As was my habit, I put my legs up on the table and scoured each page, mulled over possible ideas, cogitating, pondering, contemplating, rejecting and choosing. After deciding on my subject I weighed its potential relevance in the paper the next day visualising its graphic possibilities. I mentally formulated the entire cartoon down to the carved legs of the furniture, if it happened to be that kind of setting, the pictures or graphs on the wall, the view outside the windows, the pattern on the curtains, the designs on the carpet and last but not least, the clothes, stance and physical attributes of the politicians I was satirising. Then came the punch line.
RK Laxman, The Tunnel of Time
RK Laxman’s work represented the bewilderment of the poor, contrasting it with the vanity and corruption of the ruling classes. What brought forth a smile also signified the grim, unchanging world that we live in. The trademark Common Man, a small figure with a bulbous nose, caterpillar eyebrows and a balding pate, wearing his trademark checked shirt, dhoti and long coat, has become an immortal symbol of contemporary life and times. As Laxman himself said: “You cannot do away with the Common Man, try as you may to do so.”
In many ways, the Common Man is a better chronicle than any other so-called first draft of history. An insatiable curiosity that was alive to everything absurd and contemporary was what represented him most vividly.
Laxman unerringly captured the mood of an entire nation in a single newspaper column. As his long-time friend and admirer Dileep Padgaonkar has said, he had the infinite capacity to whittle down complex issues to their bare essentials with a few astonishingly bold strokes of the brush and a pithy caption.
“The squabbles, shenanigans and doublespeak of the nation’s movers and shakers enraged but also confused the citizenry. But RK Laxman peered right through this fog to spot what was at stake. More than most analysts, he grasped what lay behind the words and deeds of those who claimed to serve the public weal,” is how Padgaonkar described the Laxman effect.
From the time he was three, Laxman had this abiding fascination for crows. As he was quoted by a journal two decades ago, “As far back as I can remember from childhood, the crow attracted me more than any other bird because it was so alive on the landscape. In our garden it stood out against the green of the trees or the blue of the sky, against the red earth or the cream compound wall. Other birds are afraid and get camouflaged. But this canny scavenger could look after itself very well indeed. As a three-year-old, I observed it carefully, my hands always itching to sketch its antics. My mother noticed that I was becoming rather good at drawing crows and encouraged me because the crow is the avian mode of transport for Saturn, Lord Saniswara of the Hindu pantheon. By drawing his mount, was I averting his evil eye? Of course, I ignored this religious interpretation. For me, looking at the crow affords pure aesthetic pleasure.”
The travails of the everyday citizen were those he returned to quite often. Yet, Laxman’s Common Man never spoke out in his cartoons. He was to say in 2002 of his Common Man: “He remains the same and has not spoken a word. Quietly watching the world, he represents the silent majority of India, who have no voice.”
A cartoonist’s occupation is such that time is of its very essence. The Common Man was the mirror image of the life and times of those who lived with him; the conscience that pricks the evildoer, the social offender, the practitioner of all those trades that we might have liked to practise but for fear of the police, if not of god. Apart from the Magsaysay award, which he won in 1984, Laxman was the winner of many accolades, including the Padma Bhushan (1973) and Padma Vibhushan (2005).
As Jug Suraiya wrote about him more than a decade ago, Laxman was a resounding antidote to the banality of things around him. Distinctly uncomfortable with officialdom all his life, Laxman was the “everpresent, sharp-eyed, irreverent, streetsmart survivor with a Chaplinesque strut”. According to Suraiya, “If the crow is his emblem, Laxman’s daemon is the Common Man, the ultimate super-antihero who, with his signature checked jacket, dhoti, Gandhi glasses and twin tufts of gravity-defying hair springing up in perpetual astonishment at the zaniness of things, is a more recognisable mascot of The Times of India, whose pages he has graced for over half a century, than are the twin opposing elephants that feature at the top of the paper’s edit page and constitute its official masthead. And, in a word, that is the open secret of the Common Man’s unrivalled success.”
The venal, sloganeering politicos, obfuscating babudom or terminally dysfunctional municipalities revolted him to an extent that exposing it attracted him all his life.
In his silence, The Common Man bore mute witness to the tragicomic parade of a nation’s history. One of Suraiya’s favourites had two Congresswalas emerging from a cinema showing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, one saying to the other: “Very moving. I understand it is a true life story.”
As the newspaper he was associated with for more than five decades says, the legacy that Laxman leaves behind him is the way he deployed hasya rasa to telling effect.
He did not, of course, suffer fools gladly. Once asked who was the second best cartoonist in the country, he is said to have replied: “I am.”