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PROFILE

Laxman's world

His cartoons, ranging from political commentary through the social satire of manners to humour at the expense of bumbling babus, continue to entertain us. RANJIT HOSKOTE lauds R.K. Laxman who was honoured this year with a Padma Vibhushan.

PTI

THE Republic's annual honours list is often the subject of heated debate, with champions and detractors joining battle over the relative merits of the recipients of national awards. But no one would quarrel with the State, this year, for having honoured Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman with a Padma Vibhushan. For Laxman, the creator of the silent but observant Common Man who has kept at least three generations of readers of The Times of India company at breakfast, is no friend of power and wealth, no respecter of the narcissism that can afflict the directors of the nation's destinies.

At work for 58 years

Apart for a brief interval during the Emergency (1975-1977), when censorship rendered his role of gadfly impossible to sustain, Laxman has been continuously at work for the last 58 years, recording the foibles of India's ruling elites with an unsparing, fiercely independent eye, deflating the egos of politicians and self-styled gurus, exposing the hypocrisies of pompous mandarins and rapacious business barons. Warming to his task of recording the fluctuations of public life in the closing days of imperialism, Laxman found a plenitude of targets during the epoch of the protected market, the permit-license-quota raj and quasi-socialist political experimentation. He retained his capacity for razor-sharp critique through the shadowed years of right-wing rule, and has continued to offer illumination as well as amusement in the era of globalisation.

The Common Man, the legendary protagonist of Laxman's pocket cartoon, "You Said It", has represented the Indian citizenry since the late 1940s. As voiceless witness, accompanied by his wife or by a changing cast of characters, he has battled inflation and corruption, negotiated a path through rising prices and collapsing infrastructure, looked poverty and official greed in the face, borne human-made disaster and natural catastrophe.

* * *

If no one today remembers who the Times of India's cartoonist was before Laxman came in, it is for the excellent reason that there was none. Laxman, who joined the newspaper in 1947, virtually created his own job definition, and within 10 years, had become indispensable. That he settled down in Bombay at all is a matter of chance. Having launched off as a freelance cartoonist in Mysore, he had hoped to work in Delhi, where the political action manifestly was (and is); he first came to Bombay only to look at the sights. But his tourist adventure acquired a more serious edge when a friend, who worked for B.G. Horniman's Bombay Chronicle, offered to take him to the Stock Exchange.

After amusing himself watching the jobbers gesticulate and shout in the ring, he walked down Meadows Street, where he saw a large board spread across several windows: it read "THE FREE PRESS JOURNAL" and, as he says, "surely created darkness for those within". He went in to meet the editor, was taken on, and joined those in darkness behind the board, doing a variety of daily cartoons, caricatures and Sunday specials. India had achieved Independence, but at the cost of Partition; and the caricaturist had a field day with Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountbatten, Nehru and the other actors in those momentous dramas.

C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

As voiceless witness, the Common Man (above), the legendary protagonistof R.K. Laxman's pocket cartoon, "You Said It", has represented the citizenry.

Within a month, however, he left the Free Press Journal, in response to a hint that he should cease to lampoon certain leaders. He walked up Hornby Road (today's Dadabhoy Naoroji Road), and soon enough, reached the impressive porch of Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd., which announced the location, within, of The Times of India, The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Evening News of India. "No one stopped me, so I wandered in, came up to the third floor, and asked to see the editor," recalls Laxman. He was asked to meet Walter Langhammer, the Central European Jewish expatriate who was then art director of the Times; Langhammer already knew his work, and hired him immediately. From that day, Laxman's cartoons have poured from the building — ranging from political commentary through the social satire of manners to humour at the expense of inefficient municipal officials and bumbling babus — except for that brief interlude during the Emergency.

The soul of regularity

Until ill health conspired to keep Laxman at home in recent years, he was the soul of regularity, coming in to work at 8.30 in the morning, an hour at which many of his colleagues had only just surfaced from their slumbers; and by 5 p.m., when they had found their stride and were banging away at their terminals, beginning their long journey into night, Laxman was ready to go home. He worked for nearly six decades at the large table, with its angled drawing board and T-square, that had been made for him when he joined the staff. His basic equipment consisted, and still does, of his pencils, brushes, black waterproof drawing ink and two glass jars that might have held pickles or marmalade, and which now hold the water for his brushes. Nearly a decade ago, when the establishment provided him with a new computer, he would eye this intruder askance, regarding its sound-blasters and mouse pad with baleful glare.

While he has a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies of others, he takes great care to safeguard his own: conservative in his tastes, he has never shared in the general obsession with rapid change. The fluctuations of fashion do not register on his oscilloscope; he saw no reason, for instance, to vary the costume of white bush-shirt and black trousers that he wore to work for 50 years, although he would dress quite nattily for the occasional cocktail party or art-world opening that he attended.

The world map on his wall was of 1970s vintage: time stood still at its boundary markers. The name of Gorbachev had never been heard on its steppes, and the Soviet Union still stretched majestically from the Baltic to the Pacific. It has been said, by Laxman's critics, that the Common Man and his wife have never changed since the 1950s; nor have their companions, the Gandhi-capped politicians and their Ambassadors, the secretariat peons in their antiquated turbans, and the bureaucrats in their bund-galas. But the period costume lends a certain charm to the proceedings he describes, setting off the piquancy of his comment and his X-ray understanding of political realities. If anything, the period costume underscores Laxman's belief that nothing has really changed, except possibly for the worse.

Observation and castigation

Ill health may keep Laxman from the office, but his cartoons keep up a flow of witty observation and merciless castigation aimed impartially at national and international figures: if the Indian ministers and bureaucrats of the moment are mauled at his hands, so too are President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and General Musharraf, all duly pointed up in caricature. Has Laxman ever essayed self-portraiture? Perhaps the nearest approach to the confessional that he has attempted lies in the stacks of paper that have served him as an archive; from these, while talking to the present writer some years ago, he pulled out a 1949 copy of "Junior", a comic book that the Times group brought out briefly.

Between the syndicated strips, including Flash Gordon in decidedly film noir mode, there appears Laxman's "Gutta Percha", the serialised story of a boy with a cowlick of dark hair falling across his forehead; a prodigy who plays with a rather articulate snake. This, Laxman implied, was his preferred self-image; as he looked out of his large window at the Gothic gargoyles of Victoria Terminus, across the street, that day, I thought I could still recognise the youthful snake-charmer who would dare the serpents of public life to do their worst, twist them into the most improbable postures, draw their fangs: not killing them outright as the epic hero might, but far more damagingly in our sceptical age, reducing their menace to irresistible comedy.

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