How the silence of RK Laxman's Common Man primed India to focus on the corruption ailing its democracy

By following the Common Man's line of vision, you see what should be seen. He defiantly refuses to distract, underlining how it is not always necessary to add to the din; how sometimes, it is okay to sit back and soak it all up for the sake of posterity.

Arshia Dhar October 24, 2020 09:17:38 IST
How the silence of RK Laxman's Common Man primed India to focus on the corruption ailing its democracy

Common Man and RK Laxman. File photos.

My tryst with one of RK Laxman's common men — the bumbling and endearing Srinivas Wagle played to perfection by Aanjjan Srivastav in Wagle ki Duniya (directed by Kundan Shah) — happened on television a few years before I met the Common Man of his creation. The show ran for all of two seasons from 1988 to 1990, and it comes as no surprise that the cartoonist himself hand-picked the man who would play the eponymous role. You see, being Laxman's Common Man is no mean feat, but more on that in a bit.

Nearly two decades later, as I forayed into the breathless world of TV journalism as a cub reporter in my maiden full-time job, one of my earliest assignments fell on World Cartoonist's Day in 2016, a year after Laxman's passing. I was deputed to report to his Malabar Hill residence in Mumbai on the occasion, and meet his family of three — son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter — who would eventually take me through his joyously prolific oeuvre, punctuated with the curious presence of crows. I was informed of his fondness for the bird of prey that inhabits a familiar corner of our everyday imaginations. It was the common man's common bird, omnipresent, yet refusing to draw attention. Naturally, its being a part of his legacy made perfect sense, like a no-brainer (which brings to mind Bengali writer, poet and artist Sukumar Ray, father of Satyajit Ray, who also took a fancy to crows as felicitous social commentators). Who else but the common crow to blend into the raucous background of the Indian democracy — while also keeping a keen eye on the action — just as seamlessly as the Everyman?

Laxman's Common Man, much like the crow, was a silent spectator of his surroundings, positioned often-times at the centre, and at others on the margins. Balding, bespectacled, immaculately clad in a checkered-shirt and dhoti, he was always found wearing a suitably startled expression at the prevailing state of affairs. The Common Man debuted in The Times of India in 1951, after the artist quit his first full-time job of a political cartoonist at Mumbai's Free Press Journal, to grace the English daily's mantle for the next 50 odd years. And so began his journey through India's turbid political terrain, as the Common Man rolled every observation into piquant satire.

The artist's paintbrush was unforgiving and spared no one — not even his former colleague at Free Press Journal, Bal Thackeray, who was an erstwhile cartoonist. While at times Laxman's delicious wickedness cut politicians down to size, at others it rattled them enough to make them sit up and take note of the Common Man's misgivings about them. But besides it all, Laxman's pocket cartoon series 'You Said It' was more than just an ordinary chronicler of independent India's history — it transcended the moments it referred to on each day. The panels were pregnant with movement and historicity, well-rounded with unwavering contextual clarity, becoming complete stories unto themselves.

Despite the fact that the Common Man never spoke, his omnipresence allowed him to fit into any groove. He carried bundles, took notes, or just posed as a fly on the wall, but never interrupted the proceedings. His mobility seeped into the larger frame of the cartoons through the interplay of text and image, lending them a certain performative quality. We see people making promises, taking oaths, and barking ultimatums, while democracy roils in the throes of corruption. In the following panel, we observe the politician addressing the crowd solemnly preach what cinema should not be about. The irony is not lost on us or the bewildered Common Man, who stands a suitable distance away, looking on wordlessly. One might even take a second to locate him in the shadows, and soon come to realise that in spite of his seeming alacrity at being the universal observer, he wasn't exactly a doer. He never challenged the status quo or raised his voice — something that his wife, the Common Woman, was more wont to doing. Despite her imposing frame next to her husband's meagre one, her sheer helplessness at the hands of a tattered machinery found seasonal expression through her column cameos. She was often seen rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jayalalitha as well.

But what the Common Man does accomplish rather beguilingly, is affix the reader's gaze upon what is important, tuning out the clangour. We learn to inhabit his shoes rather unselfconsciously. In Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World, author and anthropologist Ritu Gairola Khanduri notes that for Laxman, words meant distraction; he equated silence to power.

But what about the Common Man's silence and watchfulness spells this unflinching power that continues to capture the imaginations of masses, his admirers and critics alike? Does it imply complicity? Certainly not. The Common Man, much like you and I, takes notes and ruminates on what meets (or doesn't meet) his eyes. He documents events to cite them at opportune moments in the future, reminding us of the importance of witnesses and testimonies. When Laxman's fellow Ramon Magsaysay awardee, journalist Ravish Kumar, said in his acceptance speech: "Not all battles are fought for victory - some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield" — I was tempted to believe he was thinking of our Common Man.

This lack of urgency in the observer — who, more often than not, proves to be a seer too — affords them the luxury of making sense of their thoughts, distilling and brewing them in patience. It is a craft unknown to the doer, who, like the Common Woman, pushes and provokes change, thereby adding to the image's performativity. Her words place-hold and evoke social shifts, while the lack of them in case of her husband act as blunt statements. His observations do not aspire for immediate or tangible change, because they are not commentaries.

That, however, does not make the Everyman powerless — he is merely dispassionate in his judgement as he lends his ear to people, absorbing and assimilating. He appeals to a side of us that may not be rebellious, but conscientious, and that's okay.

Through the Common Man, who was often argued to be Laxman's quiet alter ago (while he was fabled to be more Common Woman in person), we make peace with not being the doer at all times. He acknowledges, even appreciates, the thought of getting overwhelmed by one's circumstances, especially in a teething democracy that is barely past its infancy. This, however, does not qualify the Common Man as a fence-sitter. In the illustration below, as he stands between the statesmen, listening to poor farmers say how the famine does not bother them because they have been starving anyway, he tacitly aids the performative aspect of the cartoon by stepping away from the spotlight. By following his line of vision, you see what should be seen. He defiantly refuses to distract, underlining how it is not always necessary to add to the din; how sometimes, it is okay to sit back and soak it all up for the sake of posterity.

When our Everyman walks into two boys being schooled by a moustachioed, gamchha-wearing politician on public etiquette, he looks expectedly startled — no surprises there (in fact, I have often wondered if his perpetual countenance was really born of the utter lack of novelty on display, as people around him repeated the same old tricks, evincing little creativity). In this instance, the irony in his words does not just perform satire, it subverts too. It urges the reader to reclaim the space being seized from them in response to what the Common Man witnesses, even to this day...even after the creator has bowed out.

On RK Laxman's 99th birth anniversary, we would perhaps be wiser off remembering why, despite drawing inspiration from the likes of David Low — the political cartoonist whose anti-Nazi sketches landed him in the infamous Schutzstaffel black book — he never earned the vicious ire of any politician, irrespective of the colour they subscribed to. One may ascribe it to his cartoons not being incendiary, and not seeking to light fires over an immediately visible agenda; he was in for the long haul. Barring the years under Emergency, Laxman's critically observant eye regaled even the harshest of censors with his wry quips. The Common Man's charm was elusive but foolproof, as has been proven beyond doubt — and that is how Laxman chose to leave behind a damaging and lasting dent on the roots of corruption in society.

There will always be an episode of 'You Said It' to hark back to in moments of desperation, as we try to make sense of the ongoing circus. After all, there is a reason why the Common Man has been unanimously voted as the conscience-keeper of this fragile democracy, every single time for seven decades now.

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