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Sharp cartoons reflect India's foibles

A celebrated satirist has chronicled the nation's path since independence in '47.

August 17, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

PUNE, INDIA — His career has outlasted more than a dozen governments. The Mr. Magoo-like face of his most beloved character has been immortalized on a postage stamp and adopted as the official symbol of one of India's low-cost airlines. Many of his fans have started their day with him for longer than they have with their husbands or wives.

R.K. Laxman is India's premier newspaper cartoonist, a celebrated satirist and keen political and social observer who has been drawing his trademark panels for the Times of India for 60 years, many of them featuring the permanently bemused Common Man, his most famous creation and a national icon.

His longevity has given him a ringside seat on India's twists and turns, its triumphs and tragedies since independence from Britain in 1947. A collection of his work reads like a history book, a graphic chronicle of an unruly nation struggling to govern itself and embrace modernity amid poverty, corruption and religious strife.

Laxman's unsparing look at life in India and his instantly recognizable style, all bold lines and subtle shading, have made him the country's "finest journalist" for much of his career, in the opinion of Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India.

"In a few strokes of the pen and one caption," Padgaonkar said, "he'd encapsulate the particular mood at that time finer than any of these analyses you'd read in the paper."

Now 84, Laxman still sits down at his desk every morning to create the cartoons that skewer the country's leaders, and sometimes the led. He continues to offer up his take on the absurdities and quiddities of life in the world's most populous democracy, though some say the sharp eye and wit have dimmed. His single-panel cartoon, "You Said It," runs six days a week, featuring one of the country's most recognized signatures, with its Zorro-like slash through the "x."

"If I don't do it, I won't survive," he declared in an interview at his home here in western India. "It's a habit."

A stroke a few years ago impaired movement on his left side. (Fortunately, he draws with his right hand.) His hair is thinning on top, and he squints from behind a pair of thick glasses. Like pets that begin to look like their owners, he bears a growing resemblance to the bewhiskered, bespectacled Common Man, a character in a rumpled checked shirt with neither a name nor a voice.

Since he sprang from the mind and pen of his creator half a century ago, the Common Man has become Laxman's vehicle for expressing the bewilderment, long suffering and resignation of those he has described as "the mute millions of India."

For decades, Laxman has excelled and delighted in needling India's ruling elite, who have promised much but delivered little, leaving a desperately needy populace as hungry and deprived as ever.

In 1969, after U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, Laxman depicted the Common Man being introduced to NASA scientists as the perfect candidate for life on the moon. "This is our man! He can survive without water, food, light, air, shelter."

Years later, when India still lacked reliable telecommunications, an office worker in a Laxman cartoon protests to another that "of course" his phone works: "It worked on May 4th, June 21st and again on the 2nd of this month."

Particularly in the first few decades of his career, Laxman's acerbic observations and the Common Man's ever-befuddled expression served as much-needed correctives to the lofty but empty rhetoric of pompous officials.

"At a time when India hadn't opened up in the way it has now . . . Laxman's point of view was very important," Padgaonkar said.

But the irreverent artist who gleefully pricks the egos of politicians can be critical of his fellow ordinary Indians just as well.

He once remarked that crows, which have fascinated him throughout his life, lined up to jump into a puddle with more order and discipline than seen in any Indian bus queue. One of his cartoons took aim at the propensity for public urination among many Indian men, with an observer expressing surprise that India had any problem with depleting water tables.

As a child, Laxman spent hours sitting on a bench and sketching the activity around him in the southern Indian city of Mysore. He had difficulty at school with math problems asking him to divide 15 mangoes among three people, but he could draw a mango, a leaf, a tiger with precision and panache.

One of his teachers noted his talent and encouraged him. Another shook with anger when he caught the boy caricaturing him with bug eyes and buck teeth.

In one of history's ironies, Laxman was turned down for admission to an art school in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. But submissions to newspapers and magazines and his illustrations for books written by his brother R.K. Narayan, who went on to become one of India's greatest authors of the 20th century, helped build his reputation.

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