सोमवार, 19 जनवरी 2015

The Legend of Political Cartooning; R. K. Laxman

With R.K. Laxman in 2000
Through out the fifties, sixties, seventies news papers from all over the world come and ask me to join them. Baltimore Sun, San Francisco chronicles. Imagine me there! Where would I find characters like the ones out here?” This reply to a question by Laxman Shows the immense possibilities he explored in India as a cartoonist.

He was the little corner on the front page that left you wondering at the idiosyncrasies of our politicians. To most he is an institution, a legend in his life. He was the ‘man of humor’ the senior cartoonist Padma Vibhushan R.K.Laxman, who was also awarded by the prestigious Ramon Magasaysay Award which is considered to be Asian Noble and many other awards. He also has the distinction of being the only journalist who by means of his chosen medium has covered perhaps every major political event in India over the last 50 years.

 “A little humility is not a bad thing if you are at the top”, writes fellow cartoonist Sudhir dar as he recounts this story of the cartoonist Ranan Lurie’s meeting with Laxman. When the American asked him who the best Indian cartoonist was, Laxman flashed back, “I am”. The second, third, fourth, fifth best man of job? Laxman continued to repeat, “I am”?

He says, “Generally, people take every thing for granted. They hardly see anything around them. But I had a keen eye. I observed everything and had a gift for recalling details. This is essential for every cartoonist and illustrator.”

His receptive razor sharp mind absorbed literally every thing in his fellow beings including their idiosyncrasies and the environment and recreates them at leisure into a cartoon that depicts man as the most ridiculous of nature’s creations. “I don’t look at the world the way every one does. I enjoy watching people go up and down the corridors of life from my corner. Wondering where streams of human population is heading and for what. It makes me depict them the way I do”, he said

Rasipuram Krshnaswami Laxman was born in 1924 in Karnataka. From an illustrious intellectual family in Mysore, South India, Laxman was drawing by the time he started school. He also began to study the cartoons in The Hindu by David Low, dean of British cartoonists, who would one day visit the young man in Bombay and compliment him on his work.

R. K. Laxman writes in his autobiography The Tunnel of Time; “One day, by accident, I saw a cartoon opposite to the editorial page of Hindu. I studied it. It made no sense to me, but the brilliance of its draftsmanship was stunning and held by attention for a long time. The cartoon showed three mountains. The giant waves, the boat, the people were all labeled. I looked at the name of the marvelous artist at the bottom of the cartoon. It was brief and bold and I read it as ‘COW’.”

“From that day on I looked for the ‘COW’ cartoon which appeared now and then in the Hindu. I spent hour’s garing at the drawing and observing its finer points; the gentle caricature of faces, the effortless flow of lines, the perspective, the drapery- all done in controlled distortion – a master piece of visual satire. But of course I understand nothing of the cartoon’s political content. With great effort I tried to grasp that too. All that I could read was words written on the figure, such as, ‘Armament’, ‘Trade Wars’, ‘League of Nations’ and so on. I became an avid follower of this illustrator’s work. Only much later I learnt his name was not ‘COW’ but ‘LOW’ – the world- renowned sir David Low.
Self-taught, in high school he was illustrating the short stories of his author-brother, R. K. Narayan. This was his first professional assignment in the field of cartooning and illustration. In his own words, “When Narayan’s stories began to get published in The Hindu, Madras, he asked me to illustrate them. I knew exactly what he wanted, and whom he had in mind for his characters. Didn’t we belong to the same place? Hadn’t I spent hours in every spot around us, including the busy market square? Hadn’t I sketched all those real people he wrote about? Look at this old vegetable seller. She refuses to bring her price down despite the customer’s determined haggling.”

“As I drew hundreds of pictures I picked up the techniques quite naturally. Trial and error taught me to use brush and paint and ink. Others beside Narayan began to ask me to illustrate their stories for them.”

“When I grew up and became a full-time cartoonist, I had little time to paint or to illustrate stories. But I did draw Thamas, the baby elephant, little bird Gumchikki who was his best friend, other woodland creatures. My wife kamala wrote stories about their adventures in the jungle.”
Initially he had also drawn for a Kannada Magazine called Koravanji. In Laxman’s words, “I sketched a vivacious looking damsel in the pose of a folk dancer. At that time World War II was on and its effect was felt even in Mysore. There were blackouts at night, food rationing, and shortages of essential commodities. All these yielded rich material for my funny cartoons for the new magazine. The publication also contained good reading material written by competent authors. The magazine soon picked up circulation and became a talking point among the public.”

One of his friends suggested him to apply for the famous Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Arts, Bombay. He talked about this interesting incident in his auto biography the tunnel of time. He wasn’t able to clear the entrance exam in this prestigious art school. After becoming a professional cartoonist he was invited by the same collage to give a lecture on his art form. It was one of the most memorable moments of his life when he was escorted by the dean of the same collage which once denied his potential to study in it.  

Political cartooning is considered as a dying art now and Laxman was not happy with the quality of political cartooning in his days too. Laxman even not unleash many other cartoonists from ridiculing. He said, “Many who belong to my fraternity take political cartooning very easy. The time devoted to their professional work seems incidental to their more relaxing preoccupations. Of course, cartoons of the kind one see in magazines and columns devoted to provoking a smile need less exacting concentration-for instance, funny situations arising out of helpless parents dealing with a naughty boy, or the driver of a speeding car caught by the police, or a fat lady trying to lose weight, or humour arising from doctor-patient relations, bungling players on the golf course, situations in cocktail parties, and so on. Several variations of all these could be drawn and stashed away and the cartoonist could relax till the stock lasted.”

“But not so the political cartoonist. He has to be alert and wrestle with the political events as and when they arise, and he should prove worthy of his reputation day after day. I used to look upon some of the cartoonists with secret wonder-how could they be loitering when the sword of the deadline to produce the cartoon was hanging over their heads!”

I’m a lucky journalist, who got an opportunity to spend some time with Laxman and listen his advice to develop a sense of humor towards political activities around you. His perception and outlook towards the politics and politicians was quiet different and effective from all other journalists who are just seeing it and commenting on it. His book eloquent brush gives you the brief history of Indian Politics in a humorous way. In his own words, “The politician, usually the one who inspired the cartoons, had also a share in lowering the quality of cartoons. Earlier his political cunning, the deception he practiced on the gullible public without being caught, and the false promises he made during election time, were all material for the cartoonist. He exposed these hidden characteristics through his cartoons, giving a moment of joy to the tormented common man. But over the years, the sinister motives and evil intentions of the politicians ceased to be subtle. They became transparent as if put in a glass case for all to see. The cartoonist needed to do nothing to expose or reveal the clown behind the mask!”

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