India’s most celebrated cartoonist, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Laxman, better known as R. K. Laxman, the creator of the iconic ‘Common Man’, was born on October 24, 1921 in Mysore (now in the state of Karnataka). As a child, Laxman would draw inspiration from looking at illustrations in magazines such as Punch and Bystander. He took to drawing on the floors and walls of his house, practicing by making caricatures of his school teachers.
The British cartoonist David Low’s work influenced him as well. Hilariously, for many years Laxman was under the impression that Low’s signature was ‘cow’.
Laxman hoped to study at Bombay’s J. J. School of Art but was denied admission on the grounds that he lacked “the kind of talent to qualify for enrolment in our institution as a student”. He eventually graduated from the University of Mysore and had simultaneously started contributing cartoons for publications.
He also started to draw illustrations for his brother R. K. Narayan’s stories, along with political cartoons and cartoons for a Kannada humour magazine. In this, Laxman was encouraged by M. Shivaram, a Kannada writer who specialised in satirical articles.
When Laxman worked for The Free Press Journal in Bombay, Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, was his colleague.
After these short stints in a few newspapers, Laxman joined the Times of India in the early fifties, and that would remain his workplace for the next five decades. It was at the Times of India that he fine-tuned the Common Man with his trademark checked coat and slightly baffled look as he watches life and politics in India. Besides the Common Man, the crow is also a common figure in his cartoons.
Over the decades, Indian politicians provided Laxman with endless ideas for satire. He has often said that politicians may have been bad for the country, but they've been very good for his profession!
Calling him the Times of India’s “mascot”, Outlook magazine in a profile said: “[He pours] gentle but relentless derision on all governments, all parties, all figures presumptuous enough to sit in positions of authority. Go through the published volumes of his cartoons and you realise that if Laxman has any affiliation, it’s with his anti-hero protagonist who looks a little bit like all of us.”
From faceless babus to omnipresent prime ministers, Laxman’s sharp eye and firm lines spared no one. As the Time magazine noted while reviewing a collection 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.”
A television show, R.K. Laxman Ki Duniya, was telecast on SAB TV. Based on Laxman’s cartoons, it was a comedy show that depicted the life of the common man, who is a silent spectator, witness to all the pains of being Indian.
Laxman suffered a stroke in 1993 and later retired from active work. But for millions of Indians who have grown up seeing his witty take on the country’s problems and politicians every morning, his cartoons are a permanent part of their memories. Describing the beloved Common Man, in an interview to Outlook, Laxman said: “My common man is omnipresent. His simple dhoti and 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.”
Also on this day:
1926 — Kidar Nath Sahani, Governor of Sikkim and Goa, was born
1991 — Ismat Chughtai, Urdu writer, passed away