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Sunil Sethi: A few days with R K Laxman

We were trooping out of the weekly India Today editorial meeting one Saturday afternoon when Aroon Purie grabbed me by the arm and said, “Why don’t you go down to Bombay and do a profile of R K Laxman?” Like the best of editors, he often birthed stories head first, beginning with the headline. “And we’ll call it ‘King of the Cartoon’.” This was in the latter half of 1981, and though slated as a cover story, it was eventually published as a long feature under that heading in the December 15 issue. Laxman, when I rang, sounded pleased at the idea. Other than being dexterously handed and prodigiously prolific he was punctilious about his time. He had a better idea: his wife and he were going to Madras (they were Madras and Bombay then) to attend a wedding. Why didn’t I accompany them, he suggested, his days would be relatively free, and then return to his home in Bombay. It was a delightful few days being adopted by R K Laxman.

We wandered the streets of the city where he had briefly worked in the animation department of Gemini Studios and where he illustrated almost every short story and piece his distinguished brother R K Narayan wrote for The Hindu from the 1930s onwards, receiving the princely fee of Rs 2.50 by money order, for each drawing.

Like many others, I discovered he was that rare combination of a funny man in print who could be funny in real life. He was an incorrigible mimic; and also widely read and knowledgeable about art, explaining, for example, the stylistic brevity of sculpture in Halebid, or tracing the European tradition in visual satire from Hogarth to Honore Daumier. “Sudden guffaws and gusts of laughter shake his slight, stooping frame, as his imposing head of white hair is furiously and frequently kept at bay with the aid of an army of pocket combs.”

In Bombay, he introduced me to some of his friends, peers and editors, and evoked scenes of a childhood of unalloyed happiness. Born in 1921, the youngest of eight children, he was the family favourite, “always indulged and spoilt”. But he did not make a creditable student. Professor Bharat Raj Singh, his tutor at college in Mysore, told me that “he approached studies like measles – something one had to grow up with”. Turned down by the J J School of Arts, he made the classic assault on Bombay journalism in 1946 with a drawing portfolio and Rs 50 in his pocket. R K Karanjia, who had just started the tabloid Blitz, gave him his first break. “We were an entirely new paper, and badly required new talent. I gave the young man a job on the spot,” he said. Later at The Free Press Journal, where he shared a room with Bal Thackeray, the paper’s other illustrator, he would produce up to five cartoons a day, in addition to illustrations and caricatures, drawing at furious speed. “I was the only cartoonist to do night duty.”

R K Laxman had an indomitable sense of amour propre. When the Journal‘s proprietor admonished him “to draw Communists nicely” the young cartoonist promptly resigned. Walter Langhammer, then the large and lordly German art director of Bennett Coleman, publishers of The Times of India, slipped a blank sheet at him and commanded: “Now draw!” The start of his enduring and iconic rise in that paper’s pages for more than half a century was not notable. He drew sketches for The Illustrated Weekly of India, even Filmfare, before the appearance of the “Common Man” and weekend political cartoons made him a cult figure. His allegiance was to cartoonists of the old Punch magazine such as David Low and Vicki; he did not care for the abstractionist splotches and splashes of Ralph Steadman. He also believed that the age of television and speed news had rung the death knell for the cartoonist as thinker.

His abiding passion was to create quirky ink-and-wash drawings of crows, cats and canaries. In our on-and-off acquaintance I asked if I could acquire one of his crows. On his next visit to Delhi – he enjoyed a beer lunch at the Gymkhana Club – he fished it out. “That’ll be Rs 500,” he said, all smiles. “Special discount for you!” Years later, when I was a columnist with The Times of India, I asked if he would let me have his thumbnail sketch of me. No, reported Dina Vakil, then the paper’s resident editor, Laxman says you can have a photocopy. I don’t know where that went but his comical crow is a much-cherished possession.


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