Can R. K. Laxman’s cartoons claim to be the Gateway of India? Is the soul of a country best revealed in its cartoonists?
Art historian Judith Wechsler has explained that caricature in nineteenth-century Paris was symptomatic of the social self-consciousness of a modern city (1982). Here the “ephemeral data of city life” became the “prime material for arts and letters.” Laxman’s cartoon style, like architecture— a city’s landscape—has often perceived as distinctly bearing Bombay’s imprint.
For many of Laxman’s generation and beyond, his cartooning was unmistakably of a Mumbaikar (then Bombay, India’s financial capital). He was often contrasted with the cartoonists of the political capital, Delhi— Abu Abraham and Shankar: “… the difference between Delhi and Bombay is the difference between Abu Abraham and R.K. Laxman,” quipped the renowned satirist and columnist of the hugely popular column, “Round and About” Busy Bee (1986). His columns often made a dig at Laxman and his friend, the cartoonist-politician Bal Thackeray.
For author Khushwant Singh, Laxman (1921-2015), personified Bombay, just as its landmark, the Gateway of India. Built in 1924, Mumbai’s spectacular monument can no longer claim to be the gateway to India. Laxman’s cartoons can.
Laxman came to Mumbai from Mysore, Karnataka. His arrival in 1947 gave young Laxman a tremendous opportunity—the responsibility to caricature the Partition’s long, harrowing violence. In 1948, when he moved to the Mumbai-based mainstream newspaper, the Times of India, it was to mark a six-decade association that would lead observers to puzzle: Did Laxman make the Times of India or did the Times of India make Laxman?
Through his cartoons published in various editions of the Times of India, Laxman reached newspaper readers beyond Mumbai. His cartoons were also translated in Hindi.
But just as Laxman’s common man character seemed perfectly at ease in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and possibly Lahore and Dhaka, his creator too struck a chord with all experiencing the pangs of a modern city, awry developmental agendas and the red tape of bureaucracy.
“You Said It”— The one-column cartoon format became all the rage among readers in India.
Laxman’s peer, the Delhi-based cartoonist, Thomas Samuel, graduate of Lahore’s Mayo School of Industrial Arts (now National College of Arts) and creator of “Babuji,” titled his autobiography, Never a Dull Moment. But Laxman found Delhi dull.
Although Laxman’s “You Said It” pocket cartoon series and his common man character caught the public imagination, more credit, than has been accorded, is due to Samuel and “Babuji.”
“Babuji” inaugurated the concept of the common man—an office clerk, and his travails in India’s pocket cartoon-world. Bibiji was pictured too. Samuel spent time living in a clerk’s home to observe the humdrum he was to caricature.
The legendry editor D. R. Mankekar called the “ubiquitous Babuji” a landmark in Delhi and outside. However, it was Laxman’s pocket cartoon and common man that survived and are stamped in the nation’s memory. With Laxman one saw the beginning of the “epidemic of pocket cartoons”—a cartoonist explained to me. Pocket cartoons were everywhere.
Politicians courted Laxman. They also quoted him in their debates in the Indian parliament.
His cartoon moved Justice Vikramjit Sen to compel star cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to pay the required tax on his imported Ferrari, just like the common man would on luxury imports. No exceptions: “Laxman, in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek style, has depicted an old man blessing a child wielding a willow: ‘May you become a super-player and may the finance ministry exempt all your income from soft drinks, toilet soaps, toothpastes from tax’…The cartoon reminds me of the adage that the greatest truths are spoken in jest.”
It took a cartoon for some soul searching: what is equality in a democracy?
Laxman did not expect his cartoons to herald any change, leave alone a revolution. But once a cartoon leaves the cartoonist’s brush and in these digital times, monitor, it belongs to the public. With this death of the cartoonist, readers come alive. The uses of the cartoon are a public responsibility and a measure of public intelligence.
While politicians gushed at Laxman’s magical brush and readers admired his wit and drawing, my conversations with various cartoonists also gave me the chance to hear from his younger peers.
I visited the high-security Times of India building in Mumbai, to see Laxman’s original cartoons. Laxman’s enlarged cartoons on the walls were inescapable in the building’s interior. All gadgets had to be surrendered at the entrance.
There I also met Ram, a cartoonist-illustrator working his way in the profession. He showed me his large color caricature of Laxman, signed by the master himself. When Ram came to Mumbai, Laxman’s cartoons were the window through which he learned the city’s landscape:
“Sixteen years before, when I came to Mumbai, my first Mumbai Darshan [view] was through R K Laxman’s cartoons. Places I have never seen, people of Mumbai whom I have never bothered to observe so closely, city roads, potholes etcetera. The way he draw Sharad Pawar’s outward shirt, black pant, his hand and anatomy says he is Pawar without drawing his face at all. Just a circle says it is Jayalalitha.”
For Mita Roy, whose cartoons were popular with readers of the Pioneer based in Lucknow and Amar Ujala—Hindi language newspaper in New Delhi, and who stands out as the first woman political cartoonist in India, Laxman’s cartoons were evocative of the sights, smells and sounds of the village and city. The beauty of Laxman’s cartoons were not just his formidable lines but its poetics:
“His powerful yet simple lines evoke vibrant and bustling village life where village folk can be felt working, cows and goats grazing, women cooking, smoke coming out of stoves, crows pecking at rotten food, dogs rummaging for leftovers, and city life where poor people reside inside pipes and rear their families there. Minister on the dais or rushing to catch the flight. The strong visuals also evoke sounds, and one can hear the cacophony of the city life, like noisy loudspeakers, minister giving speech, the indistinct noises of people talking, vehicles honking etcetera.”
The absence of sound echoed grief.
Laxman saw himself as an artist. To suggest otherwise would be a mistake. Good drawing has mass appeal: “A drawing done well has mass appeal, even if people don’t understand it, the drawing has appeal” Laxman explained to me when I asked him about literacy and cartoons.
Like his hero David Low, Laxman enjoyed caricaturing the Mahatma.
“Mahatma Gandhi was the most fun drawing. His appearance was for cartoons. I met him in Delhi, I wasn’t a cartoonist then. I have met other politicians too, but I don’t like to meet them.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s appearance was not for cartoons. Laxman “introduced some baldness, shortened the figure and put some bulge at the waist.”
Cartoons and caricature bring a new definition to our understanding of realism.
No wonder Laxman’s Rajiv Gandhi seemed more alive than any portrait of the dashing leader.
Reticent with compliments and allergic to politicians, Laxman had appreciative words for only the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “He is more controlled, more dignified, more interesting than all of them.” “Now politicians have lost their personality. Now they all look the same, no cap, no jacket…cartooning has lost its great day with politicians,” rued Laxman, sharing his thoughts with me on the new political times in which all politicians, and perhaps even their politics, were indistinguishable.
Looking ahead, Laxman’s optimism would have been rejuvenated. He would have had much to caricature. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expensive designer suit, with his name finely woven all over, was mercilessly ridiculed in recent cartoons.
Modi did not escape Laxman’s brush when he was the Gujarat chief minister: Gujarat outsized India.
One can only imagine how Laxman would have grabbed this chance for sartorial satire. One can even speculate that he might have retracted his gloomy assessment of the fading personality of Indian politicians.
Laxman’s oeuvre contains several cartoons on nationalist foibles. He evoked the Gods to untangle our secular politics.
Cartoonists bring the Gods down to earth.
The awards wapasi protesting intolerance and India’s literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi’s back and forth— returning the returned awards because there was no provision to return awards, would have tickled Laxman.
The paradox of India’s meaty politics—the legalizing of Jalikattu and the demand to ban beef consumption while harvesting the revenue of being the world’s largest beef exporter— would have kept Laxman busy caricaturing nationalism working against the nation.
Recently uncrowned brand ambassador of the “Incredible India” campaign, Aamir Khan’s unfortunate national predicament, after he voiced his spouse’s thoughts about intolerance in India, would have caught Laxman’s unsympathetic eye. Despite professional invitations, Laxman never considered seeking a home away from India:
B. J. Verkey: Are you disappointed with India?
R. K. Laxman: I will never migrate to America in spite of all the paradoxes and contradictions [in India].
The young nation’s developing landscape and its sensorium was characteristic of Laxman’s cartoons. His attention to drawing and not just witty captions and his consistency, endeared the indefatigable cartoonist to the nation.
Certainly his prime status with the Times of India gave him a platform one can’t even dream of. This is the reason that in the midst of a galaxy of cartoonists with remarkable careers—Kutty, Samuel, Bireshwar, Puri, O.V. Vijayan, Kaak, and Abu, among others, the story of cartooning in India has tended to orbit around Laxman.
On a more somber note, how might have the man whose cartoons were censored only in the Emergency, viewed the policing of cartoons in India?
In a special Daedalus issue titled, “Another India,” Laxman cautioned that in delicate situations when religion and politics mix, it was “wise for the cartoonist to set aside his freedom a bit” (1989: 90). Laxman advocated a “general view” that could point the social evil “without apportioning the blame to one party.” The introduction to Laxman’s article noted “while always political, India’s cartoon character satirize without shrill calls to action.” Some will disagree.
In 2011 Satish Acharya’s pole-dancing Sharad Pawar cartoon was hushed. In 2012 Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons against corruption led to his internment and eventual acquittal. Neither was remotely connected to the cocktail of religion and politics, Laxman had warned of. These cartoons were about corrupt politicians. Such restrictions on cartoons are hardly the privilege of any one political party. When proscriptions, made in the name of threats to the nation and its moral fabric, recur at terrifying frequency, it is time to take stock of our democracy. It is time to ask: why do cartoons matter?
The picture is not gloomy. In the midst of strictures, social media can be a source for covert collaboration. Curate cartoons to create a seasoned crunchy salad of virtual satire. A dash of Satish Acharya, a pinch of Manjul, a scoop of Adhwaryu, a sprinkle of Kirtish, a bit of R. Prasad and a bit of Unny. Add some tasty nuts and make your own salad. Curtailing cartoons generates debate and even more cartoons. Distaste for a particular cartoon leads to a deeper understanding of political myths about free speech, equality and tolerance—in India and elsewhere. For example: the US.
The global median for free speech and expression without government censorship is at 56%. Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East are lower than the global median. The US is at 71%. One should not be surprised that Pulitzer winner Anne Telnaes’ cartoon on Republican presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz and his daughters, was “disappeared” (with an apology, of course). For some this may get curiouser and curiouser.
Africa tops the list for religious freedom. Europe is at the bottom. Cartoons today seem to endanger God, nation, and children. There is a secret underlying this sense of danger. Fear is affect. Those securing our futures don’t know, and don’t want anyone to wonder how these cartoons endanger. Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of danger. Transparency is not the answer either. Anthropologists have shown that the “rhetoric of transparency also creates its own opacities” (Mazzarella 2012).
Cartoons are more powerful than ever. Icons fall before them at the point of their brush. This does not mean that the cartoonist should become all-powerful. “I hate powerful cartoonists,” confessed Laxman in an interview.
Readers began to miss Laxman’s cartoons around the last decade of his lifetime, when his large eye-catching cartoons ceased appearing on TOI’s front page. There are times today when all familiar with his master strokes might yearn for him and his outspoken common woman even more.
Politicians, social elites, and stars, that missed the chance to be stroked by Laxman’s brush, missed a brush with history.
Laxman could not live without newspapers: “Newspapers will never die in India.” Indeed, newspapers are thriving in India. They now live without the cartoon on the front page or in any page. A part of India’s newspapers has died. The web world has come alive. Now cities cannot claim their cartoonists. Digital cartoons in color dot the virtual world. Laxman considered such cartoons “soulless.” New times. New cartoonists. New readers.
I was recently asked if there will be another Laxman. No.
There is no reason to despair. We can toast Laxman and his fine career. India’s politics is in good hands— India’s cartoonists are busy and unsparing.
“Cartoon talk”—the point at which the readers come alive, takes us beyond the cartoonist’s authorial intention. It also gives a peek into the emotional work cartoons do.
When browsing readers’ comments on Laxman’s cartoons, I paused at one that described his cartoons as the “Sindhoor Tilak” (vermillion mark on the forehead, common among Hindus) on the map of India. The third eye. Auspicious. Perceptive. Laxman’s cartoons also served as a “Kaala Teeka” (black spot to ward off the evil eye) on the face of a country he gave much to.
India loved him back.
Read more about R K Laxman’s work in Ritu’s first post: Laxman and Acche Din.
 Indiacar.net. August 14, 2003.
 “When Laxman talked to the common man.” Daily Excelsior. February 18, 2003.
 Bobby John Verkey, “On his latest book, The Best of Laxman: The Common Man in the New Millennium.” Outlook, August 21, 2000.
 Raja M. “Un Common Success” in Sunday Statesman. April 27, 1997. P.1
 R. K. Laxman, “He said it!” in Citi-India, 1993. P. 12.