R K Laxman: An Uncommon Man

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    He had a wicked pencil, gentle dry wit and, most of all, he gave us all a voice. For more than half a century, R K Laxman, unarguably the country’s most famous cartoonist, captured the hopes, dreams, disappointments, foibles and aspirations of the average Indian through his creation, the Common Man.

    As it mirrored the everyday life of common citizens, Laxman’s daily comic strip, You Said It, in The Times of India newspaper, is also a valuable chronicle of the socio-political evolution of modern India. Although he began cartooning with The Free Press Journal in 1947, the year India achieved independence, Laxman’s launch pad was The Times of India, who signed him on in 1951.

    From here on, clad in a dhoti, plaid jacket and with his trademark bulbous nose, the Common Man was a silent spectator to the vicissitudes of Indian democracy as it evolved, and how the political dispensation in Delhi impacted the lives of regular folk. What made it all so palatable was Laxman’s brand of irony. Often grim but never vicious or over-the-top, it was unfailingly spot-on.

    Laxman was born in Mysuru in 1921 and was always drawn to the visual medium. As a child, he was enchanted by the illustrations in foreign magazines even before he could read and write properly. While he covered the walls of his home in sketches, he was often found drawing caricatures of his teachers at school. His favourite perch was a bench in the local market, where he spent hours sketching the bustle around.

    While in college in Mysuru, Laxman illustrated the stories of his famous novelist-brother, R K Narayan, in The Hindu newspaper. He was also a part-time cartoonist for local newspapers and periodicals. Laxman’s move to Mumbai was a turning point as he landed his first full-time job as a political cartoonist with The Free Press Journal before he joined The Times of India a few years later.

    When Laxman died in Pune in 2015, at the age of 93, it was the end of an era. It was the passing of an Uncommon Man, who had made common folk in India feel heard.

    In his book, R K Laxman: Back With A Punch, E P Unny reflects on the cartoonist’s artistic and technical skills, his brand of humour, and why the Common Man found a place in the hearts and lives of at least two generations of Indians. In this excerpt, read about the early evolution of Laxman’s famous creation.

    In his 1950 appearance, the bespectacled figure was labelled in all caps as ‘COMMON MAN’ to dispel any specific identity. One stand-out sign was the black cap he wore. Only certain classes of people in certain parts of the country wore a cap like that.

    The cap was kept aside whenever the Common Man switched to purely European clothes—suit, boots and baggy Chaplinesque trousers. It came back when he returned to the more regular Indian wear. Across the first Nehruvian decade the cap disappeared and reappeared much like the Prime Minister’s own Gandhi cap. Whether there was a correlation is a matter best left to the researcher. Somewhere down the line the headwear vanished.

    Common Man Finds A Second Home

    By 1960 the little man settled down to what came to be recognized as his signature form. Wisps of hair over the ears, uncovered bald pate, round oversized glasses, checked coat and shoes without socks and to make his ethnicity suitably uncertain, the timeless unstitched Indian cloth called the dhoti—an attire common to many parts of the country.

    The protagonist had by then found its natural habitat—‘You Said it’. ‘My diligently-planned single-column feature’, is how the cartoonist describes it in his autobiography. Devoid of recognizable public personalities, Laxman revelled in the full freedom ‘from the shackles of habitual realism, and indulged in a sort of political fantasy.’

    The creator’s unfettered joy didn’t infect the creature. Unaware of his upgrade to freer ground, the common man carried on as befuddled as before, without a word. Mercifully silence wasn’t a familial trait. Every once in a while, his wife joined him and she spoke her mind. The Common Man went on to become the most recognizable Indian comic figure.

    Honoured with public statues in Pune and at Worli Seaface, Mumbai, and a commemorative postage stamp, he promoted Air Deccan, the country’s first no-frills airline, as mascot. The standalone character’s portability was evident early on and the creator was a beneficiary. Once, arriving late at night in Germany, on an invitation from Heidelberg University, Laxman stepped out of the airport into dimlit anonymity. He knew none and none knew him well enough to place him.

    As he looked around, up went a placard with the picture of the Common Man. The professor who had come to receive the cartoonist was suitably equipped. The famously silent Common Man made the introductions.

    The much interpreted silence has been broken once. In a sequential cartoon of 1954, the Common Man on an overseas visit is being harangued by a patronizing European on India’s claim over Kashmir and Goa. After the long listen our man retorts, ‘Supposing you tell me something about Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus…’ The colonial relic beats a hasty retreat.

    Again, contrary to popular impression, the man isn’t always placid. He almost gets physical once. He steps on a button that activates a mechanized clenched fist that flies out of the microphone, hits and stops the speaker who is evidently going on and on. The raw power of the hit is tempered by a mechanical interface. This goes well with the Laxman style of softening the blow, without pulling punches.

    The punch re-emerged after 23 years and how. You see the little man, sleeves rolled up, knocking out the grand old Congress party in the March 1977 elections that punished the ruling regime for the virtual

    one-party rule during the internal Emergency. This was the Common Man at his spirited best, the big citizen of a big democracy.

    Barring the rare demonstrative surge, the man remains quiet. He seems to have yielded to the ways of the new state as early as the 1950s. You see him squatting on a bed of nails with yogic nonchalance or posing passively for a souped-up portrait by the budget-making finance minister.

    At the first Republic Day after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1965, the anxious ruling party made a gallant attempt to reboot the citizen. Laxman’s response is a collector’s item—a display cartoon where the Common Man appears twice. One of the two stood with the onlookers. The other occupied the pride of place on a decorated float driven by the new PM Shastri.

    This boost was as short lived as Shastri’s prime ministership. Since then the Common Man broadly mirrored the Indian citizen’s plunge. Along this free fall from participation to passivity, Laxman’s protagonist shows striking moments of resilience. Ahead of the professionally geared mountaineers, our man in common wear is clambering up Mount Everest, trying to catch up with soaring prices.

    Decades later he is back to volunteer for the manned mission to the moon. One of the scientists details the volunteer’s impeccable credentials: ‘This is our man! He can survive without water, food, light and shelter…’ You could add, and ‘his own hard-earned money’.

    Excerpted with permission from R K Laxman: Back With A Punch (2022) by E P Unny and published by Niyogi Books. You can buy your copy here.

    Cover Image: Outlook India

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