Monday, February 2, 2009

A Tribute to Laxman.

As I’m preparing to write this piece, I am feeling nervous. I know it is a feeble attempt to pay tribute to the greatest cartoonist of our country. This very man’s cartoons inspired me to become a cartoonist. And today I want to go through the life and times of Laxman with you. It was as a school boy that I first chanced to look upon an old edition of The Times of India at my house in Assam which my father had got from one of his trips to Delhi. There was a pocket cartoon in the front page with the heading of “You Said It” by R.K. Laxman. Looking at the cartoon brought a mischievous smile on my face. It was definitely a comment on a serious topic but the humour in it had brought a whole new meaning into it. I immediately knew that I had to find out more about this man and his works. And in the process, I myself became a cartoonist, forever taking inspiration from Laxman’s style and ideas.

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman, better known as R.K. Laxman, is perhaps India’s most celebrated cartoonist. He is the creator of the Common Man which has achieved a cult status among cartoon strips in India. R. K. Laxman was born in 1924 in Mysore in a Tamil family, in the state of Karnataka. His father was a headmaster and Laxman is the youngest of six boys. One of his elder brothers, R.K. Narayan, went on to become one of India's best known English language novelists.

Laxman was engrossed by the illustrations in magazines such as Strand Magazine, Punch, Bystander, Wide World and Tit-Bits, even before he could read. Soon he was drawing on his own, on the floors, walls and doors of his house and doodling caricatures of his teachers at school; praised by a teacher for his drawing of a peepal leaf, he began to think of himself as an artist in the making. Another early influence on Laxman were the cartoons of the world-renowned British cartoonist, Sir David Low (whose signature he misread as "cow" for a long time) that appeared now and then in The Hindu. Laxman notes in his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time: "I drew objects that caught my eye outside the window of my room - the dry twigs, leaves and lizard-like creatures crawling about, the servant chopping firewood and, of course, and number of crows in various postures on the rooftops of the buildings opposite."
Making sketches of the common crow has been a great favourite of Laxman. Laxman has to his credit hundreds of sketches that he has made of crows. He recounts an incident when he gifted one of his crow sketches to a friend. A child threw a stone at it and broke the glass frame. Laxman considers it as the best tribute ever paid to his art where one of his sketches had seemed so life-like to somebody.

Laxman was the captain of his local "Rough and Tough and Jolly" cricket team and his antics inspired the stories "Dodu the money maker" and "The Regal Cricket Club" written by his brother, Narayan. Laxman's idyllic childhood was shaken for a while when his father suffered a paralytic stroke and died around a year later, but the elders at home bore most of the increased responsibility, while Laxman continued with his schooling.

After high school, Laxman applied to the JJ School of Arts, Bombay, hoping to concentrate on his lifelong interests of drawing and painting, but the dean of the school wrote to him that his drawings lacked, "the kind of talent to qualify for enrollment in our institution as a student", and refused admission. He finally graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Mysore. In the meantime he continued his freelance artistic activities and contributed cartoons to Swarajya and an animated film based on the mythological character, Narada.

Laxman's earliest work was for newspapers & magazines such as Swarajya and Blitz. Whilst still at the Maharaja's College, Mysore, he began to illustrate his elder brother R K Narayan's stories in The Hindu, and he drew political cartoons for the local newspapers and for the Swatantra. Laxman also drew cartoons, for the Kannada humour magazine, Koravanji. He held a summer job at the Gemini Studios, Madras. His first full-time job was as a political cartoonist for the Free Press Journal. Laxman later joined The Times of India, beginning a career that has spanned for over fifty years. Among his other works, Laxman is known for his distinctive illustrations in several books, most notably for the Malgudi stories written by his elder brother R.K. Narayan. He also created a popular mascot for the Asian Paints group called Gattu. Laxman has also penned a few novels. His cartoons have appeared in Hindi films such as Mr. and Mrs. 55.

It was as a cartoonist in The Times of India, that Laxman grew on to become India’s leading cartoonist. Laxman’s grasp on the nature of politics in India helped him to evolve as a great political cartoonist. Marrying humor with art, Laxman has created a benchmark in political cartooning in the country. Whether it was caricaturing the prominent politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, or satirizing the biggest political turmoils of free India through his cartoons. Laxman has been simply a genius. It is said that Nehru had once requested him not to portray him in such sharp satire as he feared it might make a joke out of him among the public. Such was the power of Laxman’s political cartoons! Even during critical periods such as the emergency, Laxman’s cartoons never lost their souls. And they continued to bring out the common man’s feelings in their own humorous ways. Besides the B.D. Goenka Award awarded by the Indian Express, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, he has awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhusan by the Union Government.
Caricaturing some of the biggest leaders of India has been Laxman’s forte. Whether it was Mahatma Gandhi’s large earlobes, or be it Indira Gandhi’s sharp nose, his cartoons were such that it was not difficult to recognise these personalities without a smirk from the onlooker. Laxman particularly recalls the difficulty he faced in caricaturing Rajiv Gandhi. He said, “Here was a man who was very handsome and very dignified in his manners. I was scared that not being able to portray him in humour might put an end to my career. But with time and his political activities, he too ended up as one of my most memorable cartoon subjects.”
The Emergency too put Laxman through an uneasy phase as it did to other creative minds at that time. Many times his cartoons were censored due to the seriousness in their humour. There were many uneasy moments between Laxman and the Censor during the Emergency. One incident which Laxman holds memorable is when during the Emergency; one of his cartoons on the then current economic situation escaped the notice of the Censor and got published. As soon as it caught the notice of the Censor, he was thoroughly reprimanded and threatened with punishment if such a thing happened again. A few days later he received a letter from the Ministry of Commerce which stated “that being in a position to appreciate the humour in the cartoon, we would like you to send in a copy of the cartoon which we want to frame and hang up in our office.” So much for the stupidity of the Censor!

The best thing about Laxman’s cartoons is that they can never fail to bring a smile on the faces of their onlookers. His style is such that he brings the feel of the place and the people with the minimum of strokes. You can literally feel the ambience of the setting depicted in his cartoons. His style also shows that cartooning is all about fearlessness where you have to poke fun at anyone without the fear of repercussion. Laxman had to face lots of problems due to this. But he never gave in at any cost. It is this very thing which inspires me to boldly poke fun at anyone through my cartoons. Never had humour felt like such a powerful weapon!

R.K. Laxman is married to author Kamala Laxman and lives in both Mumbai and Pune. In September 2003, Laxman was affected by a stroke, which left him paralysed on his left side. He has partly recovered from its effects. His cartoons have again begun to appear in The Times of India which shows that he is still raring to wow people with his cartoons.

I would like to conclude with a prayer for the long life and full recovery of Laxman and that he continues to charm people with his cartoons like always. Three cheers for R.K. Laxman!!!

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