The great cartoonist R K Laxman, who died yesterday in Pune, India at the age 94, had a deftly common touch to his lines and humor. He built what is arguably India’s finest career in cartooning on the strength of his gentle quirkiness that naturally avoided being abrasive for the sake of being abrasive.
For decades, Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ (See my version above) delivered to millions of Indians a combination of humor, satire and sociopolitical comment in a way that prompted reflection rather than derision.
It is no coincidence that Laxman, known for his perspective from the standpoint of the common folk, regarded the crow as his favorite bird. Shorn of apparent elegance and often scoffed at for its common ways, the bird attracted Laxman. I would argue that Laxman’s crows are perhaps his finest creation. He captured the crow’s self-assured body language and street smart brilliantly.
The cartoonist stayed away from withering wit that might leave his subjects emotionally bruised but made the point nevertheless. When it came to the self-assuredness of lines, I think his friend and contemporary Bal Thackeray had more of it. In fact, Thackeray’s political humor was decidedly more stinging and lines way sharper. It is not about one being better than the other. It is just a matter of different styles. Of course, considering his vast output Laxman could often lapse into stating the obvious in a particularly trite fashion.
He was not what one might call a laugh out loud or, in modern parlance LOL, cartoonist. He was what I call smile out loud or SOL cartoonist. It is not for me to say whether he could produce LOL humor. May be he could or may be he couldn’t. However, as a political cartoonist his job was as much to make you laugh/smile as to make you think. Every time Laxman drew his lines one got the sense that he was also drawing the line of good taste.
I met Laxman only once and that too for less than ten minutes in 1982. I have written about that encounter in a somewhat tangential context here. That encounter led me to give up the idea of pursuing a career as a cartoonist. I had the humor and perspective to be one but not the fine ability to caricature through lines. That explains why I have, late in my life, taken to abstract art.
My version of Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ above took me less than 10 minutes to finish. As I finished it I remembered his advice to me 33 years ago. He said my caption was “clever” but drawing “terrible.” “Work on your caricature skills. Cartoons are as much about words as they are about drawings,” he had said. I think my caricature has since become better.