Creating the common man
Laxman loved the illustrated magazines that arrived at his home in Mysore, from London by sea mail!
A bronze statue of the "Common Man" in Pune
One of the most famous Indians of our time doesn't exist in real life- the Common Man. With his hair and glasses askew, in his crumpled dhoti and checked shirt, this always puzzled, ever silent being was created by Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman, a cartoonist who has been synonymous with the Times of India ever since your grandfather was a child.
Laxman once said of his Common Man, "He's been with me throughout my career. I didn't find him. He found me... I would say he symbolises the mute millions of India, or perhaps the whole world, a silent spectator of marching time." Half a century ago, he would draw a Bengali, a Tamilian, a Punjabi and so on to represent Indians. These figures dropped out of his cartoons gradually, until he was left with this lone character.
What drew Laxman to cartooning? The youngest of the six sons and two daughters of a school headmaster, he loved the illustrated magazines that arrived at their Mysore home from London by sea mail. Even before he mastered reading or writing, he could identify the names, styles and techniques of these artists including David Low of Punch and Illingworth in the now-defunct Strand.
In 1985, Laxman became the first Indian cartoonist to hold a solo exhibition in London. During the visit, he called on his childhood idols, Low and Illingworth. Imagine his pride when The Evening Standard once invited him to take Low's place on their staff in London, which did not work out.
"Mercifully, I was neither encouraged nor discouraged by my parents and elders," recalls Laxman. "They left me free to do what I liked. They enjoyed my drawing. They appreciated my qualities. My brother (R. K.) Narayan started writing short stories, which were published in The Hindu. When I was just 12 or 13, I was asked to illustrate them. The Hindu used to pay me two rupees eight annas per cartoon. In those days, that went a long way."
In his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, Laxman confesses to an unusual personal quirk he never keeps a diary, refers to a calendar, or wears a watch! So, it proves doubly difficult to find dates to match events in Laxman's life.
His father was not unduly upset by Laxman's low school test scores, noting his son's preference for hours on a marketplace bench, sketching the bustle around. Whenever the child bawled at dusk for their mother, who might be away at the club, playing chess with the Mysore Maharani, his older brother Seenu found a novel way to calm him by sketching endlessly.
At school, Laxman remembers a dhoti-clad teacher, who often left their class to secretly smoke a beedi. He once asked his students, seated on long benches, to draw a leaf on their slates while he was away. Laxman's leaf impressed him so much that he declared, "You will be an artist one day. Keep it up."
What are Laxman's school memories made of? He found it a nightmare to distribute 15 mangoes equally between three people, but could name historical villains, heroes and warriors with ease.
As the arithmetic teacher droned on one day, Laxman unselfconsciously sketched all over the margins of his exercise book. Suddenly, he felt a stinging slap. The teacher was glaring at Laxman's drawing of a tiger cub, which he imagined was his own caricature. Years later, the cartoonist realised that people's expressions could be likened to those of animals or birds.
Laxman insists that a cartoonist needs a sense of humour, the talent to draw, and a sound education. "It is of no use if one of these traits is present without the others, or any two without the third. He must have all of them. Cartooning is inborn," he says. "It cannot be taught."
Can you imagine the Common Man nodding his agreement? He should know the truth of that statement, better than most.
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