There is an interesting sub-genre of biography which involves one professional writing about another in the same field. Examples include (to list only works I have myself read) Roy Harrod’s biography of John Maynard Keynes; Ashley Mallett’s biography of Clarrie Grimmett; Richard Evans’ biography of Eric Hobsbawm; and Paul Theroux’s impressionistic memoir of VS Naipaul.
These books vary widely in theme, mode of narration and literary quality. However, they have three features in common. First, in each case, the biographer is younger than his subject. (Harrod was 17 years younger than Keynes, Mallett 54 years younger than Grimmett, Evans 30 years younger than Hobsbawm, Theroux nine years younger than Naipaul.)
Second, in each case, the biographer had a personal acquaintance with his subject. In two instances (Harrod with Keynes and Theroux with Naipaul), the engagement was close and intense; in the other two (Mallett with Grimmett and Evans with Hobsbawm), it was more fleeting.
Third, and most important, in each case, the biographer, while proficient enough in his field, was somewhat less celebrated than the person he was writing about. Harrod was a well-known British economist, mostly based in Oxford; whereas Keynes, based in Cambridge, was the most influential economist of the 20th century. Mallett was a moderately successful off-spin bowler for Australia, whereas Grimmett was the first great wrist-spinner in cricket history, beginning a line that carried on with Bill O’Reilly, Richie Benaud, and, above all, Shane Warne.
Evans is a widely published historian, the author of many books on 20th-century Germany, whereas Hobsbawm’s work was global in its range, transforming the field of historical scholarship in countries across the world. Theroux is a prolific novelist and travel writer, who has achieved a fair amount of professional and pecuniary success, whereas Naipaul, working in the same genres, won the highest possible accolade for a writer, the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In each of these four cases, a firstclass craftsman was, through the medium of a book, paying tribute to a true genius in his field.
I am happy to relate that there is now an honourable Indian addition to this genre of biographical writing: EP Unny’s monograph on RK Laxman. Born in 1954, 33 years after Laxman, Unny is a skilled and successful cartoonist himself. I do not know if they ever met, but the book is suffused with the characteristics of the genre, the younger man paying homage to an older master of his art.
RK Laxman was born and raised in the city of Mysore. His first known sketch was of his schoolteacher father, drawn on the floor of his house. The boy wanted to study at Bombay’s famed JJ School of Art but failed to get admission. He did a regular BA degree in Mysore instead, sketching and painting the city’s landmarks in his spare time. He pored over the illustrations in the newspapers and magazines that came into the family home, developing a special admiration for the work of the sardonic New Zealander, David Low, whose cartoons in the London Evening Standard were reproduced in The Hindu of Madras.
Decades later, asked to be the chief guest at a function in the JJ School, Laxman reflected that had he studied there, he might, like so many of its graduates, have become a well-paid art director in an advertising agency. The JJ School’s decision was truly a rejection with historic consequences, and we must be grateful to the examiners who saw Laxman as unworthy of being an art student.
Laxman got his first job at The Free Press Journal in Bombay in 1947, just before the birth of the nation. He soon moved to The Times of India, where he spent the rest of his working days. Unny nicely describes Laxman’s technique, his “deft brushstrokes that left no scope for smudges or smears” when it was set up for printing. The most important character in this biographical monograph, apart from Laxman himself, is his creation, “The Common Man”, clad in dhoti and checked jacket, through whose presence and mostly unspoken observations the artist captured the paradoxes and complications of everyday life in India.
Equal opportunity offender
Unny offers an interesting comparison between RK Laxman and the pre-eminent Indian cartoonist of an earlier generation, K Shankar Pillai. Both grew up in progressive princely states. Both were upper caste Hindus with early access to an English education and decent libraries. Unny argues that these two giants influenced two distinct “schools of cartooning”; namely, “the soft appealing humour of a peerless Laxman versus the direct firebrand style of Shankar”. As a consumer rather than practitioner, I would like to take issue with this interpretation.
First, as Unny’s own narrative shows at several places, the work of Laxman often had a sharp political edge. The real distinction is that while Shankar wore his ideology on his sleeve – he was an anti-colonial nationalist who felt that the post-Independence Congress should more fully live up to the ideals of the freedom struggle – Laxman was scrupulously non-partisan without ever being non-political. Rather, he was an equal opportunity offender, who, whenever he saw reason to, skewered politicians of all ideologies and all parties.
Second, while there perhaps was a Shankar school of Indian cartoonists, Laxman left no disciples or followers. He could not or would not create a gharana. He was sui generis. None of his contemporaries could draw as well as him; none had his ability to create crisp one-liners (had he indeed joined an ad agency, he might have ended up as a star copywriter rather than illustrator); none his maverick, idiosyncratic sense of humour and of the absurd. There were other aspects to his genius that defy description or analysis. Suffice it to say that he or his art could not be reproduced or imitated. There was ever only one Garry Sobers, and there can be only one RK Laxman.
Laxman lived through the tenures of a dozen prime ministers, and had occasion to make fun of them all. His pen and his brush did not spare lesser politicians either (such as LK Advani, whose transition from soft-spoken apparatchik to fire-breathing demagogue was brilliantly captured in Laxman’s cartoons). A great deal of Laxman’s work endures; yet, as Unny suggests, he was perhaps at his best when commenting, whether in word or by picture, on Indira Gandhi. If Laxman’s cartoons on Mrs Gandhi “were annotated and compiled,” writes Unny, “they would make a political biography hard to beat. Caricaturing rarely got more dynamic. The wide-eyed novice; the wild dancer on an economic minefield; the street politician flinging stones at the oldies in the party; the overreacher brandishing a sword to taunt the statue of Justice; in retreat after an electoral upset, pushing her son Sanjay in a pram to the suburbs.”
Unny also writes insightfully about Laxman’s relationship with the city that became his karmabhoomi. “Cartoons have a history of growing with cities,” he remarks, “and Mumbai was a city waiting for its cartoonist. Laxman stepped in to find a willing mass of newspaper readers battling everyday issues. His cartoons told them that the chaos was common to all; there was nothing personal about it and added, for good measure, that much of the chaos was thanks to the rulers in faraway Delhi.” Laxman’s readers saw something of themselves in the Common Man, occupying a not always comfortable niche in the crowded and troubled Indian city.
Reading this book, I was led to speculate on the connection between coasts and cartoonists. Many of the most influential practitioners of this art in modern India have come from the state of Kerala; among them Shankar, Abu Abraham, OV Vijayan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Unny himself. Then we had Mario Miranda from Goa. Among the younger cartoonists making a mark today is Satish Acharya, who is from the coastal belt of Karnataka.
Laxman’s hometown, Mysore, lies deep in the interior, but fortunately, he was able to migrate to Bombay and live and work there. In some ways, his career mirrored that of his early hero, David Low, who moved from the provincial backwaters of New Zealand to the most interesting city in the world. A Kiwi who migrated to London; the Mysorean who found himself in Bombay. Their insular native hearth could never have provided them the awareness of social and economic diversity, the exposure to currents from all across the world, the intellectual and cultural creativity that great cities on the coast encourage and foster.
The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is email@example.com.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph.