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  • Raghav Sand

R. K. Laxman: An Extraordinary ‘Common Man’

R.K. Laxman, in full Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman, (born October 24, 1921, Mysore [now Mysuru], India—died January 26, 2015, Pune), was an Indian cartoonist who created the daily comic strip You Said It. He chronicled Indian life and politics through the eyes of the “common man,” an observer dressed in a dhoti and a distinctive checked coat who served as a silent point-of-view character for readers.

Laxman was the youngest of seven siblings, and he developed liking for drawing at an early age. While at Maharaja’s College in Mysore, he illustrated stories by his novelist brother, R.K. Narayan, in The Hindu newspaper. Government of India bestowed upon him the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan – the third highest and second highest civilian honours – in 1973 and 2005, respectively. For his exemplary work in the field of Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, Laxman was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1984.

Priceless Expressions

A picture is worth a thousand words. This statement epitomizes and precisely summarizes the work of R.K. Laxman. His sketches had satirical expression and communicated a strong message without an iota of hate or fear. R.K. Laxman’s work was a rare combination of wit, grit and simplicity. He will continue to inspire artists and infuse the spirit of free thinking in future generations. Laxman’s artwork may not have toppled governments and/or bring an overnight change in governance, but it was successful in maintaining the sanity in society. Everyone took notice of Mr. Laxman’s work and eagerly waited for his take on the news or developments in everyday life.

The Common Man debuted in The Times of India in 1951, after the artist quit his first full-time job of a political cartoonist at Mumbai’s Free Press Journal, to grace the English daily’s mantle for the next 50 odd years. Laxman also created a popular mascot called Gattu for the Asian Paints group in 1954.

Fly on the wall

R. K. Laxman did not make ‘Common Man’ the central theme of his artwork. One would have to carefully find him among a crowd or find him standing in a corner taking notes by observation. Among the many traits of people on which he pounced upon, unmasking hypocrisy was one his fortes. Also, Mr. Laxman was way ahead of his time and if we were to scroll through the archives, we will certainly find an apt sketch for current state of the nation.

Outlook India Photo Gallery - Cartoons

In Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World, author and anthropologist Ritu Gairola Khanduri notes that for Laxman, words meant distraction; he equated silence to power.

A few bumps in an otherwise smooth journey

Laxman had remarked in an interview that, “Morarji Desai was unhappy with me as well as my cartoons. He was the only exception. All others were very fond of me. Many of them used to ask why I hadn’t depicted them in a cartoon. It became a kind of status symbol.” As per his own account, being taken to Nashik by law enforcement agencies was a dark spell. He recalls, “I wasn’t actually arrested, but I was taken away for having drawn a cartoon where a boy is trying to set fire to a motorcycle, while others have set fire to buses and trains. So somebody shouts, “What kind of Ram Bhakt are you, if you can’t even set fire to a motorcycle?” Someone in Nashik went to court saying that I had insulted Hinduism. So I was dragged to court and had to go to Nashik.”

Philatelic Recognition in 2013

Absence of Tolerance

Bloated egos and false pride in current times are suffocating free speech and rational discourse. There have been various instances across the country where journalists, cartoonists and even common citizens have been hounded by elected representatives and opposition politicians, alike. We seem to have lost all grace and dignity in public life, and this is not the hallmark of a vibrant democracy. The degree of seriousness being shown to curb criticism is far greater than what is being applied to execute governance and administrative responsibilities. R.K. Laxman’s birth anniversary should remind all of us that we are connected by the common purpose of building an inclusive and prosperous nation.

Prof Ambikesh Mahapatra – who teaches Chemistry at Jadavpur University – was arrested for forwarding a cartoon of Ms. Mamata Banerjee to his friends. He was jailed for one night and assaulted by alleged TMC workers later while he was on his way back from work. In Maharashtra, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in 2012 for depicting the national emblem and Parliament in “bad light”. His arrest sparked protests against the government, which was accused of using British colonial-era sedition laws to crack down on dissent. In Tamil Nadu, folk singer and anti-alcohol campaigner Shiva Raj aka Comrade Kovan was arrested in 2015 and charged with sedition for allegedly criticising then chief minister J Jayalalithaa on the issue of prohibition in one of his songs.

On 7th January 2015, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with rifles and other weapons, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. Barbaric beheading of teacher Samuel Paty – on 16th October 2020 on the streets of Paris – by a terrorist for showing the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad to his students has caused public outrage in the land of renaissance.

There are many more recent instances of vendetta where free speech has been suppressed by abusing public office. If we remain a mute spectator or turn a blind eye to such events, then the foundations of our nation will turn hollow. Had Mr. Laxman published the cartoons shared above today, it is anybody’s guess what his fate would have been.

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