Posts Tagged ‘Raja Ramanna’

EXCLUSIVE: Unpublished doodles of R.K. Laxman

18 August 2010

The hand of India’s most famous newspaper cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, rests in a hospital in Bombay without a pen or pencil in its grip. Not even sure if (or when) it will regain the strength to pick up a pen or pencil to regale the millions who have woken up to the magic behind its mind for decades.

In this sans serif exclusive, Laxman’s grand-nephew, the journalist turned corporate manager Chetan Krishnaswamy, paints an intimate portrayal of Mysore-born, Kannada-speaking “Dudu”, with unpublished doodles and illustrations from the family album.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

After resolutely hanging on to the front page of The Times of India for close to 60 years now, it is perhaps difficult for the Common Man to remain in obscurity for too long.

Even as his creator lies in a hospital in Bombay recuperating from a series of paralytic strokes, the Common Man seems to have naively steered himself into the centre of a religious controversy.

A caricature of contemporary politics based on a biblical scene, with the Common Man occupying Jesus’s position, which appeared in ToI in July, hurt a section of the Christian community. Matters seem to have cooled off after the newspaper tendered an apology.

Many years ago R.K. Laxman had infuriated a group of Hindu fanatics when a cartoon showed  them setting fire to an automobile. The group had barged into his room and demanded to know how Lord Ram’s staunch followers could be projected as rabid arsonists.

Much to their annoyance, the quick-witted Laxman expressed his doubts on whether they had all really imbibed the Ramayana.  He went on to expound that the most ardent Ram bhakt was Lord Hanuman, who had gone about setting fire to Lanka with his blazing tail.

Rather confused, the group had trooped out awkwardly.

***

Suffice to say, Laxman has led an unconventional life. In 1960 he divorced his then dancer-wife Kamala and married his niece also named Kamala. Laxman did it on his terms and brooked no criticism.

The genius is prone to being eccentric and intimidating at times.

At a Bollywood party, a fawning crowd sought his views on actor Sanjay Dutt’s involvement  in the Bombay serial blasts of 1993. Laxman said that he did not think that the actor had played a major role in the terrorist act.

“However, the judge should pronounce the death sentence for the way he looks and the way he acts,” added Laxman brazenly.

There was a disconcerting hush that preceded this statement.

***

On most occasions when Laxman travelled into Bangalore or Mysore, I would be his privileged companion. I drove with him (and Kamala) to all his engagements and eagerly absorbed  his wry observations, sarcastic comments and comical anecdotes.

His world view was simple yet fascinating.

Laxman’s spontaneity and brilliance, was most visible when he held forth before an eager, awe-struck audience.

On one occasion, he recounted how he had mastered the art of slinking away from noisy parties that always began well past midnight. At an appropriate hour,  Laxman would sidle up to the host, mumble a vague incoherent excuse interspersed with words like “airport”, “appointment” , “meeting”  etc.

Invariably, the tipsy host would fall for the ploy and accompany him to the exit.  At home, Laxman would contentedly  slurp on his staple fare of curd rice and retire to bed.

Once in Mysore, after we finished attending a seminar, a leading business house was hosting dinner in Laxman’s honour that evening.

After a hot bath we headed to the venue, which was supposed to be at one of the offices of this flourishing  group. The minute we landed there, Laxman  noticed that people were already mid-way through their bisi bele baath and mosaranna.

The bigger crisis was that there was no whisky being served.

In a split second, Laxman grabbed the arm of his old friend, the legendary nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna (who hailed from Vontikoppal originally), coaxed him to abandon his plate and propelled him out.

All of us jumped into Raja Ramanna’s Mercedes and headed to Hotel King’s Kourt for Johnny Walker Black Label and dinner.

Of course, a magnanimous Raja Ramanna paid the bill.

Earlier that day at the seminar in Mysore’s intellectual retreat Dhvanyaloka,   Laxman was edgy while presenting his paper.

At one point, the academic doyen Dr C.D.Narasimhaiah interjected and commented: “You Tamilians have always been humorous….”

The Mysore-born Laxman bore into him from above his thick rimmed glasses and said: “Who told you I am a Tamilian, I am a Kannadiga….”

The loudest applause came from noted Kannada writer S.L.Bhyrappa, who was sitting by my side. I would like to believe that Laxman was quite genuine when he made that comment.

***

On another occasion, chief minister S.M.Krishna was felicitating the cartoonist at Bangalore’s Institution of Engineers. Soon after the event, there was a milling crowd that blocked me from getting to Laxman.

Even as the driver revved the State car with Laxman in it, there  was confusion all around, security was instructed to look for a certain Chetan Krishnaswamy.

Sensing an emergency, I rushed to the car and plugged my head in, he looked at me a trifle irritated  and enquired: “So where are we going?”

That evening, accompanied by my dear friend and former bureaucrat Pramod Kumar Rai, we sipped beer in his guest house.  The next morning the hospitable Chief Minister’s wife sent the Laxmans piping hot idlis for breakfast.

***

On a visit to a not-so-distant relative’s house in Bangalore, he irritatedly whispered into my ears: “Who is who here? The servants and the relatives all look the same.”

Thankfully nobody heard that.

Dudu , as Laxman is called in the family, was born on 24 October 1924, the youngest of six sons. His strict headmaster father Rasipuram Venkataraman Krishnaswamy Iyer was  imperious and remote, preoccupied with his work to bother much about his youngest son.

The mother Gnanambal, who was the Mysore Maharani’s favourite partner in tennis, bridge and chess, was the cheerful collaborator.

Not many know that in his working years Laxman unfailingly sent his mother a portion of his salary by post. When he came to Mysore on vacation, he would spend most of  his time sprawled on his mother’s cot.

The other great influence was his famous sibling R.K.Narayan, who, to young Laxman’s relief, underplayed the importance of academics, connected him to important artists in Mysore and allowed him to illustrate his short stories for The Hindu set in mythical Malgudi.

Interestingly, both the brothers had contrasting personalities.

While Narayan was a teetotaler, unassuming, patient and more gentle; Laxman was mercurial and quite a free-spirited rabble rouser. Narayan mentored his nephews and grand nephews; was always concerned about the extended family’s well being and future.

Laxman was affectionate but seemed more distant.

However, both brothers were non-ritualistic in their spiritual beliefs.  Laxman, though was a little more vocal in criticising established religion and sometimes refused to walk into crowded temples.

His favorite deity has always  been the playful elephant god Ganesha, which he drew with great dexterity and vigor. For his artist eye, the rotund form seemed to manifest itself everywhere: in a tree trunk, a weather beaten boulder, a drifting cloud, etc.

Laxman’s  other enduring  subject has been the common crow, whose quirks have held him spell-bound  since childhood. Curiously, Narayan’s obsession was the owl: he had accumulated a collection of statuettes  over a period of time.

As kids, my cousins and I would be intrigued by this strange collection every time we were able to sneak into Narayan’s  airy room in Mysore.

Is there an explanation for one family spawning two such outstanding creative figures?

N.Ram, the present chief editor of The Hindu, had attempted to respond to that question:

“It happens very rarely but it has happened elsewhere. They express individual genius, which has always defied explanation, but they are also products of a particular family and social milieu that has been congenial to creativity: liberal and modern in outlook, yet imbued with strong values and laidback integrity and respectful of independence and originality.

“The link between childhood and adult creativity is now well recognised in the social science, especially psychological, literature: that is, the importance to the creative mind of a childhood in which exploration and curiosity are encouraged, not restricted or stifled.

“Laxman, a decade-and-a-half younger than Narayan, is very different in make-up, temperament and experience. But he is a product of the same kind of upbringing and social milieu that have fostered creativity, although they cannot of course ‘explain’ it.

“Further, Laxman (who, in his autobiography, tells us that ‘I do not remember wanting to do anything else except draw’) has clearly benefited, from the beginning, from having Narayan around him: to mind him as a child, to encourage his independence and creativity, to have him illustrate his Malgudi stories and novels, to take pride, without ever making a fuss, in his gift and accomplishments. I have observed the two brothers together: so close, yet so different, and so independent from each other—creative contrasts from one distinctive, difficult to replicate, pool.”

***

Although Laxman never wore a wrist watch in his entire life, he had a fondness for tweaking watches and other mechanical contraptions. He was the quintessential man about the house repairing gadgets that had broken down and fixing other knick knacks.

A born engineer!

As kids he would regale us with magic tricks. Coins would disappear and appear, sometimes dropping out of our noses and ears. He always had a bundle of tricks up his sleeve, and was the most awaited guest in our houses.

In the later years, brother R.K.Srinivasan’s home  kept a brown hardbound book for Laxman to doodle everytime he came on a vacation. The book, a family heirloom, has a range of Laxman’s caricatures.

They are whacky, whimsical, political, absurd – perhaps  reflecting Laxman’s relaxed mood. A whole bunch of them are ball-point scribbles, but with the distinctive stamp of the artist.

***

In November last year, Laxman visited Bangalore and Mysore and patiently posed for pictures with the entire family. It was painful to see him wheel chair bound and cheerless. A paralytic stroke had rendered his left side completely useless.

I had lunch with the Laxmans in their hotel room in Mysore and took them for a quick drive around Laxman’s old haunts in the city. He rode with me in silence, periodically making uncharitable comments about the city.

He cursed the lack of street lights, the  bad roads and shoddy planning of what was once his most beloved city. This time,  I was careful not to make unnecessary small talk or embellish his views with my own banalities.

As darkness set in, he wanted to be dropped back to his hotel. Unlike in the past, it seemed evident that the genius  had not enjoyed the drive.  As his helpers heaved him out of the car and placed him on  his wheel chair, he thanked me quickly and cursed the flight of stairs that appeared before him.

***

Recently, actor Akshay Kumar visited him at the Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai to talk to him about his latest film that was based on the Common Man.

Wonder whether Laxman will ever regale an audience about this encounter with the same fervor and zest.

***

Author photograph: courtesy Facebook

View unpublished doodles/ illustrations here

***

Also read: Has namma R.K. Laxman drawn his last cartoon?

Laxman & Narayan: How one family produced two geniuses

Look, who inspired R.K. Laxman‘s common man!

Making all of us smile can make one of us cry

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The Sharada Prasad only I knew

4 September 2008

'A man of few words who was a master of words'

More than a few people have been intrigued by sans serif‘s description of H.Y. Sharada Prasad as the ultimate exemplar of the “Mysore School of Writing“—not too light, not too heavy. And the questions have come flying at us: Is there really such a thing as “Mysore School of Writing”, like the Mysore School of Dance or the Mysore School of Yoga? Has any scholar done some research on such writing? Why the double-quote marks? Who are the other practitioners? Etcetera.

We named R.K. Narayan, R.K. Laxman, and T.S. Satyan as good examples of the “Mysore School of Writing”. We could have added other luminaries like Raja Ramanna, M.N. Srinivas, and A.K. Ramanujan.

And T.S. Satyan’s brother, T.S. Nagarajan.

A former photographic officer in the photo division of the government of India—a job that saw him work closely with Sharada Prasad on Yojana mgazine—Nagarajan is best known as (probably) the only chronicler of the interiors of turn-of-the-century houses.

In this sans serif exclusive, Nagarajan remembers his days with “Shourie”.

***

By T.S. NAGARAJAN

While I was in Mysore, after my graduation, waiting to find my feet in life, I met H.Y. Sharada Prasad for the first time when he came to our home in Saraswathipuram to visit the family and especially to meet my mother whom he liked and respected.

He was dressed in khadi kurta and pyjama with a jacket to match and wore Kolhapuri chappals.

I had not yet taken to photography and journalism and so he didn’t interest me much. But I liked the way he talked and looked—like a bright young Gandhian. He measured his words when he spoke and gave brief answers to my mother’s queries as he enjoyed the the cup of tea that she made for him.

I didn’t know that after a few years, I would have the opportunity to work with him.

Sharada Prasad succeeded Khushwant Singh as the chief editor of Yojana, the journal of the Planning Commission.  By then, I had joined the journal as its photographer. Yojana was already two years old. My colleagues and I wondered whether the new editor could adequately fit into Khushwant’s place and make a success of the journal.

The bigger worry was whether Sharada Prasad with his reputation as “a man of few words and somewhat reserved” would be bossy and officious in dealing with his colleagues.

None of these happened.

Khushwant Singh produced a very lively and readable journal without resorting to the famous Khushwant formula which he successfully tried later as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India. His hope of making the journal the talk of the town in the country had failed miserably because of the utter inability of the government to organise a good network of distributors. He had left the journal an unhappy man.

It is against this background that Sharada Prasad, took over the reins of the journal.

Yojana had its office in Yojana Bhawan on Parliament Street. The chief editor had a spacious room on the second floor. The rest of the editorial and administrative staff was located on the fifth floor. I had a room for myself: Number 508.

By background and temperament Sharada Prasad was very different from Khushwant Singh.  But within weeks after he took over, he gave the impression that he found the job very satisfying. He retained most of the regular features that Khushwant had introduced as also the emphasis on field reports and their conversational tone but gave more space for discussion, debate and controversy.

He found Yojana Bhavan a ‘civilised’ place because of its atmosphere which resembled that of a university. It didn’t function like a government office. There was a total absence of bureaucratic stiffness. There were many men and women of ideas and achievement working within its portals. Instead of politicians, many celebrities and academicians, acclaimed internationally, came there to meet their Indian counterparts.

It was just the kind of environment that Sharada Prasad loved.

The editorial staff meeting in his room, once a fortnight, was more like a journalism class. He lost no opportunity to tell us how to edit articles and do field reports. He was an expert in wielding the ‘blue pencil’ and a miser with words, but had the unique ability to cut a long story short without in any way affecting its meaning or reducing its impact.

He advised us to read whatever we wrote, more than once, and rewrite, more than once, if necessary, until the piece was trimmed to its right length to make it interesting and effective.

“Beware of the introductory paragraph, make sure it is the best way to begin or else delete it. Most first paragraphs are often mere starters,” he would say.

He believed that writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.

Among the new features he had introduced in Yojana was a talkative character called “Ignoraman”, who never failed to appear in every issue asking very inconvenient and often tongue-in-cheek questions.

For example he would ask: “Ignoraman wants to know what is needed? Centralised Civil Service, or Civilised Central Service?  The bespectacled genius, whose caricature was a creation of the Yojana artist R. Sarangan, looked like a Thanjavur intellectual. He was very popular not only among the readers but among politicians and bureaucrats too.

Sharada Prasad made Yojana, a journal well respected in university circles and among economists. Most economists who came to Yojana Bhavan didn’t leave without meeting him. His room or my room on the 5th floor, which was adjacent to an unit of the Indian Statistical Institute located on the same floor, would turn into a kitty lunch room for a group of economists who were friends of Yojana.

Most of them came in to the room  with their lunch boxes and shared the food with others. Among the regulars were B.S. Minhas, T.N. Srinivasan, Jagadish Bhagavati, and A. Vaidyanathan—all well-known economists. Many a time the lunch hour would turn into a debating session when important matters of economic policy were seriously debated upon. Thanks to Sharada Prasad and Yojana, I made lasting friendships with most of them.

Sharada Prasad was able to get away with publishing articles critical of the government in an official journal. When asked how he was able to manage this, his answer was “by not seeking anybody’s clearance or permission.” He made it a rule (which Khushwant Singh had also made) of publishing no photographs of ministers and officials, or of ceremonial inaugurations of projects.

The only time he published Nehru‘s photograph was when he passed away.

His stay with Yojana was suddenly cut short when Indira Gandhi became prime minister and chose him as her Information Advisor.

Even while at the South Block, he distinguished himself as a brilliant writer and a dependable consultant on matters of national policy. Even though he left Yojana, both of us kept in constant touch with each other. We edited some books together (mainly The Spirit of India) and worked on major expositions on India abroad.

I met Sharada Prasad frequently in his office room which was very close to that of the Prime Minister. On several occasions, while we were working, there would be a soft knock and the door would open a little. The prime minister would peep in and say, “Sharada Prasadji…”

He would excuse himself and leave the room.

Though he remained in the Prime Minister’s office for long, his close proximity to power  never changed the principles and motives that controlled his life.

He remained the same shy, graceful and a delicate gentleman all his life. Possibly elfin is a word that might describe him physically though it is inadequate to perceive his formidable and sometimes unadorned intelligence.

Ostentation never impressed him.

He hated acquiring things. His most precious possession was his pen.  His house resembled a library and reflected his personality in a way houses rarely do. Most certainly, he was the best-read man I have ever met.

No politician ever came into his home. Those that frequented his house and sometimes remained as house guests were either singers, dancers, artists or men of letters.

I talked with him on phone a few months ago to tell him how much I enjoyed reading his brilliant piece on Ustad Bismillah Khan. I liked the elegant way he had described the artist’s funeral in Varanasi. He wrote: “The newspapers made much of the fact that a state funeral was given to the Bharat Ratna. It must have sounded most incongruous that such a meek man, who symbolised melody, was laid to rest amidst gunfire.”

Sharada Prasad was a master of words.

Photograph: T.S. Nagarajan

Also By T.S. NAGARAJAN: My most unforgettable picture

The R.K. Narayan only I knew

The most memorable house I photographed-I

The most memorable house I photographed-II

Jiddu Krishnamurti on love, death, god, and more

Right people, wrong place, wrong time, right ho

The maharaja’s elephant made me a lensman

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