RK Laxman, the cartoonist who gave India’s ‘common man’ a voice, recounts some unusual moments of a fascinating life
At the Times of India, RK Laxman was an enigmatic presence. He couldn’t be disturbed while at work and he chose who he would speak to. He would occasionally walk down the corridor, to sift through the rows of newspapers with his sharp eye for detail. He once beckoned Sucheta to see a picture on the front page of the Times of India. The caption read – report on page 3. Flipping to page 3, he pointed out that there was no report. Now, that is not unusual. But Laxman said, “Wait a minute, don’t give up so easily.” He opened the next day’s paper with a flourish and sure enough, the report was on page 3. “If you miss it once, you can always get it the next day,” he said with a wicked smile. Such eye for detail made him an excellent raconteur and mimic. He would regale colleagues with his imitations of politicians that he met around the world. Laxman never suffered fools gladly and does not suffer from any false modesty. When we asked who according to him is the best cartoonist, he answered, “I am.” Then added, “Every cartoonist thinks he is the best.” Laxman’s fondness for crows is only slightly less known than his Common Man. His fascination for black extends to his trademark attire of black trousers and white bushshirt and black ambassador car. Today, a stroke has affected him badly. But this reclusive genius recounted some unusual moments of a fascinating life for us
ML: You were born in Mysore?
RKL: Yes, I was born in Mysore. Ours was a big family and I was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters and they were all very talented. My father was the head master of a high school. In those days, that made him a very powerful and influential man; he was very stern about discipline and I was quite scared of him. I really loved my mother. She was always smiling and very cheerful; she was a great storyteller and would also read out mythological stories to us. My mother used to play tennis and she was a chess champion; nobody ever defeated her those days. She also played bridge and badminton. She was also a wonderful cook and, despite a number of servants, would love to experiment with a variety of recipes. But for all that, she didn’t know English. Even as a mother-in-law, she did not fit the traditional mould; she was just as friendly with her daughters-in-law and used to play cards with them.
ML: Were you also interested in sports as a child?
RKL: I used to play chess and tennis. Of course, every child plays cricket. I started what we called ‘The Rough & Tough & Jolly Team’; but that was when I was eleven (this team was immortalised by Laxman’s famous brother RK Narayan in the story called The Regal Cricket Team). I don’t like cricket. I stopped playing it as a boy; it is a boring and over-rated game. I prefer tennis.
ML: When did you know that you wanted to be a cartoonist?
RKL: No, I wanted to be an artist. I started drawing at a very young age and continued doing it through school and college. I failed in my SSC. Then I wanted to join the JJ School of Arts, but they wrote saying, “you show no talent, we can’t accept you.”
ML: Had they seen your drawings?
RKL: Yes, I had sent a couple of them with my application.
ML: What did you do after that rejection?
RKL: I went to the Maharaja College of Mysore and studied philosophy, economics and politics. I was very fond of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. I also began to cultivate my own talent. I used to go to the marketplace, sit there and draw all the people I used to see… bending down, carrying vegetables, doing everyday things… that helped me more than any school of arts. I was very fond of drawing even as a very young child of three. I used to draw on the floor, on the walls and around the house – fortunately parents were a lot more tolerant those days. I used to draw anything that caught my eye – from objects to people. Yesterday, somebody phoned and asked me ‘how does one become a cartoonist?’ I said, it is impossible to say how to become a cartoonist; you have to be born with the gift, just as you cannot tell someone how to sing. It has to come naturally. Similarly, the art of cartooning and drawing is inborn. It can be improved if you have the talent – for that you need a sense of humour, the talent to draw, and a sound education. If you don’t have all three, you can’t become a cartoonist.
ML: When did you start drawing for your brother’s stories?
RKL: When my brother saw my drawings, he said why don’t you illustrate my stories? So I used to illustrate all his short stories for The Hindu from a very young age. Cartooning came from looking at things. There was My Magazine and another humour magazine in Kannada called Koravanji; they asked me to do some caricatures. That is how I started earning some money at a very young age. After a while, others also wanted my cartoons. This was while I was at Mysore.
When we were young, my father used to get a number of magazines such as Strand, Punch, Tit-bits, Bystander and others. I used to go through them and enjoyed the cartoons. I used to be very fond of Sir David Low, whose cartoons were published by The Hindu and The Evening Standard in India. He was a wonderful cartoonist and a very fine draftsman. For a long time, I used to think his surname was Cow, because of the way he signed his name. Later on in life, when I was sitting in my office in the Times of India, he just walked in. I was completely shocked. I told him… I took it upon myself to show him around Mumbai.
He said, ‘why don’t you come to London’? I told my office that I wanted to go to London and they allowed me to go. I went there and continued to draw under the caption “Our Cartoonist Abroad” which was published in The Times of India. I took a flat which was very close to Piccadilly as well as the Times of India’s office in London. I used to walk down to the office every morning, work there, send my cartoon and return home. I travelled all over London, attended conferences of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Clement Atlee and Churchill were there and I met them. I also meet JB Priestley, TS Eliot and Bertrand Russell. I don’t think anybody else had done it then.
I used to meet Sir David Low at his house. This must have been in 1947 or so, but I can’t remember these things. I was in London for six months; on the way back, I travelled to Italy, France, Germany and Spain. After coming here, a leading UK newspaper offered me a job in London. I thought about it and refused. Nothing like India for cartooning and drawing! The politics here give you plenty of ideas and there is a variety of characters. Over there, you have these dull politicians going up and down in their grey suits.
After that, as luck would have it, I was invited to America as a guest. I travelled around the country and met a lot of people – but they were boring people. Then I was invited to Russia – I have no idea why they called me. Then, of all places, I was invited to China. I was among the first persons invited to China. I enjoyed my visit to China very much. It has a lot of variety and the people are really very nice. I walked on the Great Wall of China for five kilometres. I really loved that place. I have travelled around the world, but I love India, our art, our culture… if anything, I have a problem with Indians. But I love the country.
ML: Going back a little, did you come to Mumbai immediately after your graduation?
RKL: No. Immediately after my graduation, I went to Delhi for a job. I applied to The Hindustan Times. I was told: ‘you are too young and inexperienced – out!’ I must have been under 20. After Delhi, I was passing through Bombay. I got off the train, got myself a room and stayed there for a couple of days. I was walking down Dalal Street and saw the big board of The Free Press Journal. The friend who was with me said, “that is the editor going inside.” I immediately went up to him and asked him for a job. He gave it to me. I was made to sit next to Bal Thackarey (Balasaheb Thackarey). He had a lot of talent, but he later became a politician and a propagandist for his party. Trying to promote an ideology tends to ruin the talent that you have.
I was there for a short while after Independence. I didn’t know that Thackarey was an Indian name, I thought it came from something like William Makepeace Thackarey. Then Sadanand (Swaminath Sadanand, was the legendary proprietor-editor of The Free Press Journal which played a major role in India’s freedom movement) started interfering with my work and saying ‘you can’t draw this and you can’t draw that, because they are my friends’ and that kind of thing. I couldn’t stand that and decided to walk out. There was a bus strike that day, so I literally walked to the Times of India opposite the Victoria Terminus and went up to the art director and asked to see him. His name was Walter Langhammer; he was a German. I said “I am Laxman and I am looking for a job.” He said, “Oh you are from The Free Press Journal; you show great talent.” He asked me to wait for a while, went out and came back with an appointment order. Since then, I have been with the Times of India -- for over 60 years. In fact, it is 50 years since the Common Man was created.
ML: How did the Common Man come about? How did you think about it? Did it happen only after you came to the Times?
RKL: Yes, only after I came to the Times. You see, there is so much variety among Indians – there are people with beards, turbans, moustaches – south Indians are different from north Indians, etc, etc. There is no single attribute that is common to all Indians. So I created a mythical character in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which is perched a pair of glasses, and he has thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment. He stands for all Indians and goes through life without uttering a word, but watches with amusement the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions of the human situation.
ML: Your career has spanned every political leader from Pandit Nehru. What phase did you enjoy the most? Was it the Jawaharlal Nehru phase when there was a lot of idealism?
RKL: No, that was not interesting. A cartoonist enjoys not a great man but a ridiculous man. Or maybe someone like Morarji Desai and his various habits and idiosyncrasies. I used to go and meet Pandit Nehru and he really liked me. I was once given five minutes to meet him and he spent more than an hour with me. With Indira Gandhi, of course, I had problems during the Emergency.
ML: What happened?
RKL: I had drawn a cartoon of DK Barooah (who infamously said ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’) in a perambulator and she said, ‘this is very insulting.’ I said: ‘cartooning is the art of insult and ridicule.’ But she said, ‘no, you shouldn’t do it.’
ML: Did she call you to object to your cartoons?
RKL: No, I went to see her, because the Emergency affected my work. I went to tell her that I must have the freedom to draw what I want. But she said, ‘No, no, the law applies to everyone’. So I went away to Mauritius for a while. Then, we got the news that India was going to have elections. Indira was in a shaky position, so I came back. She lost and I got back to my work. Throughout the Emergency, there were no cartoons. After Indira, Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister and I enjoyed my freedom again. I found him very difficult to caricature, because he was so handsome. I then made his face more round and tilted his nose. Of course, I got plenty of inspiration for my cartoons from his actions. I later met him when he launched my book Brush with Politics. He said, “You make me look very fat.” I said, “I will look into the matter.” (laughs). That’s because he used to react to every issue saying, “I will look into the matter.”
I met Margaret Thatcher when she came to India. She started telling me how to draw cartoons. She said, “one must have this, one must have that, etc.” So I said, “You should have been a cartoonist rather than a prime minister.”
ML: Well, you have another political friend who started as a cartoonist. Are you still in touch with Bal Thackarey?
RKL: I used to be, until recently. Even when I got my stroke (in 2003), he had come here to see me. He presented me with this (pointing to a blue back support). But now I don’t meet too many people. President Abdul Kalam came and saw me when I had a stroke. I have known him for some time; he is a very nice man, I like him very much -- he is very cultured. He had even invited all of us to the Rashtrapati Bhavan when he was the President and we enjoyed that visit a lot.
ML: Which political leader gave you the best ideas for your cartoons?
RKL: HD Devegowda. He had the habit of falling asleep all the time and that gave plenty of opportunity. He once invited me to see him and fell asleep at that meeting also. Morarji Desai gave me a lot of ideas. I am anti-prohibition and he didn’t like it. He sent word through someone that he doesn’t like me poking fun at him and his ideas. He was unhappy with me as well as my cartoons. He was the only exception. All others were very fond of me. Many of them used to ask why I hadn’t depicted them in a cartoon. It became a kind of status symbol.
ML: What do you think of the cartooning and the media today?
RKL: I don’t see much talent today; people don’t want to apply themselves and there is no originality. It goes for the entire media. The film magazines and television have ruined the culture of the country; there is no political news in the papers anymore. All you get to read is some suicide or some murder – or cricket and films. Earlier, politics provided much of the material; today, there is no political news at all. Newspapers themselves have lost their relevance and there is no punch in editorials either.
ML: Your Common Man is the most enduring of your creations; what about the crows?
RKL: Yes, the Common Man is my favourite. He is…. There is a 10-foot statue of the Common Man at Symbiosis College at Pune (there is another on the promenade at Worli as well). Deccan Airways uses the Common Man as their mascot; they bought the rights from me.
I am also very fond of crows and have painted hundreds of them – singly and in groups. I have been fascinated with the crow from my childhood. I like its colours and how it contrasts with everything. It is a very intelligent bird and has tremendous character; in fact, the common crow is a very uncommon bird. (Laxman’s crows are a lot less known to the public, but those who know him know about his passion for drawing crows and to a lesser extent cats. Laxman’s crows are unique, because of the intelligence, personality, expression and character that he projects in every image of his favourite bird.) Lord Ganesha is another source of inspiration. Every one of my drawings is my favourite.
ML: You also created Gattu and other characters.
RKL: Yes, Asian Paints came to me and asked me to create a character. I created ‘Gattu’. For several decades, they used to have huge posters with Gattu, but they don’t use it any more. I also drew several wood land creatures such as Thama, the baby elephant and the little bird Gumchikki who was his best friend. My wife Kamala wrote stories about their adventures in the jungle. (While Laxman is completely vague about dates and has never worn a watch, his vivacious wife Kamala is very organised and maintains a daily diary. She has written several children’s stories and travelogues. “She remembers everything,” says Laxman.)
ML: What do you think is your most memorable moment?
RKL: It is the time when JRD Tata called to me to say that I had won the Magsaysay Award. (When we asked why this was more significant, he said, “It is an international recognition and I have no idea why they decided to give it to me.” At that time, Laxman was one of the rare Indians to receive the Magsaysay.)
ML: What has been the toughest situation you have faced?
RKL: When I was arrested and taken to Nashik. I wasn’t actually arrested, but I was taken away for having drawn a cartoon where a boy is trying to set fire to a motorcycle, while others have set fire to buses and trains. So somebody shouts, “What kind of Ram Bhakt are you, if you can’t even set fire to a motorcycle?” Someone in Nashik went to court saying that I had insulted Hinduism. So I was dragged to court and had to go to Nashik.
ML: What happened to the case?
RKL: The hearing went on and on and on. The opposition lawyer kept saying how the cartoon was very insulting; the defence lawyer argued on my behalf in Marathi. Then the court adjourned and we went outside. People came up to me for autographs. A lady who was arguing against me also came over and took my autograph. I think everybody enjoys it when our mighty politicians are exposed in a comical and often ludicrous light. It is a vicarious thrill.
ML: Did you ever require police protection? Wasn’t there something about a letter bomb once?
RKL: There have been threats; I don’t remember these things; they are mere trivialities in life. Someone would call and say they know where I go and would kill me. No, I don’t believe in police protection; people only do that for publicity and hype. Yes, there was something about a letter bomb, but nothing really happened. The security took care of it; I was told not to touch my mail.
ML: What is your routine these days?
RKL: I start my day around 8.30am and I finish my cartoon by around 3pm at which time they come and take it.
ML: Who are the editors that you enjoyed working with?
RKL: Sham Lal and (NJ) Nanporia. Their analysis and understanding was much better. Girilal Jain too was very good.
The Common Man
The Common Man has featured in the Times of India for 50 years. Originally, Laxman used to try and depict Indians from different regions – a Bengali, a Tamilian or a Punjabi, with typical regional traits as background characters -- and capture the ordinary Indian. Over time, these characters faded away and gradually the Common Man was born with his checked jacket, bulbous nose, and a wisp of white hair with a perpetually bewildered expression and forever silent.
Interestingly, the Common Man and his wife have neither aged nor changed over the past half century even as lifestyles and sartorial tastes have changed dramatically. But neither Laxman nor his fans would want it any other way. The Indian Postal Service featured the Common Man in a commemorative stamp released in 1988 to mark 150 years of The Times of India. A 10-feet high bronze statue of the Common Man has been erected at the Symbiosis Institute, Pune. Another bronze leans on the railing and looks out at the sea at the Worli promenade in Mumbai. He has also turned into a mascot for Air Deccan, India’s low-cost airline, since 2005.
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