The year 1957 was both important and unremarkable for India. Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister of the country. The States Reorganisation Act had been passed the year before and India was now organised along linguistic lines. The now-dismantled Planning Commission’s second Five Year Plan for the young nation was in motion. In 1957, the second Lok Sabha was elected, five years after the first. An interesting bit of trivia about the general elections of 1957: although Nehru’s Congress won easily, a significant 19.3 percent of the votes went to independent candidates. Fittingly, in the same year that the little guys got the vote and the littler voters had their say, RK Laxman’s Common Man was born.
By the time he created the Common Man, who shares a startling though superficial resemblance to BJP’s LK Advani, Laxman was a well-known cartoonist. He’d been working with The Times of India for 10 years, his cartoons had been appearing on the front page of the newspaper and he had created the iconic mascot Gattu for Asian Paints in 1954. Common Man, however, would be Laxman’s lasting legacy — a character that was neither brave nor cowardly, but a witness who dealt with the absurdity and hypocrisy of Indian politics with silent wit rather than despair. When Laxman was asked if he found politics amusing, he replied that there was no option but to scavenge amusement from it.
“Frankly, our politics is so sad that if I had not been a cartoonist, I would have committed suicide,” he’d said.
Born in 1921 in Mysore, Laxman belonged to an era that saw a number of brilliant names emerge from this princely state. Its rulers may have been autocratic, but they patronised the arts, culture and education.
“In its pomp, which ran roughly from 1910 to 1945, the state of Mysore was a very interesting place indeed,” wrote historian Ramachandra Guha in an article. “In those years, if you were young, talented, and ambitious, and if you had the luck to be born in the State, you might go a very long way in this world.”
Laxman grew up as the youngest of four brothers and two sisters. One of his elder brothers was the beloved novelist RK Narayan. Photographer TS Satyan, poet and folklorist AK Ramanujan, veena player Doreswami Iyengar — these were some of the people growing up with Laxman in Mysore. At home, his mother was a brilliant chess player and the teller of fantastic stories that Laxman loved hearing. His father bought foreign magazines in which little Laxman first noticed clever cartoons.
Though he had no formal training in either draughtsmanship or cartooning, Laxman’s only interest was in drawing and his natural gift was evident from his early days. There’s a famous story of how as a boy he drew a peepul leaf that astonished his class teacher with its sophistication. As a student in Mysore’s Maharaja College, Laxman illustrated his brother’s novels and did little drawings for local papers. After college, he spent a few months in Chennai working on an animated film, and went to Delhi, hoping for a job with The Hindustan Times but they found him too young and inexperienced.
The not-yet-21 Laxman had dreams of becoming an artist and so after his encounter with The Hindustan Times, he came to Mumbai and applied to JJ School of Arts, but was rejected. As Laxman himself observed later, it had felt like a blow then but in hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.
“If I had been accepted and had graduated clutching a diploma in art perhaps I would not have become the cartoonist that I had become,” Laxman would say later, mixing barb and humour perfectly in his words as he did in his cartoons. “I would most likely have been languishing in some corner of an advertising agency, drawing visuals for mosquito repellants or pretty faces for ladies cosmetics, or chubby babies to promote vitamin foods, perhaps bearing the name ‘Crunchy, munchy, Vita biscuits’.”
Instead, Laxman joined first Free Press Journal as a cartoonist in 1946 (and famously, sat next to Bal Thackeray). A fallout with the bosses saw him leaving the paper after a few months and entering The Times of India building in 1947, where he would become something of a fixture for more than five decades. Methodical and disciplined, Laxman stuck to a strict routine for most of his working life. Rajdeep Sardesai remembers walking in to the office as a young journalist in his twenties and seeing Laxman, then in his seventies, at his desk. By this time, Laxman was a legend and well-established as India’s most beloved cartoonist, but that didn’t keep him from doing sticking to his schedule and doing his homework.
Although he is best known for having created the Common Man, the ironic truth is that much of Laxman’s sharp insight and unwavering confidence to lay bare the truth came from the cartoonist being anything but ordinary. Financially, Laxman may have seen his share of difficulties — his father passed away when Laxman was a boy and this pushed the family into dire straits. His elder brothers made sure Laxman’s schooling wasn’t interrupted — but he came from a background of privilege, culturally speaking. His mother may not have known English, but she played badminton.
Laxman had studied at the Maharaja College, and could comfortably hold his own with people like philosopher Bertrand Russell and poet TS Eliot. There aren’t too many people who can say they told a world leader as formidable as Margaret Thatcher, “You should have been a cartoonist rather than a prime minister.” (She was trying to give him cartooning tips.)
When Indira Gandhi was offended by his cartoons, in the Emergency era, Laxman could actually make an appointment to meet Gandhi and tell her, point blank, that as a cartoonist, he needed the freedom to insult and ridicule. Unsurprisingly, Gandhi didn’t agree but Laxman’s solution was to move temporarily to the Mauritius — not an option for most common men. He returned to India when elections were declared.
Like his novelist brother, Laxman didn’t use his privilege to cut himself off from uncomfortable truths. His sense of identity was firmly rooted in being Indian and standing shoulder to shoulder with the common Indian even if he didn’t really belong to that demographic. Laxman spent hours every day poring through news reports. People wrote him letters, telling him of their troubles as though he could, with his cartoonist’s pen, fix everything.
“I received letters complaining about postal delays, telephones, the sloppiness of municipal authorities, inflated electric bills, bribes in school admissions,” Laxman recounted once. “One such letter pleaded, ‘Please halt the 47 Down train at XXX for a few minutes to save me the bother of waiting four hours for the next one to go home from the office’.”
Of course, Laxman couldn’t fix anything and he was piercingly aware of this, but still he drew and he watched, peering at what was happening from behind the Common Man’s glasses and unthreatening demeanour. Laxman cleverly took aspects of politicians’ physical appearances and exaggerated them in a way that reflected the reality of their decisions and attitudes. So Indira Gandhi had a violently hooked nose that made her look distinctly predatory. With her son, Rajiv, Laxman said that it was more difficult because he was so handsome.
“Of course, I got plenty of inspiration for my cartoons from his actions,” Laxman said.
In the frames of his cartoon, liars could be exposed and the powerful had nowhere to run. Laxman sliced politicians’ doublespeak to shreds repeatedly, but at the same time, his cartoons maintained that fine, polite tone that made it impossible for anyone to point fingers at him for rudeness. He also knew that his work, popular as it may be, wasn’t going to lead to a social revolution.
“I have been working away at these cartoons for over a quarter of a century now, and I do not think that I can show a single instance of changing the mind of a politician from taking a mad course,” he had written once. “If I had lashed at granite with a feather with the single-minded zeal as I have bestowed on my work, by now I would, perhaps, have been able to show some faint feather marks on the rock . . . but not a trace of a dent have my cartoons caused in any sphere of human activity, whether social, economic or political.”
This didn’t stop Laxman from drawing his cartoons, but it is no coincidence that his Common Man has never spoken a word.
Seeing the crises that India, politics and freedom of expression have faced in the past decades, Laxman’s observation is painfully true. However, at the same time, if there was ever a time when we needed the sharpness of Laxman’s vision and the unwavering and unbiased honesty of his Common Man, it is perhaps today. Fortunately or unfortunately, far too many of RK Laxman’s old cartoons feel hilariously and painfully pertinent even today. In an age of paid news, hate speech and propaganda, we need that scruffy-haired, neatly dressed gent to be a national conscience more than ever.