"Your drawings," the letter began, “lack the kind of talent to qualify for enrolment in our institution as a student.” So said the letter of rejection from the dean of Mumbai’s JJ School of Art to a young RK Laxman who had applied for admission. The name of the dean, mercifully, has been forgotten; what’s left is the idle speculation — what would have happened if the school had recognised real talent? Would Laxman have become a painter, possibly just one of the many who graduate from arts school producing oils and water colours, which might please the eye but nothing more? Instead, the rebuff helped produce India’s greatest cartoonist, the man forever linked to the daily ‘You Said It’ pocket cartoon.
On the other hand, it’s possible that nothing would have changed. After all, even as a child, before he could read or write, Laxman had discovered a passion for the cartoons in Strand and Punch magazines, and when he went to school, his caricatures of people he knew (especially teachers) were all over the place — including walls, floors and doors of his house. All this ultimately led to a job in the Free Press Journal, where a fellow cartoonist was a certain Bal Thackeray. From there he moved to the Times of India in 1947. ‘You Said It’, with its befuddled Common Man, was introduced 10 years later, the daily pocket cartoon continuing without interruption till 2003 when a stroke paralysed his left side. After a brief hiatus, he started again, the lines now shaky, the Common Man shrunk somewhat in size though not in content for another seven years.
It’s a remarkable record, but not just for its longevity: What distinguished Laxman’s Common Man from anything else was that he was really the universal Indian, constantly at a loss to understand the oddities of the world around him, particularly the shenanigans of politicians and mantris — a recurrent theme of his drawings.
As a colleague in the Times building at VT, I soon learnt of his formidable — actually forbidding — reputation. His cabin on the third floor was large and tucked into a corner, away from the hurly-burly of the newsroom. Young journalists were warned not to disturb him on his occasional forays outside his cabin when he was known to pace up and down the corridor, possibly when stuck for an idea. A former resident editor confided in a colleague, “Whenever I say something to him about his work which he thinks is criticism, (the reference was to the large political cartoons which appeared in the paper’s Sunday edition), Laxman threatens to resign. Or get me fired. And you know what that means: I will be out of a job.”
As editor of The Independent and The Illustrated Weekly of India, I needed some cartoons for special editions. Inside the cabin I found a relaxed man leafing through a pile of magazines and newspapers. “I read all these,” he told me. “And then, suddenly an idea turns up!” I broached the idea of the cartoons I needed, a deadline was agreed on, and right on the dot, they arrived on my desk. Later, his secretary phoned me, to say, “Mr Laxman wants the drawings back when you are done.”
I remember asking him why he didn’t ever come to our lunch room for his midday meal. “What, and waste my time in that useless gupshup?” So, in preferred isolation he worked, the first to arrive (at 9:30) and the first to leave (at 5) in the black Ambassador he chose to drive himself. When modernity came to the automobile sector in India, he let it pass him by and stuck to his old car, getting it painted a shinier shade of black from time to time.
The artist in RK Laxman found expression in a marvellous series of water colours he did of people, and even more so, of crows. “They are highly intelligent birds,” he said. “In fact, I think they are more intelligent than most people.”
Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal