On January 26, 2015, noted cartoonist RK Laxman passed away into the ages. On this occasion, Rediff.com goes back in time to June 27,1998 and finds this interview where the cartoonist spoke of how he survived Indian politics.
One of the enduring treasures of modern India is cartoonist R K Laxman. At a function held in Bombay, Laxman’s book on 50 years of Independence -- as seen through the eyes of his Common Man -- was released amidst much critical acclaim. Here, the media-shy Laxman talks to Pritish Nandy about how his Common Man has survived half a century of Indian politics.
How do you see the maturing of Indian democracy over the past 50 years?
Democracy today is not what Pericles of Athens conceived. The population was then only 3,500 at the most. Many of them were soldiers. The rest were politicians. It was simpler, easier to make democracy work. What you have today is not democracy.
What is it then? In what way is it different from democracy as it was conceived?
Equality and all that is not possible. What we have today is forced. Forced equality through the Constitution. In those days, people were actually equal. Today, we are trying to force equality down the throats of people. Imagine politicians like Phoolan Devi, Pappu Kalani, Arun Gawli! These are the people being voted into power. Some of them are winning elections from inside the jails. Some of them are voting from behind bars. Amazing!
Arun Gawli floated a political party from inside jail! Lalu Prasad Yadav, who ought to be inside jail, is actually outside. And Jayalalithaa is growing so large that I do not know which jail can accommodate her! This is not democracy. It may be autocracy, plutocracy... but not democracy. It is terrible...
But don’t you find it amusing? As a cartoonist, does this not inspire you?
Yes, thanks to being a cartoonist, I am amused. Frankly, our politics is so sad that if I had not been a cartoonist, I would have committed suicide.
How have you, as a cartoonist, captured the spirit of this change over the past 50 years?
Before 50 years, we accepted imperialism. We never bothered much about democracy. We accepted the idea of being kicked around. It was okay. But now, when we don’t accept the idea of being kicked around, we are being kicked around!
What sort of a democracy are we talking about, Pritish? How many amendments have been there? 370? Every other day there is something. And now West Bengal and Bihar are saying you cannot prosecute us. Law and order is entirely our business. We will kill and strangle and poison our people but constitutionally you have no right to interfere!
In the name of Ram Mandir you do anything. In the name of caste, religion, community you do anything. You kill anyone, murder anyone but nobody minds because we have so many people around. Our asset is our population. Whatever you do, however many you kill, murder, injure -- the numbers never diminish. So nobody cares.
How have you seen the leadership change over these years?
From bad to worse. Nehru made the initial mistake of not attending to the priorities of the nation. Education was the first priority in my opinion. Adult education. Free education for children. But his priority was different. Standing in the queue every five years and voting. Blind men. Lame men. Stunted villagers. All standing in line and voting without knowing who and what the hell they are voting for. It is terrible!
But it is good for me. The worse they become, the more interesting my cartoons become. For a short while I was afraid that Rajiv Gandhi would bring some sort of a change in our political life. He was young, smart, with a scientific mind. He spoke of the future with such conviction. It frightened me.
But he also changed...
By God, and how! Thank God. Otherwise, I would have had problems. My cartooning would have stopped!
Who were the characters you found most inspiring, most ridiculous?
Between you and me, all of them. From the pretentious dignity of Mrs Gandhi to the grumpy face of Narasimha Rao. Something happens to all of them when they come to power. They change overnight.
Who were your pet aversions?
All of them. I think anarchy would have suited us better. Of course, that is exactly what we are enjoying now. I am reminded of my best cartoon...
Your best cartoon?
I have not drawn my best cartoon yet but my favourite one, you could say. It shows Sukh Ram sitting behind a table. His drawers, his cupboards, his secret hiding places are all open, full of currency notes. Notes, notes, notes. They are everything. He is guarding them. And, then he calls out to his secretary and asks her: 'Is there a blank sheet of paper somewhere here on which I can write to the President, saying I am innocent?...’
The entire house does not have a single sheet of paper to write on! It’s full of only currency notes! That cartoon reflects the quality of our leadership.
Is there any cartoonist anywhere whose work you admire?
Throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies newspapers from all over the world would come and ask me to join them. Baltimore Sun. San Francisco Chronicle. Imagine me there! Where would I find characters like the ones out here?
What about Monica Lewinsky?
Those are not political cartoons. They don’t excite me. You cannot go on and on with subjects like sex. Here, our subjects are endless. That’s why political cartooning in the West is so mediocre. There’s nothing to it. They draw Clinton like a bull in a china shop and things like that. I do not find them amusing at all.
Who is the most boring person you have caricatured?
Jyoti Basu. He is very boring, very dull.
That means he must be a good, clean guy? Decent people are difficult to lampoon.
Then he should not be in politics. He should retire and go.
Did the common man ever feel angry? He always looks sad, desolate and disappointed. Never angry, never itching for a fight.
Yes, he did. When the Congress of Mrs Gandhi was defeated, I did a cartoon of this big, bad giant (the Congress) lying on the floor and, as the entire country watches, this small, short fellow with his sleeves folded up is looking angry and yet happy to have knocked him out. That was one occasion when the common man felt tough, strong, angry.
Do your crows ever look like politicians?
No, never. They are very intelligent creatures and that is my art. Not cartooning. I love my crows. I draw them whenever I find the time. Only last week I finished one. They have nothing to do with cartoons, politicians or public life.
Are there any political characters who look like your crows?
Are you mad? Crows are so good looking, so intelligent. Where will I find characters like that in politics?
Who was your favourite editor?
They were all nice. But some nicer than the rest. Frank (Moraes), Sham Lal, (N J) Nanporia, Girilal Jain.
You liked working with Girilal Jain!
Girilal Jain was too pompous. That was the only problem. He would always boast: I told her this, I told her that, as if he was Mrs Gandhi’s adviser. I found that very tedious.
What about Dilip Padgaonkar, Gautam Adhikari, H K Dua?
Who? Yes, yes, I think I met Dua once. But he has gone someone said.
Do you enjoy drawing the recent crop of prime ministers? Deve Gowda, Gujral, Vajpayee?
Deve Gowda was the chap who slept all the time. Gujral was okay. Vajpayee, surprisingly, has a great deal of dignity. He does not go blah-blah-blah like the rest. He is more controlled, more dignified, more interesting than all of them. Otherwise, these chaps all go on and on and on. The moment they see a chap with a pen and paper, they start giving long sermons... till the chap has to stop them, saying: I am not a journalist, Sir. I was just walking this way...
That’s what politics is all about today. Blah-blah-blah. The day that stops and the quality of our leaders improves, I will have to retire and go away.
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda