|R K Laxman: India's best known contemporary cartoonist|
IN MYSORE, 60-odd years ago, a boy was born into a large, traditional Tamil-speaking Brahmin family. With his siblings, he grew amidst the aroma of freshly-ground coffee and hot dosais, in a city vibrant with a fabulous royal family, the cut-and-thrust of a university milieu, the laughter of the marketplace ~ and a regular supply at home of every known illustrated magazine from London by sea mail.
“I used to spend hours turning the pages and marvelling at the exquisite story illustrations, sketches and cartoons. Even before I could read or write properly, I became familiar with the names, styles and techniques of these artists ~ David Low in Punch, Illingworth in the now-defunct Strand. I can still identify any of them in a moment. Then, I myself began to try my hand at drawing. I would sketch the objects around me,” the boy, now India’s best-known cartoonist, recently explained.
“Mercifully, I was neither encouraged nor discouraged by my parents and elders,” he continued. “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 2 rupees 8 annas per cartoon. In those days, that went a long way.”
That’s how Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman evolved. Today, his name is a household word; he wakes thousands up to laughter over their morning coffee with his incisive political, social and moral satire through the graphic medium in the Times of India. And the “common man” in his daily You Said It cartoon ~ perpetually bewildered, perennially silent, with his hair and glasses askew, in his unchanging dhoti and checked shirt ~ is discussed by commuters in crowded buses and trains, giggled over by schoolboys over lunch, analyzed by grandfathers on evening walks. Because he touches the universal pulse.
“His most unique quality,” Laxman once said of his common man, “is that he has not uttered a word in all these years. I would say he symbolises the mute millions of India, or perhaps the whole world, a silent spectator of marching time.” Through the anodyne of humour, the little figure battling poverty felt avenged to see “cartoons in which the egos of his tormentors are punctured and their hypocrisies exposed,” his creator later added. “He has been with me throughout my career. I didn’t find him. He found me.”
Like many creative souls, Laxman is a loner. He works for self-satisfaction, he asserts, whether as an artist or as a writer. Not for the plethora of awards that have since come his way ~ the 1984 Magsaysay award, the Padma Bhushan, the Horniman award and, on February 29, 1988, the B.D. Goenka award for excellence in journalism.
While in Madras (now Chennai) recently to receive the B.D. Goenka award, the citation for which described him as “India’s David Low,” Laxman spent a while at a preview at Sakshi Gallery, where his first exhibition in Madras ~ of wash drawings of crows ~ is scheduled from March 16 to 22. In 1985, Laxman became the first Indian cartoonist to exhibit his work in London. While there, he called upon the demi-gods of his childhood, including Low and Illingworth.
A cartoonist, as Laxman sees it, requires three basic assets ~ 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.”
We met Laxman at Sakshi on a weekday morning with no small measure of trepidation. He had a reputation for being an interviewer’s nightmare ~ aloof, brusque, monosyllabic, unsociable and definitely anti-publicity. Accompanied by his brother, a documentary film-maker, Laxman proved to be the antithesis of all that we had feared. Having resolved the initial routine questions in a trice, he turned incisive, anecdotal and pleasantly witty as the conversation progressed, often punctuated by prolonged bursts of laughter.
Here are excerpts from our encounter:
When you began, 40 years ago, didn’t you feel nervous about stepping into a new field? Weren’t you daunted by the possibility of failure?
If you do something with sincerity, even if it is trivial, it is bound to yield profitable results. I can’t do something that brings me no satisfaction. If I had wanted money, I could have become a smuggler or a magician (Smiling) No artist worth the salt will think: ‘Oh, my god! I love to draw, but will there be money in it?’ But I’ve been lucky. I started making money quite early.
In India, we don’t have a tradition of cartooning, do we?
No, but we do have a tradition of humorous satire in folklore, music, lyrics. Somehow, the Indian artist never did satirical drawings. Perhaps because he was engaged in religious themes and didn’t want to lampoon the gods. He chose sculpture, rather than canvas, for his medium; maybe because of our climate ~ see how the murals of Ajanta and Ellora have faded ~ and it is difficult to be satirical in sculpture. As in the rest of the Orient, Japan and China, the cartoon tradition did not exist here.
Caricature is an imported art. (Pausing) In India, it is barely 80 years old. The British would not allow an attack on their own rule, only glorification of King George V’s silver jubilee, the prince’s visit, and so on. These were mere drawings, not satire. Later, somehow, John Bull and Bharat Mata were symbolised, with John Bull suppressing or attacking good old Bharat Mata. Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival liberated the cartoon, pitting him against John Bull or the Viceroy. And remember, the Viceroy and others could be represented thus only from the 1930s onwards. Then came war, came independence, and cartoons came to the fore thanks to two gentlemen ~ Herr Hitler and Mr. Mussolini. The British encouraged cartoons that attacked the fascists. After independence, Jinnah, Gandhi and others were caricatured.
You’ve been with the ‘Times of India’ for over 40 years now. Was that where you began?
No, no. I did some sketches during the independence struggle while I studied Philosophy, Economics and Politics at Maharaja College in Mysore. It was a good time to be a cartoonist. I contributed to Dr. Shivaraman's Koravanji in Mysore as a student and to a few magazines in Madras ~ including Swarajya and Swatantra. When I first went to Bombay in the 1940s, I spent about six months with the Free Press Journal. Since then, I’ve been with the Times of India.
Do you rely much on your daily interaction with others for your cartoons? Or are you basically a loner?
I am a loner. I don’t discuss politics at all or exchange ideas or allow people to talk to me during the course of my work. I don’t attend editorial conferences either because my cartoons are not in keeping with the policy of the paper. They are totally independent. The editor comments on his own on any issue, and I comment on my own and am respected for my views. The editor sees my cartoon only the next day, when it is published. Sometimes, it diametrically contradicts his point of view, sometimes it is on the same wavelength.
Do you have to go to the office daily and turn out a cartoon?
(Testily) What do you think I do?
I don’t know. I thought perhaps you turned out two or three one day, then took it easy…
Do you think this is an easy job? This is the most difficult job in the world. Then, how can I do two? Even if I get away with one cartoon, I thank my stars for it. Two a day! Three a day! (A wavering smile escapes) I do quite a lot, though. My output is about 46 drawings for the Times of India alone per month. But I also write, do calendars, direct films. The drawings for the Times alone take six to seven hours a day ~ a big one every alternate day and a small one daily. It takes so much time because I have to read so many papers. Say, on the budget, I have to read the analyses.
Each day is a new day for me and it is agonizing. (Dramatically, feigning despair) Agonizing to wake up and say, “Oh god! Another day to justify my salary, my existence and my reputation.” But somehow, willy-nilly, once I get to the office at 8.30 a.m. and read all the papers till 1.30 or 2 p.m., I’m then ready to deliver my cartoon by 5 p.m. I don’t allow anybody to see me, nor do I go and see anybody. What I give in goes into the paper. I don’t do many drawings before arriving at the final one.
Has living in Bombay contributed much to your cartoons?
Yes. Being a cosmopolitan city, you come across a cross-section of people of different ethnic types ~ Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Parsis. It is a very colourful place. (Curtly) Next question.
Have you ever done cartoons in the vernacular?
When I was a little boy, I did a few in Kannada, but these are not worth anything. I know Tamil and Kanarese, but I am more familiar with English. It is a language I like. It is very flexible.
What do you think is the role of a cartoonist?
Whatever you think… what do you think?
I think he is a graphic satirist.
More often than not, he speaks for himself…
Speaks for himself! You think so? I think that is wrong. He doesn’t speak for himself. He speaks for the general opinion, he speaks for common sense. I don’t pursue an ideology. I don’t belong to a party. I follow common sense, whatever is pragmatic.
Do you see yourself as a reflector of people and mores? Or a social satirist?
I don’t consider myself as a person dictating or reflecting anything. Or moralizing and trying to guide wayward politicians. (With glee) If they disappeared, what would I do for my bread-and-butter? If there is a moral in my cartoons, right from the start it has been purely coincidental. I draw my cartoons for very selfish reasons, namely to derive pleasure for myself. A purely individual experience that I enjoy, not because it is going to tell the corrupt minister to be clean or the stone-throwing students to stop…
Have your cartoons ever been suppressed?
No, never, except during the Emergency. I was then put under the Central Board of Censors, taking me out of the reach of state censors. But the censors in Delhi are two-bit head clerks. They didn’t understand pre-Emergency politics nor the Emergency nor the articles and drawings and photographs they had to go through. I didn’t want to give up my habit of drawing, so I kept sending puerile, idiotic cartoons like a man slipping on a banana peel or a woman choosing a Diwali saree because I hoped that one day the Emergency would end. I hated to sit around, collecting my salary without doing anything. But everything I did was censored. Because if the clerk understood the cartoon and laughed, he censored it because he was afraid laughter was bad in the (pronounced with a lilt) Emergency! If he didn’t understand it, he censored it because he didn’t but the readers might. (Laughs)
So, I went to Delhi, collected a bunch of cartoons, took them to (Prime Minister) Mrs. Indira Gandhi with a memorandum that said: “Madam, this has happened to me. I am a humble cartoonist, eking out a living through this. (Plaintively) I can’t do anything else. If I am denied the right to do this, what will I do for bread and butter?” She went through the pile and said, “Why, these are all harmless. In a democracy, cartoons should not be censored like this.’ I went away, saying (miming servitude): ‘Thank you, madam, thank you.’ She said, ‘I will tell them. Don’t you worry.’
V C Shukla was then Minister for Information and Broadcasting. (Vituperatively) Loafer! Slowly, I began giving cartoons in again. One was accepted. I took a step closer to comment. Accepted. Then, I attacked the Congress Party. I attacked the Emergency. I did one showing Deb Kant Barooah, then Congress president, pushing the common man (with a pacifier in his mouth) like a baby in a pram, with Emergency written on it. The cartoon was on the front page of the Times the day the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) session opened in Chandigarh. Shukla was summoned and asked: “What kind of censorship do you have in your department?” He, in turn, summoned the chief of the Information Bureau, who was also the chief censor, and yelled, “D’Penha, you are not doing your job properly. If this continues (with a dramatic flourish), your head will roll.” D’Penha, a friend of mine, flew to Bombay and called me. “Look, Laxman,” he said. “What have you done? They are very angry about your cartoons and are very, very seriously thinking of punishing you… Shri Shukla is coming to see you.”
My editor, Shyamlal, said, “You, censors, must censor the cartoons. I don’t know anything about it. Where do I come in?” So, he went away.
Now, I am not a courageous man. I am a coward. I am not a freedom fighter or anything (bursts into peals of laughter). I don’t wave freedom flags or march. I just enjoy doing my cartoons. If there is danger, I will scoot. Given the choice, I will settle for comfort, peace, safety. What do you say?
(Chuckling) Sure enough, there was a phone call, saying Shukla would like to see me. I went to his Taj top floor suite. He didn’t even ask me to sit down. Shuka said, “This kind of thing must stop from now on. You are not above the law. If you continue, you will be behind bars.” My legs began quaking. “But Mrs. Gandhi told me, sir; the Prime Minister…,” I began. (Assuming an authoritarian tone as Shukla): “Don’t bring in names. I’m doing my duty. OUT!” So, I went away.
Back home, I told my wife Kamala, “I’m going to resign. I can’t continue like this. Either I work properly or I don’t work at all.” She said, “Why don’t you resign? You’ve already done 30 years of service. Why should you continue?” So, I went to the office and applied for leave ~ casual leave, sick leave, a basketful of leave. I tell you, the relief of not going to office was something fantastic, though short-lived.
Kamala and I bought tickets to Mauritius, 5,000 miles away. We booked the best room in the best hotel. For nearly three weeks, we drove around the emerald island with its fantastic volcanoes, stayed in a cottage on the sands. It was damn good.
You won’t believe what happened there. Do you have time for an anecdote? There was an African convention of French-speaking people on there. They lived in the cottages too, but we all ate at a common dining hall. One day, one of those fellows asked about Kamala’s bindi. I said pompously, “In our country, in our ancient culture, in our tradition…” He worked for an exporter in Lebanon. Boring thing, he went on and on about it. Eventually, he asked me: “What do you do in life?” I said, “I am a newspaperman.” But I thought to myself: “Now I am no more a newspaperman than the bearer bringing my soup.”
(Assuming a Francophile accent) “Newspaper is a very important thing. And do you write editorials?”
“And are you on holiday now? But your newspaper…”
“Look, I’m a cartoonist.”
“Ah, caricature! That is very good art. Very interesting. Which paper?”
“Times of India.”
“What is your name?”
“Ah! You Said It!”
Can you believe that? I asked him, “How do you know?”
“Your ambassador in Lebanon, L K Singh, always shows me your work when we go to him for visas or licenses. He tells us: “We have democracy, we have freedom of the press. Though we have Emergency, freedom of the press is preserved.”
They were using my cartoons to prove this! I don’t know how old these cartoons were. My god! Somewhere in Mauritius we accidentally sit next to a man from Lebanon and he has seen my cartoons…
Then, my holiday came to an end. I returned to India. Immediately, Mrs. Gandhi announced elections. After that, the Janata Party came to power and I had another holiday. (Roaring with mirth) Free as a bird. Raj Narain, Charan Singh, Morarji Desai… I didn’t have to work. They worked for me, as Rajiv Gandhi is doing now.
Do you appeal to a typically Indian sense of humour? Is there such a thing?
Why do you doubt it? Humour is universal and eternal. Ours is a stupid country. It has no self-respect at all. It allowed the British to believe that Indians have no sense of humour while, all the time, Indians were laughing at the British. While they were here, the British promoted three things ~ the English language, the notion that Indians don’t have a sense of humour, and cricket. Horrible things, except for the language…
If you go through our mythology, even the Ramayana, if you go through our folklore, like the Tenali Rama stories, my god, you won’t find humour like that anywhere else. I’ve written a thesis on this for a magazine in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, our humour is language-bound.
When I started out 40 years ago, I didn’t know about the Indian sense of humour. My cartoons are not vulgar, they are very subtle. When I started You Said It, they said it was above the level of Indians. I found that is just not true. Indians understand subtle humour and satire. Remember, my popularity is entirely dependent on my public.
How did the Common Man arrive in your cartoons?
(Whimsically) He found me; I didn’t find him. He was forced to be present in my cartoons because there was a need for him at the time of Independence, when we drew up the Constitution and gave the people a plan for an egalitarian society. I had to draw cartoons pertaining to our country, which has such an appealing variety of people, from the Sikh with his turban to the Malayalee with his mundu. So, whenever I drew the people of India, it had to be all of these. That became a burdensome thing because, in journalism, time is of the essence. When there was a five-year plan and I had to show people benefiting or being badly treated, I had to draw all these people. Took time. So, slowly, from the 20 people I used to draw, it came to ten, then five, three, two… Finally, I was left with one. The Common Man.
Perhaps we should change the subject. Have you ever wanted to diversify into animation films?
I have done it, but it doesn’t interest me because I’m an individualist. I’m not made to deal with the human factor, the cooperative effort. It does not suit me. I get irritated.
When I went to Hollywood, I met Walt Disney. But I found I was walking to a businessman, not an artist, although he is one of our greatest creators. He made Mickey Mouse, who can be placed next only to Jesus Christ, the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare. You know he breathed life into a non-existent animal called (pretending to blow) Mickey Mouse. Fantastic!
I believe Penguin India is to publish your first novel shortly. Could you tell me about it?
Actually this novel, set in the seedy backstreets of Bombay, was written 20 years ago. It was originally published in Bombay, went through two editions, sold well, good reviews. It was called, Sorry, no room; but now they’re planning to call it Hotel Riviera.
I’ve got another novel going, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. I’ve written another book, called Idle Hours, which is a collection of short stories, travelogues, essays. It was reprinted thrice. Actually, Penguin is including some of these short stories with the novel, which they found a bit short. They wanted me to write more, but I wouldn’t.
Do you ever regret not having more time to write?
I regret it deeply because I’ve been asked to write a column for the Times of my observations in not more than 500 words. I used to do it. I wrote about when the first plane came to Mysore. I wrote about hippies in Benares. I wrote about how essential pollution is to man. I even proved it. When the amoeba became a fish in the miasma of pre-history and came on terra-firma, it couldn’t stand the oxygen, felt it was polluted. Then came another fish, breathed, walked over 500 yards and died. It then developed strong enough lungs and limbs to breathe the free air and to climb a tree (chuckling), looking for good, pure air which had killed its ancestors. It came down like a homo-sapien, walking bravely, with lungs developed enough to receive pure oxygen and thrive. Soon, the Common Man might not look the same. His head might be here (touches his own elbow) and his ear might be somewhere else (points to his nose), and nature might adapt his body and put bigger filters in his lungs. And this future monster will say, “Oh! The air is becoming too pure!” Then, the government will have to pump in carbon-monoxide. Carbon-monoxide and industrial pollution. (Stridently) Good government! March on!
Let’s turn to your forthcoming exhibition in Madras. You’ve been drawing crows since childhood. It makes me wonder. Why crows?
That’s a beautiful question. In our country, what other birds do you have? You don’t have to search for them. They come and sit on my window-sill. They’re so beautiful. They’re more intelligent than any other bird. I dislike parrots. I don’t like peacocks at all; their colouring is too garish. As for other exotic, interesting birds, you have to go in search of them like Dr. Salim Ali or Zafar Futehally. I don’t have the time for that. The house sparrow is very interesting, but its colour merges against the background.
(In a dramatic voice) But one bird called the crow stands out against any background ~ blue sky, clouded sky, green leaves. It is agile, its movements are continuous. It is closest to human beings. An American experiment on house crows showed that if you placed seven objects before a crow and then removed one, it would search for what was missing. In another experiment at the Smithsonian Institute, a bowl with nuts was placed on a table. Mr Crow flew in when the lady was in the kitchen, took one and ate it, then came back quietly for another. The lady then covered the bowl of nuts with another bowl. Mister came, watched, wondered, then pushed the bowls to the edge of the table so that the lower one fell over and he could reach the nuts. And it is the only bird I know of which, even given dehydrated, stale bread, will take it to the nearest source of water, soak it and then munch, munch, (mimes) munch.
Mythologically, it is Saneeswara’s vahana or mount. That makes it a very powerful bird. When I first drew crows, my mother said, “It is very powerful. Keep it going. It will bring you luck.”
But there are people, like the Parsis, who don’t like crows. They consider them a bad omen. This bird is also responsible for the Jagannath temple at Puri. Did you know that? It came from the centre of the sea, sat on a stump and told the Raja (in a commanding voice): “Build a temple here.” There is no reference to sparrows or parrots, but crows have dominated our mythology. I studied all this later, but my attraction for crows has always been there.
Whenever I’m tired after office, I go home, drink a cup of coffee, pull up a chair near my table, sit down and draw.