Why Are R.K. Laxman's Cartoons Still Relevant In Today's India?
The Times of India

Why Are R.K. Laxman's Cartoons Still Relevant In Today's India?

Do you know one of the most revered cartoonists of India, R.K. Laxman was turned down by the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai in the late 1930s when he had gone seeking admission? It is ironic considering the fact that he would go on to becoming a household name as one of the greatest political cartoonists in India. A few decades down the line, they would even be erecting a memorial on their campus to honour him!

Laxman’s cartoons were never overtly serious, but satirical and often tried to make people aware of the social realities of contemporary India through indirect jabs.

Even though his artistic skill was often not considered at par with his contemporaries, his speciality was supposed to lie in his uncanny ability to connect with people on a larger scale. Laxman amused his readers with his wit and irony for over five decades since 1951 and left them with something to cherish for the rest of their lives.

At first glimpse, his cartoons might seem to be frivolous and funny, but over the years it has turned out that they are timeless pieces of art, which people have found meaning in, during different periods of their lives. His cartoons are almost always cleverly disguised attacks on the country’s socio-political institutions or the bearers of those institutions, Sometimes, they even put a finger on the country’s double standards and the moral dubiousness of its citizens. However, none of those are scathing attacks, but rather satirical jabs, leading to light-hearted banter, or sometimes, a little bit of introspection.

At a time when a pandemic is raging through the country and claiming thousands of lives everyday in the midst of a failing government machinery, Laxman’s comics make more sense than ever. They offer us a glimpse of the ever-failing social and political scenario of the country and the nonchalance of the country’s rulers with regard to it.

This cartoon depicts the state of India in the 1990s when the country saw a brutal instance of communal violence

Laxman is best known for his most beloved character, ‘The Common Man’ and for his daily cartoon strip, You Said It in The Times of India, which started in 1951.

This cartoon was published in the 1970s and shows the plight of the Common man who is promised the moon before elections, but left to the dogs after.

Born in Mysore in 1921 in a Tamil Iyer family, R.K. Laxman was mesmerised by illustrations in magazines like ‘The Strand’, ‘Punch’, ‘Bystander’, ‘Wide World’ and ‘Tit-Bits’, before he had even begun to read. He doodled on his own – on the floors, walls and doors of his house and in his school, and was often hailed by his teachers as an ‘artist in the making’.

Just like Laxman, during the early decades of India’s independence, many such cartoonists, P.K.S. Kutty, Abu Abraham, O.V. Vijayan and Sudhir Dar –- became the watchmen of the newly established democracy.

V.G. Narendra, managing trustee of the Indian Institute of Cartoonists, Bangalore, tells The Wire, “Laxman and other cartoonists like Shankar Pillai, Ahmed, Bal Thackeray, B.V. Ramamurthy were all inspired by Sir David Low, (a) pioneer in world cartooning.”

Political cartoon on politicians’ penchant for air travel and foreign travel.

Laxman’s cartoons had great attention to detail and were firmly based on the socio-political reality of yesteryear India. This kind of playful yet pertinent depiction had a greater impact on people’s mindscapes than dry talk around democracy, bureaucracy and policy. His cartoons can be looked at as the ‘stuff of ethnographic research’, as it moves beyond textual sources towards an understanding of politics through lived experiences and realities. Benedict Anderson, anthropologist and writer of Imagined Communities (1983) assumed newspaper cartoons as ‘symbolic speech’ in political communication.

One of the most stark reflections of contemporary India in Laxman’s cartoons is the ongoing communal violence and Islamophobia that has consistently ruled the mindscape of its citizens for the last few years. A case in point would be systematic oppression of Muslims through the regulation of their personal preferences in food, religious practices and customs, as well as bringing about laws which are openly discriminatory.

Laxman’s cartoons, even though drawn almost 50 years ago, still resonate with the same problems and crises.

This “You Said It” cartoon inspired Air Deccan’s Captain Gopinath to pick the common man as brand ambassador for his airline.

As Dr Ritu Gairola Khanduli, Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Texas writes in The Times of R.K. Laxman: Acche Din (Good Days), “To appreciate the cartoon’s role in forming a modern collective consciousness, he sought to look beyond its obvious ‘lampooning instinct.’ Anderson made a case for the significance of cartoons in political contexts where the public had access to modern political communication but did not have ‘political muscle’.”

Today, in the age of social media, these are emerging again, and reflect the same fears and complaints of the common people as they did before.

This cartoon became relatable when the Indian government banned condom ads on TV during 'prime time'

Laxman’s cartoons cannot be interpreted in isolation, and seem incomplete when devoid of their captions. So, do check out Homegrown’s curation of R.K. Laxman’s cartoons along with their captions (often in fine print) and tell us how you can place it in today’s context.

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