In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “RK Laxman & The Common Man”
Political Cartooning Culture
Political cartoons have been produced since 1754. The first one appeared in Ben Franklin’s newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette. Including caricature, it serves the purpose of conveying editorial commentary on politics, politicians, and current events. They have an impact on society and the perception of political discourse. Cartoons provide for freedom of speech and of the press, albeit gently.
Political cartoons are a fundamental component of political journalism. Visually, offering a humorous alternative to formal news reporting, providing light relief from tense political dialogue. There are basically elements of a political cartoon -symbol, exaggeration, irony, labeling, and analogy. Playing around.
The Common Man Theory
In 1947, RK Laxman, new to Mumbai, decided to take a city tour. This involved riding a Victoria, a horse-drawn buggy. It was quite a regal affair – but it was used for city touring when there were not so many taxis. Mr. Laxman recounts a life-altering incident. Halfway through the ride, the driver abandoned the reigns, and another took his place. Later he realised that the Hindu had entered a Muslim colony and thus fearing for his life, ran off. In the entire process – He, the Common Man was only an interim entity, an observer.
This was when the seed of this idea was sown in his consciousness to take root and grow into an immense tree over the next 50 plus years. For his first job at the Free Press Journal, alongside Bal Thackery, Laxman penned his sketches. Yes he was famously a colleague of the man who would change the political graph of Mumbai. Here too – Laxman was the observer.
There has to be something to be said for the ability to be an intelligent, perceptive observer – who reports faithfully. His first assignments involved him observing, thinking, process and creating. And this stuck with him. Laxman was never loud or pointed, in life or in his work – always one hundred percent relevant.
This is perhaps where the popularity of the common man kicked in. He was everyman, a little bewildered and earnest. Cartoons in general can be very funny, especially when one understands the context. However, they aim to not amuse but to persuade. They work at the subliminal level. While it makes one consider current events, it also tries to sway opinion towards the cartoonist’s point of view. And he was largely successful in this.
Political Cartoonery in India
The early decades of independent India saw the rise of several political cartoonists. They became watchmen of the country’s newly established democracy. Laxman’s contemporaries included P.K.S. Kutty, Abu Abraham, O.V. Vijayan, and Sudhir Darworked. Largely self-trained, they were significantly influenced by cartoonists in the West. Sir David Low, a pioneer in world cartooning, was a big inspiration.
In his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, Laxman recounts drawing objects he saw outside the window of his room. Dry twigs, lizards, and crows in various postures. He famously painted crows for many of his collectors. Exquisite attention to everyday objects and detail made its way into his art.
Juxtaposition incongruous elements was clever storytelling in cartooning. And Laxman knew how to use it with style. As an example – while commenting on the Budget, he shows the country’s poor – in rags – hidden behind a resplendent banner painted with a glorious sunrise and the word ‘BUDGET’ on it. This idyllic village scene on canvas is a far cry from the reality peeking out from ‘behind the scene’.
The Subtle Interweave of Text & Context
Laxman’s use of text through content and placement was integral to communicating meaning. The text delivered as a dialogue or a nonchalant statement, masquerades as a caption.
In ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Roland Barthes observes the presence of the linguistic message in every image and its two functions: anchorage and relay. While text used as an anchorage, shows the reader what to read (and what to omit); as in the case of a photograph with captions, relay’s (text) function becomes apparent in cartoons and comic strips where “text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship” to convey a unified message. Barthes says that although both functions can coexist in one image, the dominance of one or the other determines the interpretation of the image.
In Laxman’s works, more often, text functions as a relay. He shows a series of social evils that have led to the deaths of the persons crawling out from under the tomb, along with the line ‘buried decades ago’ seamlessly merging into the tombstone. Here text on its own does not tell the reader what to think. The reader needs to see the holistic picture. “They keep coming out because they have political influence, I’m told”. This is when one can pick up the subtle sarcasm intended. An embodiment of every Indian person, he is always in the midst of the action, watching the situation unfold, yet at the same time, he remains in the margins.
Talking about this character, his creation is inimitable Laxman –
“What a bloody nuisance! I don’t know why I started it. I had wanted to try something which was not purely political and it really caught on.”
Do Indian Have a Sense of Humour
Laxman maintained that Indians have an innate sense of humour that needs excavating. The mining of ideas happened from all around him, but his thoughts were his own.
Turned down by the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, Laxman become an icon a few decades later. They erected a memorial on their campus to honour him. He went on to have a prolific career as one of the greats of political cartoonists in India.
Born in Mysore, in 1921 he is the younger brother of RK Narayan. From a young age – Laxman was immersed in magazines like The Strand and Punch. He loved images before he even learned how to read. Laxman famously doodled all over the walls of his house. He was lucky his craft was appreciated and not thwarted.
They had an idyllic childhood where he played cricket, read, created, and enjoyed a quiet life – much like Swamy from his brother’s book. It was a time of innocence and confidences, as Simon and Garfunkel wrote in their song/poem Bookends.
After his father’s death, he managed to go to school. Leaving his experience of rejection by the mega art college in Mumbai, he graduated from the University of Mysore. After their stints at Free Press Journal, he joined the Times of India in 1951.
An ardent believer of ‘My sketch pen is not a sword, it’s my friend’, Laxman gave the entire nation an uncanny spectator. With singular perception and wit, he hit the nail on the head of Indian politics, through the eyes of the “common man”.
Every morning, his fans wait for the chequered jacket, dhoti, Gandhi-glasses, and twin tufts of gravity-defying hair, wearing man to appear and to observe India. The man doesn’t appear anymore. Perhaps he has gone taking an era with him.
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