QUEEN’S ROAD: A genius sees what we cannot and then the imperceptible becomes as clear as day light. R K Laxman was a soothsayer, a political wit, a humanist and someone who, as Arundhati Nag puts it, "shaped the sensibility of a nation."
Arundhati, who saw husband Shankar Nag collaborate both with R K Narayan and R K Laxman while bringing Malgudi Days to life on the TV screen, recalls, "I always met him socially. He never met us as a famous cartoonist. He kept his creative process very private and worked in isolation but I do remember how intuitive Narayan and Laxman were as they ideated production design and the illustrations for the series. Narayan had to say one word and Laxman would start doodling. Based on his illustration of a statue, we created a large papier-mache statute on the sets. Shankar chose the sketch of little Swami heaving a six with his bat for his name to appear during the credits. Some of the characters were visualised by Laxman in great detail and it was his vision that made Deena Pathak so memorable in the story A Willing Slave."
She is wistful about the era that Laxman represented and says, "We want our legends to live forever but that is not possible and with them also goes a time that they helped define. What a loss this is. We grew up with the Common Man and learnt from him to process our politics. We learnt to laugh at ourselves but the time for that kind of gentle humour is gone. That refined cheekiness and putting across opinion that coaxed truth rather than ripped it out of people is no longer there. Even when Laxman drew a politician with money hidden under his table, he granted him some dignity. Now you have too many television channels and an Arnab screaming everyone down. The intent is to destroy the other person's dignity because that is watchable."
Manjunath Nayaker, the man who played the beguiling little boy Swamy in Malgudi Days too has his own share of memories.
He recalls, "To celebrate the success of Malgudi Days, there was a party at Woodlands, in Chennai. Even after shooting for the series, I couldn't really tell one brother from the other (R K Narayan and R K Laxman), the writer from the artist, at one point. But as soon as I found out that he (Laxman) was a cartoonist, I began to pester him to draw me something."
“I was barely 10 then, and had no idea just how important a figure he was. But he was very affectionate and patient; he explained to me that he couldn’t just draw something like that and also he didn’t have a paper and pen on him. He told me he would draw me something later if possible. Later, I met him at the cartoon gallery here, and he gave me copies of all the sketches he had made for Malgudi Days, which I still have,” says Manjunath Nayaker.
Theatre personality Nimi Ravindran rues, “That time of refined humour is gone. The last 10 years have seen such sweeping changes in the way we conduct ourselves, the way politics unfolds, but we clung to nostalgia because R K Laxman was still sketching. It is ominous that the Common Man died on Republic Day. I hope it is not a portent. He made laughing at ourselves seem so natural, but now laughing at anything is hard, even dangerous. Joy and humour seem to be leaving us.”
She recalls how excited she was when over 10 years ago, she saw him with his wife Kamla at a city restaurant.
“I went upto him but he was grumpy but then who said cartoonists have to be jovial all the time? It is hard to imagine anyone filling his shoes.”
Laxman was an inspiration to thousands of cartoonists. Says Narendra V G, managing trustee, Indian Institute of Cartoonists, “Laxman was full of wit. His humourous streak came through even when he was interacting with the press in Bengaluru in 2009. Someone asked him to name the three best Indian cartoonists and I remember him saying, ‘First Laxman, second Laxman and third Laxman!’”
He continues, “During the same year, when he was here, I learnt that there was a book of unpublished doodles at his brother’s house. I was thrilled and wanted to have another exhibition featuring them. But he refused. But the next year, I got hold of the prints, put them together in a coffee-table book and sent it to him with a letter seeking his permission again to display them. And he agreed and then we organised an exhibition.”
But the most memorable moment that he shared with the legend was in 1979. Recalls Narendra, “He was a guest of honour at an event organised by the Karnataka Association of Cartoonists. I ended up sharing the dais with three of the greatest cartoonists of our time — Laxman, Mario de Miranda and Abu Abraham.”