Untold Tales: Cartoonist Alok Sharma Pays Tribute To R.K. Laxman Through Memories & Fond Observations

Untold Tales: Cartoonist Alok Sharma Pays Tribute To R.K. Laxman Through Memories & Fond Observations

R.K. Laxman was never bothered with the complexities of human existence. Choosing to forego debate over the spectre of death or the impending extinction of mankind for quieter observations, he became a symbol of a common denominator in India, entirely symbolic of the common man. But perhaps the reason he is mourned so dearly post his passing yesterday (aged 94) in a Pune hospital is because it was never about waging a war against the political elite or whichever upholders of social injustice he chose to sketch a commentary on.

Instead, he focussed on simple humour, drawing inspiration from the common man and common occurrences, choosing to draw out a light-hearted laugh from his readers, rather than offended rage from his subjects and it’s this that endeared him to many even if they don’t know it.

In the bevy of tribute posts that swarm the internet today, we were keen to remember the eminent cartoonist in our own way but rather than attempt it ourselves, someone with far more context came to our rescue.

Someone who’s spent their life in pursuit of a cartoon/comic existence, Alok Sharma has not only been chronicling the largely untouched subject of Indian Comics as a serious art form that covers its history, evolution and socio-cultural significance, he also spent his early schooling years as a political cartoonist and was lucky enough to have interacted with the legend Laxman more than a few times over a decade ago.

RK Laxman going through some of Alok Sharma's cartoons, many years ago at an event.
RK Laxman going through some of Alok Sharma's cartoons, many years ago at an event.

To Sharma, Laxman was the ultimate inspiration, a godfather in the world of Indian comics, albeit a more accessible one. To Laxman, Sharma was a precocious young boy, amusing in his unlikely seriousness about drawing political cartoons at such a young age.

Having observed and jotted down all the peculiarities about Laxman he could possibly tuck away in a few meetings, Sharma shared 13 of his own personal ‘things you did not know about RK Laxman.’ But before he went ahead with that, he shared a little excerpt of their relationship:

“We met a couple times but over a decade ago. I was only in school and already drawing political cartoons, he thought I was far too young to be pursuing such a means of expression. Still, he asked me if I read the newspaper and when I told him I read 4 per day, he found it both funny and impressive. He also asked me in an extremely tongue-in-cheek way whether I had a plan B in case being a cartoonist didn’t work out.

I realized later, when I was better acquainted with his philosophies and work that this was because he felt newspapers did not pay cartoonists well enough. I was eager to draw his caricature myself but he didn’t like that so I went back to my hotel room and drew one anyway but was absolutely terrified to show it to him. Senior Cartoonist B.V.Panduranga Rao encouraged me to show it to him anyway because he told me he didn’t like live sketching but he appreciated it when cartoonists were able to draw from memory, which is what I had done.

When I took it to him, he really loved it and even showed it to his wife! Then he autographed it for me and jokingly asked whether he could keep it. I couldn’t part with an autograph by him on one of my cartoons so I offered to give him a xerox but he only laughed and turned it down.”

Alok's caricature of Laxman and his common man that won him the respect of the legend.
Alok's caricature of Laxman and his common man that won him the respect of the legend.
And Laxman's sketch of the common man in Sharma's notebook.
And Laxman's sketch of the common man in Sharma's notebook.

All said and done, it’s exceedingly clear that Sharma shared something fleeting yet special with the great cartoonist so without further ado, here’s his remembrance of the legend in some wonderfully interesting facts you probably didn’t know about him. With visual imagery to boot, of course.

1. Laxman was multi-talented. Besides being a cartoonist, he was also a magician, handyman, watch repairer and a model maker though not to many people were aware of this.

2. But despite being gifted with their repair, he never wore a watch himself.

3. Laxman’s common man also appeared on a postage stamp in 1988 commemorating 150 years of Times of India. Perhaps the only time a pre-existing cartoon was given this honour in the history of the Indian Post. It’s also telling of just how impactful and symbolic his common man cartoons (its not a strip) became for the country.

4. Laxman’s hand and cartoons had a Bollywood debut. They were actually used in the classic rom-com Mr. and Mrs. 55 in which Guru Dutt plays a cartoonist. In one of the scenes, you can even see Laxman’s hand drawing a cartoon of Lalita Pawar, Guru Dutt and Madhubala, though in the story it was understood to be Guru Dutt’s hand. More interestingly still, the films opening credits used Laxman’s cartoons too, forever immortalising his work in reel.

5. Door Darshan had a TV Series based on Laxman’s common man called Wagle Ki Duniya produced by Durga Khote, one of India’s legendary actresses from the 1940s-50s. Common man was played by Anjan Srivastav and much before he became a star, even Shah Rukh Khan played a small role in one of the episodes.

6. Though people often forget, Laxman’s illustrations appeared in The Hindu well before his TOI days, usually as visual support for his brother R.K. Narayanan’s short stories in the same paper.

7. No matter what the weather outside was, one of his eccentricities was to always wear a half sleeve shirt no matter the occasion or circumstance. 

8. Similarly, he never visited a barber in his entire life. Instead, he chose to cut his own hair.

9. He also made several illustrations for his wife, Kamala Laxman’s children’s books.

10. However, more popular still (besides his common man of course) were the crows he loved to draw that have become something of a favourite with art collectors.

11. Asian Paint’s Mascot Gattu is designed by Laxman, possibly the only time a political cartoonist drew a mascot for a company in India.

12. Laxman was commissioned alongside Bal Thackeray (who was a cartoonist before he became a politician) by TOI to emulate British Cartoonist David Low’s style and draw cartoons based on Indian Socio-Political Scenario, as by the time Low’s cartoons reached TOI, the news items were already gone for printing. Low also happened to be Laxman’s favorite artist ever since he first saw his work in The Hindu.

13. In a truly full circle moment of truth, Laxman was originally denied entrance into the prestigious J.J. School Of Arts when he applied however, when he became one of the most eminent cartoonists in our country, he was invited by the school as a Chief Guest for one of its annual functions.

Points & Images Courtesy: Alok Sharma

[Alok Sharma is a writer, director and filmmaker, who started off as a comic book illustrator with Gotham Comics, before eventually moving into Radio for a brief period. The mad maximalist has worked with The Walt Disney Co. (India), Turner (Cartoon Network, Pogo), BBC (India), Red Chilies, Yash Raj Films, STAR India and The Epic Channel as a creative consultant.

Currently, he is working on his personal project ‘Chitrakatha - Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels’, a documentary film that breaks the mould and explores the largely untouched subject of Indian Comics as a serious art form. It covers the history, evolution and socio-cultural significance, as well as the future of Indian comics, through a series of conversational interviews with Indian Comic Book Creators.

Alok is also currently creating and developing IPs for some of the biggest Indian and International Studios, as well as writing mainstream feature films.]