novels.
He would love to spend his days wondering around the city and would observe little things that he would then capture through his drawings and thus started his life of drawing and sketching. The cartoonist was yet to flower.
His early inspiration for cartoons came from the works of Sir David Low, the renowned British cartoonist, whose works were published in The Hindu, from time to time. Cartoons as a medium of expression began to interest Laxman.
Though his father was a school headmaster, studies did not really interest Laxman and he mainly attended school for learning drawing. Despite his father’s early demise while Laxman was still in school, he was supported by his family to complete his schooling.
There is an interesting story, recounted by Laxman, on how he applied for admission to the Diploma in Fine Arts programme at the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai, after completing his schooling but was turned down on account of his not having ‘talent’ worthy of admission to the famous institution. Many years later, the same institution was to honour him as their Chief Guest!
Shortly thereafter, he joined Maharaja College in Mysore for his Bachelor of Arts and soon found himself sketching illustrations for his older brother, R.K. Narayan’s stories that appeared in The Hindu.
He soon graduated to drawing political cartoons for the local newspapers and his cartoons also began to appear in Swatantra and a Kannada humour magazine called Koravanji. In addition, he was briefly associated with Gemini Studios in Chennai in the making of an animation film.
He left Chennai and was to make Mumbai his home. His initial break came from R.K. Karanjia, the colourful Editor of Blitz, who asked him to draw for his magazine. Their mutual respect and friendship remained a long time.
In 1946, Laxman joined the Free Press Journal as a political cartoonist and found himself working alongside another young aspiring political cartoonist, Bal Thackeray.
By 1947, he made his move to Times of India for an association that would extend to over fifty years! While his early years at the Times of India were mostly spent doing illustrations for Illustrated Weekly of India, he soon found himself creating cartoons for the Group’s tabloid, Evening News of India.
It was now a matter of time before his political cartoons drew attention and soon made it to the front page of Times of India and that was the start of a cartoon space called ‘You Said It’. The space soon became a habit with the ever-growing readers of the Times of India.
The silent character in all his cartoons personified the common man and came to represent the voice of the people. The irrepressible ‘You Said It’ became the most loved cartoon space in India.
Being a keen political observer, Laxman found satirical inspiration from the likes of Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lalu Prasad and Jayalalithaa, and captured them in his own inimical style. He even drew caricatures of his inspirational guru, Sir David Low along with several other personalities like T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene and Bertrand Russell.
While R.K. Laxman is known for his political cartoons, few know that he was amused and obsessed with crows, a bird he observed and admired since childhood. The crow was to become an essential part of his creative expressions and there were many. His other passion was drawing the Ganesha, in all his forms, capturing a variety of moods and moments.
For his work, he was won accolades both in India and overseas. The government honoured him with the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and Padma Vibhushan in 2005. In 1984, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award. The University of Mysore awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 2004, while Symbiosis International University, Pune has a Chair named after him.
R.K. Laxman was married to writer Kamala Laxman. The couple did not have any children. In 2003, he suffered a stroke that left his left side paralyzed. India lost its most iconic cartoonist, a genius by any definition, on the 26 January 2015.
In a final tribute to RK Laxman, ISRO published his cartoon, on their Facebook and Twitter page, celebrating Mangalyaan, India’s mission to Mars.
In RK Laxman’s works, India has a lot to ponder about. Times may have changed but his stinging humour remains relevant in all its shades. R.I.P Laxman and thank you for showing us the mirror!