Monday, January 26, 2015

RK Laxman: Common Man No More

One of India's most eminent cartoonists RK Laxman, the creator of the unforgettable cartoon character 'The Common Man', died at the Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital in Pune at 6:50 pm this evening. He was 94 years old. 
Mr Laxman was in an unconscious state, and was supported by a ventilator for the past several days. He breathed his last after suffering from multi-organ and kidney failure, his son Srinivas Laxman tolf NDTV. "He passed away peacefully. It is sad."

Born on October 24, 1921 in Mysore in a Tamil family, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman's talent first found expression on the doors and walls of his home. But his application at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai was rejected, as he was told he "lacked quality".

But he hit the big league when he moved to Mumbai, working first at the 'Blitz' magazine, and then at the 'Free Press Journal'. It was in Mumbai that he also met and worked with two other famous cartoonists - Balasaheb Thackeray, who later went to found the Shiv Sena, and Goa-born Mario Miranda. Colleagues who became friends and were in touch till they passed away. 

But it was this daily cartoon strip on the front page of the 'Times of India', called 'You Said It', chronicling India through the eyes of 'The Common Man', that shot Mr Laxman to fame. The character - an old frazzled gentleman with a wisp of white hair - was always clad in a distinctive checked shirt and dhoti. His oversized pair of glasses, added to his eternal look of bewilderment. Shared with the world every morning for 60 years, the humorist spared no one. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr Laxman fearlessly lampooned them all.

Awarded the second highest civilian honour, Padma Vibhushan, the political satirist took on corrupt politicians, scheming bureaucrats, policemen and gossipy housewives with equal fervor, becoming a critical commentator of India's inequalities and quality of leadership. 

"He never cancelled his cartoons. He would draw what came to his mind. There never was a first, second or third draft. He would draw one cartoon a day and that was the final one. That was the clarity of concept in the mind of Laxman," his close friend, Dharmendra Bhandari, had observed a few years ago. 

Mr Laxman also drew sketches for his equally illustrious elder brother RK Narayan's stories, on the fictional town of Malgudi. And his humour was at best sarcastic but never venomous, bringing a smile even to the most serious of politicians.

A few years ago, at an event honoring the illustrator, Gursharan Kaur, the wife of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had said, "I begin my day with a look at what the Common Man is up to. Even my husband, who is often a subject in his cartoons, smiles when he sees it."
His work is so deeply entrenched in India's psyche, that even though politicians and governments have come and gone, the 'Common Man' has endured the test of time. Statues in Mumbai and Pune are a reminder of his greatness.

And yet, all his life, he remained fiercely critical of the political class. As he once famously said, "I wouldn't say politicians represent the country. I don't think they do. They have forgotten the common man, they think the common man belongs to them, to serve them."