Posts Tagged ‘R.K. Laxman’

Bal Thackeray’s banter at FPJ’s ‘Malayali Club’

20 November 2012

T.J.S. George, the founder-editor of Asiaweek magazine, who worked under the legendary S. Sadanand at the Free Press Journal in Bombay, on their common-colleague and staff cartoonist, Bal Thackeray:

“Spicy coffee-house theories spread that Thackeray had developed a personal grudge against South Indians. There was talk that he was jealous of R.K. Laxman who started out in FPJ and went on to glory while he, Thackeray, was denied his due. In fact, Thackeray not only had high regard for Laxman, but counted South Indians among his buddies in FPJ.

“There was a good deal of banter. Thackeray called the FPJ news desk the Malayali Club. The celebrated crime reporter M.P. Iyer constantly  showered friendly abuse on Thackeray. But Thackeray would not take offence because Iyer used colloquial Marathi with a brilliance Thackeray could not command.

“At least on one occasion, Thackeray paid public tribute to Iyer and S.Sadanand, FPJ’s founder, holding them up as models for young journalists to follow.”

Read the full article: A cartoonist with a sense of humour

Illustration: Mario Miranda for Upper Crust

And so, India’s three best cartoonists are…

3 July 2012

It isn’t often that Indian cartoonists talk about their craft—or their colleagues and compatriots.

There is, for instance, a famous incident of the doyen of Indian cartooning, R.K. Laxman, being asked in the course of an interview with The Illustrated Weekly of India, about a younger cartoonist then working for the Indian Express.

Ravi Shankar? Fantastic sitarist,” was Laxman’s put-down, sotto voce.

***

Ajit Ninan, the former cartoonist of India Today and Outlook now a consultant with The Times of India, speaks about Laxman, in an interview in Star of Mysore:

Q: How would you differentiate yourself from R.K. Laxman?

A: I am a man of details and I think India is a country of details. Look at our architecture, the temples, fashion—everything has a lot of details. There is no school of cartooning and it is my seniors who helped me. I learnt by observing their works and have slept over their styles. Mario Miranda‘s details, Abu Abraham‘s simplicity of thought and Laxman’s works—something of everybody is there in my work.

However, Laxman’s cartoons had lengthy captions. I try to finish it within 10 words or even less. Almost 70% of my time goes into drafting captions.

When your drawing is so detailed, why burden it with words?

Q: Who would rank as the best Indian cartoonist?

A: R.K. Laxman—because he was a typical South Indian genius. He was a big crowd-puller and by nature he was funny, sharp and witty. Next is Mario because he brought out Indian architecture and humour, food, language, fashion through his drawings. He was a complete cartoonist and very versatile. The third would be Sudhir Tailang.

Image: courtesy Shafali

N. RAM: caustic, opinionated, humane & sensitive

14 January 2012

Thursday, 19 January 2012, is a red-letter day in The Hindu calendar. After an eight-year tenure as its helmsman, Narasimhan Ram will step down as editor-in-chief of South India’s largest English newspaper; a tenure pockmarked by several professional highs and as many personal lows.

While N. Ram can justly claim to have played a role in making The Hindu top-of-the-mind reading by his stewardship of the WikiLeaks India cables among other stories, there can be little doubt that the paper’s openly partisan coverage of the Left parties, China and Sri Lanka have not quite cast the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” in great light.

Above all, while Ram was merely the custodian for eight years of the 133-year-old newspaper, his actions in undercutting his brothers and cousins under the alibi of “professionalising” the family-owned media house have the potential to have long-term implications on the family-owned Hindu in a competitive market.

What cannot be doubted is that while the former Tamil Nadu wicket-keeper invites intense dislike among his baiters, and there are many, the dog-breeder is also intensely loved by his admirers, and there are many of them too. Here, a former Bangalore correspondent of Frontline, the fortnightly owned by The Hindu, pens a panegyric to his former boss.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

In the early 1990s, as eager students pursuing journalism studies in Mysore’s historic Maharaja’s College, our class was vertically split in its choice of the two main heroes who were blazing a new trail in India’s lively media arena.

While one bunch supported Arun Shourie, who, among other things, in the late 1980s had launched a campaign against the introduction of the defamation bill, an instrument introduced by the then Rajiv Gandhi government to curtail a free media, especially the Indian Express of which he was the editor.

The other-half idolized N. Ram.

Ram, we believed, was the true anti-establishment hero who, through his trenchant and hard-hitting writings had exposed the Bofors scandal. For us ‘hungry cubs’ fed on antediluvian and archaic theories, this was a potent manifestation of the true power of independent and ethical journalism, of impactful journalism.

Further underlining his fiery credentials was his defiant rebellion, in October 1989, against his own editor-uncle G. Kasturi of The Hindu.

Ram, who was then associate editor of the paper and second in command in the editorial structure, rather disillusionedly, wrote of The Hindu’s editor:

… Every time the question of publishing something major and original on the Bofors scandal arose, he [Kasturi] countered the idea of publication with the question. ‘What is really new about this? Isn’t what we have already published enough to make clear to everyone who is involved?’ He also repeatedly stated that while he personally was convinced of the guilt of the government in the Bofors affair, he was afraid that “the institution is in great danger.” This was his perspective on The Hindu which was founded in 1878 and has seen many trials and challenges in its history. (I repeatedly pointed out to the editor the failure to understand the significance of history which underlay his statement.) Kasturi also expressed serious concern over the impact of the fall-out from the Bofors expose on the interests of the “family” behind the newspaper.”

Ram took the extraordinary step of venturing out of the “four walls of The Hindu” to explain the situation to the public at large.

I decided to speak to my colleagues in the profession and ask for the hospitality of their columns to throw light on this vital national and ethical issue. I wonder whether this expose of what has happened within one major journalistic institution would be kept away from the readers of The Hindu through editorial censorship…,” Ram added.

In college, we conducted seminars on Indian journalism’s reigning deity and in our own, sometimes half-baked way attempted to analyze his brand of journalism.

Despite the ideological slant, his writings were direct and factual. It was strident and appealed to our activistic fervour.

***

Fortunately, during the course of my studies, I had established an indirect connection with Ram through the writer R.K. Narayan (my grand-uncle and mentor) who had moved from Mysore to Madras by then, and at whose Eldams Road residence Ram was a “welcome intrusion” almost every evening.

RKN diligently read through all the articles that I had written for Mysore’s local newspaper Star of Mysore and would occasionally give me Ram’s positive feedback with whom he obviously shared my clippings sometimes.

Needless to say, I was thrilled and motivated me to stay the course.

After securing my degree and encouraged by a gold medal and the Sampemane Krishnamurthy award for “excellence in journalism”, I went to Madras for an interview with the then deputy editor of Frontline K. Narayanan, a venerable journalist in his own right.

“KN” spoke to me for some time and on learning that I was just 22 years old, said that I should come back after a few more years of academic rigour. He said I was “underaged and underqualified”.  Frontline did have a reputation of hiring erudite scholars and seasoned journalists, and I didn’t quite fit the profile.

Later, KN conferred with Ram, and on the condition that I pursue my post graduate studies simultaneously was given the job. At that time, I was probably the youngest reporter on the rolls of the magazine.

***

The magazine had demanding standards and I was put through the paces.  However, my first assignment for the magazine came directly from Ram and was relayed to me by KN: it was to be a detailed article on the renowned artist S.G. Vasudev.

I went about it with the single minded dedication of a hardworking debutant and gave it all I had. For me, it was a fulfilling first, and Frontline gave it solid coverage.

A few more months into my job and I got my first cover story for the magazine. The feeling was heady:  Ram was very inspiring, and kept regular tabs on how I was coping with my job and on one occasion even wanted to know whether I had procured a two-wheeler to cover my beat.

Ram’s journalistic principles were exacting. For instance, a reporter could not take chances while spelling names of people and had to prefix even the initials correctly. You were expected to be accurate when you put down statistics. No guess work, no approximation.

Once, I was anchoring a special supplement on KSFC or the Karnataka State Financial Corporation. All through the supplement I had inadvertently called it Karnataka State Finance Corporation. The desk had apparently overlooked this ‘minor’ aspect and the pages were sent for printing. However, in due course this error was noticed and the pages had to be recalled at the last minute.

For my shoddiness, I was issued a written reprimand by the then deputy editor V.K. Ramachandran.

In Ram’s scheme of things fastidiousness had to be a habit not a virtue.

During his visits to Bangalore, I would meet him at The Hindu guesthouse for a few minutes, when he would enquire about the prevailing political equations, and give me a passing perspective of his thinking on the issues.

***

In another instance, I was chasing a ‘scoop’ involving the then Union food minister Kalpnath Rai. Sources intimate to the then cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah had promised to provide me with incriminating documents that clearly indicted Rai in a scam involving the import of sugar at a price higher than that of the market, apparently causing a loss of Rs 650 crore to the exchequer.

The minute I got whiff of the scandal, I discussed it with RKN over the phone.

“Why do you want to get into all these fancy issues? You will only get into trouble and nothing will come out of it. Look at Bofors, even after so many years nothing has happend,” he cautioned me with concern.

That night, as was his habit, Ram dropped into RKN’s Madras house for their routine chat, which usually covered a range of subjects and extended late into the night. RKN informed him about this overzealous young chap who had called him earlier in the day.

I guess, Ram gave in to his journalistic instincts and immediately spoke to me on the lead that I had picked up. He flew me down to Madras the very next day and encouraged me to work on the story from there. As luck would have it, my source who was supposed to deliver the documents by a flight from New Delhi backtracked even as I was waiting at the airport.

I was completely devastated.

Moreover, the embarrassment of facing Ram, who was waiting patiently at his residence, to study the documents was even more unnerving. Before leaving to the airport, I had boasted in all my youthful enthusiasm that the scale of the scam was bigger than that of the Bofors.

Ram had also given me permission to travel to Delhi if the story warranted it.

When I mumbled an apology to Ram that evening, he immediately understood the situation, gave me a quick pep talk, and ensured that I didn’t feel low or disheartened.

That same fortnight, a rival magazine carried the full story with the documents reproduced in print. It was obvious that my source had provided it to the rival magazine at the very last minute. Minister Kalpanath Rai was arrested in 1994 jailed in connection with the swindle but was later acquitted by the courts.

***

On another occasion, on the last day of a grand Madras vacation, I decided to visit The Hindu office and meet all my colleagues on the desk. Towards evening, just before heading out to catch my train, I gathered courage to pay an unscheduled visit to Ram’s office hoping to brief him about my work.

On learning that he was busy in meetings, and as time was running out, I decided to leave. Just then, he called me into his cabin.

At the end of our discussions, Ram queried how I was returning to Bangalore. I told him that I was originally scheduled to leave by the train but it would have long left and I would instead depart by the night bus now.

Ram looked at me almost guilty that he had made me miss the train. “Night buses can be quite tedious and unsafe,” he told me. He directed his secretary to lead me to the finance department and disburse money required for an air ticket. “We have had discussions related to your work. Your trip is official now, ‘’ he told me before packing me off.

I have never been able to forget that generous gesture.

My aunt Rajni still talks about how Ram went about mobilizing blood donors for my cousin Sudarshan, who was recuperating from a bad scooter accident that I had caused during that time.  Ram ensured that Madras’s leading orthopedic surgeon Mohandas attended on him.

Ram could be overweening, sometimes caustic and opinionated but deep down, he came across as being humane–and sensitive.

***

There is one last anecdote that I should probably narrate. After I did a piece on Mysore’s famous motorcycle manufacturer Ideal Jawa,  Ram contemplated moving me to Bombay as a business correspondent. Once I got to hear this, I was confused and excited.

I called my other famous grand-uncle, the cartoonist R.K. Laxman, with the intention of requesting him to get me a PG dig, and naively told him about Ram’s proposed plans to transfer me to Mumbai.

To my surprise,  Laxman reacted rather sharply and said Bombay was no place for youngsters. He hyperbolically ventilated that people were dying of plague and pestilence and Ram shouldn’t be sending me into this city.

That evening when I spoke to RKN all hell had broken loose. Laxman in his inimitable way had called Ram and restated all the things he had told me. Narayan mentioned that this had irritated Ram as he thought that I had  deliberately cribbed to Laxman.

In hindsight, I feel quite amused that I took out all my frustrations in a long letter that I wrote to Ram. I told him how the distinction between my personal and professional lives seemed to have progressively blurred.  I had mentioned something in good faith, and quite unintentionally to a family member and it had triggered of a professional crisis for me, I indicated in my letter.

Probably, Narayan and Ram would have had a good laugh over my letter. I don’t know what happened. I was forgiven, and stayed on in Bangalore.

In 1997, I quit to join The Week magazine from the stables of the Malayala Manorama.

***

As a journalist who enjoyed and value my tenure at Kasturi & Sons, I genuinely wish that its stakeholders sink their differences and surface as one strong family.

If not for anything at least for the future of good journalism in this country.

The family, as I have known, would still be among the more decent and fair minded employers.

These are rare attributes in the Indian media industry.

File photograph: N. Ram, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Hindu, at a lecture in New Delhi in April 2011 (courtesy Kanekal Kuppesh)

Also read: N. Ram to quit as The Hindu editor-in-chief on Jan 19

Why N. Ravi quit The Hindu after 20 years as editor

Nirmala Lakshman: I didn’t step down; I resigned

Malini Parthasarathy quits as Hindu‘s executive editor

The four great wars of N. Ram on The Hindu soil

N. Murali: The Hindu is run like a banana republic

Did R.K. Laxman subtly stifle Mario’s growth?

12 December 2011

MARIO, BY KESHAV

The passing away of  the legendary Illustrated Weekly of India, Economic Times and Femina cartoonist and illustrator Mario Miranda in Goa on Sunday, has prompted plenty of warm reminiscences from friends, colleagues and co-linesmen, along with a vicious doosra.

Bachi Karkaria recalls her colleague from the third floor of The Times of India building in Bombay:

What can I say about Mario? That he was one of India’s most distinctive cartoonists? That he was arguably an even better serious artist in the detail and spirit with which he captured the places he lived in and visited? That he, along with Frank Simoes, gave Goa to the world?

That he was to the magazines of The Times of India what R.K. Laxman was to the daily paper? And, dare I say it, that Laxman was the Lata Mangeshkar who subtly ensured that the pedestal was not for sharing?

***

Pritish Nandy in the Economic Times:

Mario had a room on the same floor where I sat. And when I moved into the editor’s corner room at The Illustrated Weekly of India, a few months later, his room was next to mine. But that didn’t mean anything because Mario rarely came to office.

He worked on his cartoon strips mostly at home in Colaba and was awful with deadlines. This was largely because every afternoon, or almost, he would go for lunch or a long walk and would end up in a movie hall, all by himself.  There was no movie he didn’t see. It was the idea of slipping into a dark theatre and watching the moving picture that excited him.

***

MARIO, BY UNNY

E.P. Unny, the chief political cartoonist of The Indian Express, has a page one anchor:

To call Mario a cartoonist would be like seeing no more than the elegant living room he entertained you from, through a long warm Goan evening. “Take a break and be my guest,” he said. “Come and sketch the whole of this house. Should take a week or so if I keep a close eye on you to make sure you don’t run off to do the day’s cartoon.”

***

Ditto the cartoonist Manjul in DNA:

“Mario was the one and only ‘celebrity’ Indian cartoonist. He endorsed a reputed clothing brand in TV & print commercials in the 1980s. In 1979, Basu Chatterjee, director of the Hindi film Baaton Baaton Mein, based the looks of the hero, a reel-life cartoonist played by Amol Palekar, on Mario.

One can see his house in Shyam Benegal’s film Trikaal. Benegal shot the film in and around Mario’s house in Goa, a heritage building known for its Portuguese past and architecture. And no one can forget the iconic visual of a Sardarji sitting inside a bulb with books, which has graced Khushwant Singh’s column in almost every Indian newspaper for many years.

***

Ajit Ninan in The Times of India:

“We grew up in a time when all things worthy of awe or admiration came in pairs – Tata-Birla, Ambassador-Fiat, Coke-Pepsi, and so on. In the world of cartooning, Laxman-Mario was such a pair. All my lines I have learnt from studying the two titans of those times.

“Just as Bollywood brought India to the world, Mario brought Bombay to India. His mastery of architecture and of fashion trends was one of the keys to this. Mario’s ornate illustrations of the colonial structures of Mumbai wouldn’t have been possible for anyone with a weaker grasp of architecture.”

***

The cartoonist Jayanto Banerjee pays an illustrated tribute in the Hindustan Times:

As does the cartoonist Jayachandran Nanu in Mint:

***

Deccan Herald has an editorial:

With Mario Miranda’s death, the country has lost an eye that looked at it with understanding, compassion and irony for many decades and saw what was most often unseen and lost to most of us…. Everything was grist to his mocking eye and subtle lines—politics, society, business, attitudes, fashions and all that was part of life. His world was peopled with things and characters everyone recognised and lived with. The world he created out of them became the obverse one familiar to us and helped us to look at our own world with greater comprehension.

***

Austin Coutinho in Mid-Day:

Back in the ’60s, for me, Mario Miranda was ‘God’! I would lie in bed, incapacitated by asthma – wondering where my next breath would come from – and live in the make believe world of Mario’s cartoons. There was this little book titled ‘Goa with Love’ in which he had drawn cartoons of village life in Goa. The book would be by my bedside and it was as if I knew each of those characters on a first name basis…. My greatest regret in life will be not having ever met the ‘God’ of my schooldays. May his noble soul rest in peace!

Cartoons: courtesyThe Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Mint

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

Making all of us smile can make one of us cry

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

EXCLUSIVE: The unpublished doodles of R.K. Laxman

The 25-paise mag where R.K. Laxman began

A good cartoon is like a raga. The trick is ‘riyaz’

24 October 2011

Puthukodi Kottuthody Shankaran Kutty, known simply to the newspaper reading world as Kutty, one of India’s leading political cartoonists, has passed away in the United States at the age of 90.

Part of the legendary troika of cartoonists that comprised Shankar and Abu Abraham, Kutty’s work appeared first in the now-defunct National Herald and later in the Bengali daily Ananda Bazaar Patrika.

E.P. Unny, the chief political cartoonist of The Indian Express, pays tribute in today’s paper.

***

By E.P. UNNY

When two practitioners, generations apart, sit down to chat, a one-way flow of wisdom should naturally ensue. Among other things, this cartoonist defied this one too.

On that August morning in 1985 when I met him first, Kutty was at the INS building earlier than the place had woken up. “I come in by nine to drop my cartoon at the Ananda Bazar office and leave before the wise guys turn up,” were his opening remarks.

He had little use for peer inputs, “however wise or otherwise”. Before anyone else in the Capital, he had made up his mind on the day’s newsmakers and the verdict signed and sealed was ready for dispatch.

Quite apart from Abu, O.V.Vijayan and Rajinder Puri, the editorial cartoonists I grew up on, Kutty came with no thought balloon. This compact cartoonist just sat there freely chatting, waving his hands about and the cartoon seemed to emerge like a gestural extension.

Pen and paper were incidental to his art.

He would grab the most non-descript of writing instruments and sketch on anything short of the blotting sheet, waste newsprint to butter paper. The drawing looked amazingly finished, with all things cartoonish in place, including that inimitable impishness which marked his work.

Surely he couldn’t have so effortlessly done this 100-metre dash day after day for as long as M.F. Husain painted. In the many meetings that followed our first, Kutty did casually allude to his craft, in terms that hardly matched the everyday business of news cartooning.

“Things are easy once you master the face like a raga. Do riyaz.”

These venerable musical metaphors were however, in keeping with Kutty’s breeding. He was trained by Shankar in the only gurukul cartooning has seen — the Shankar’s Weekly.

Shankar ran a two-room office in Odeon Building in Connaught Place in Delhi like a true ustad. Far from mild-mannered, the master with his classical notions on pen and brush to perspective could have traumatised a lesser disciple.

Kutty played along as best as he could only to ever so furtively depart from the guru’s elaborate choreographed frames to a more functional mode.

Once India’s honeymoon with Swaraj was over, the emerging politics was being held together by satraps across the country and not always in consonance with Nehruvian norms. This called for more immediate random responses and true to his calling, Kutty was ready with a style that caught the political drift away from Delhi and across the regions. This stood him well when he eventually left English newspapers to embark on an incredible leap into the unknown.

In Ananda Bazar Patrika he went on to become the best known Bengali cartoonist. He had already done his riyaz on B.C. Sen, Atulya Ghosh and the two barristers who ran Bengal — Siddharth Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu. Kutty knew his turf but the unknown part is awesome.

This Malayali, who knew no Bangla, wrote his terse captions in English for the news desk to translate into Bangla. From Bengal’s Bihari, Oriya immigrants to the rooted bhadralok, none noticed this historic sweep of the fragile news cartoon across three languages.

In an earlier stint with this paper from 1962 to 1969, Kutty did what all the greats in this profession do — anticipate a worthy successor. He prepared the Express reader for Abu Abraham’s elegant minimalism.

Text and cartoon: courtesy E.P. Unny/ The Indian Express

From Our Staff Correspondent: R.K. Narayan

8 June 2011

On the 10th anniversary of his death, The Guardian, London, has a long piece on the legendary creator of the fictional town of Malgudi, R.K. Narayan, who did a short stint as the Mysoe correspondent of the Madras newspaper, The Justice:

“After graduating in 1930 from the Maharaja’s College – prototype of the Albert Mission College in Bachelor of Arts – Narayan decided to “throw [himself] full-time into this gamble of a writer’s life”.

“In his memoir, he recalls with affection his first typewriter – an “elephantine” Smith Premier 10, which had separate keys for upper and lower cases, and which he had to sell to a shopkeeper to pay an overdue bill for sweets and cigarettes.

“One of his first professional assignments was as the Mysore correspondent of a Madras newspaper, the Justice.

“All morning he “went out news-hunting” in the bazaar and the law courts and police stations, gathering everything from crime stories to gymkhana results. At 1pm he returned home, “bolted down a lunch”, typed up his report, “and rushed it to the Chamarajapuram post office before the postal clearance at 2:20pm”.

“He aimed to produce “ten inches of news” a day, at a rate of about 15 annas an inch, but “thanks to the news editor’s talent for abridgement” his earnings were minimal.

“Though he dismissed this work as “a little bit of pot-boiling”, one can see that the news-hunting Mysore stringer is an important forerunner of the chronicler of Malgudi – an ambulant, inquisitive figure, “going hither and thither”, his antennae tuned for stories.”

Read the full tribute: Rereading: R.K. Narayan

Illustration: courtesy R.K. Laxman/ The Tribune, Chandigarh

Also read: R.K. Narayan on Mysore

Ved Mehta on a day in the life of R.K. Narayan

T.S. NAGARAJAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

T.S. SATYAN: The R.K. Narayan only I knew

R.S. KRISHNASWAMY: A day in the life of R.K. Narayan

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY: As Mysorean as Mysore pak, Mysore mallige

M.R. SHIVANNA, a true 24/7 journalist, is dead

22 May 2011

sans serif records with regret the passing away of M.R. SHIVANNA, an unsung hero of Indian journalism, in Mysore on Saturday. He was 55, and is survived by his wife and daughter.

For 30 years and more, Shivanna slogged away in remarkable obscurity and was one of the pillars on which stands India’s most successful English evening newspaper, Star of Mysore. Starting out as a sub-editor in the local tabloid, Shivanna, a son of a farmer, had grown to be editor of the family-owned SoM at the time of his death.

Shivanna was no poet. His prose wouldn’t set the Cauvery on fire, nor was it intended to.

First in at work and last man out of the office, he wrote simple functional sentences day after relentless day. While dozens of young men cut their teeth at Star of Mysore on their way to bigger things in Bangalore and beyond, Shivanna stayed on, lending his boss K.B. GANAPATHY the kind of quiet solidity every owner and editor can only envy.

Here, CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY, one of Shivanna’s myriad ex-colleagues, who moved from Star of Mysore on to Frontline, The Week and The Times of India, among other ports of call, pays tribute.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

“(MRS).”

For decades, lakhs of Mysoreans have seen these three letters of the alphabet appended to thousands of news reports in Star of Mysore and Mysooru Mitra, Mysore’s dour media siblings, steered successfully by its founder-editor K.B. Ganapathy.

For most readers, these initials are a daily mystery, unravelled only in the anniversary issue of the two newspapers in February and March, respectively, when a mandatory “long-form” piece or an interview appears with the full form of the byline: M.R. Shivanna.

But for the remainder of the year, (MRS) was a byword for his straight, unaffected style.

As a journalist, Shivanna knew his limitations and that perhaps was his greatest strength. In a world of flamboyant story-tellers, he was the odd man out. Shorn of scholarly airs or intellectual pretensions, MRS pursued his vocation with a constancy of purpose, a fierce diligence that is rare in a profession where careerism has taken hold.

At times it seemed as if MRS literally lived in the newsroom, straddling two worlds, two sensibilities.

He finished his work at Star of Mysore, which is an English evening newspaper, in the afternoon, only to seamlessly drift to the other part of the building and discharge his duties at Mysooru Mitra, the Kannada morning daily form the same group.

You called the office at any unearthly hour, and more often than not MRS would pick up the phone, ready with pen on paper. A bulk of the information from across the districts was communicated over phone by a network of stringers and reporters, who spoke in varying  degrees  of clarity. MRS was an expert in tactfully prising out ‘news’ from these guys, night or day.

MRS was a 24×7 journalist before 24×7 became business jargon.

***

In 1990, just before taking up my journalism course, I ventured to work in Star of Mysore as a trainee.

K.B. Ganapathy, after a cursory chat, called in MRS and asked him to take me under his wing and put me through the paces.

At first glance, MRS was distinctly unimpressive: He was frail, he had a funny moustache, he tucked his shirt out, walked with a slouch and was staccato in his speech. He fobbed me off to his colleague at the desk, Nandini Srinivasan, who helped me tremendously through the early years.

Over a period of time, slowly, steadily I built some rapport with MRS. Sometimes he would call me out for an occasional smoke which I would readily accept in the hope of having a good conversation. But MRS would keep to himself and allow me to do all the talking, seldom proffering advice or insight, a genial smile displaying his tobacco-stained teeth.

There was a manic phase, of about a month or so, when I drank with him regularly at a fancy bar in Mysore. These sessions were unremarkable, almost matter-of-fact,  as MRS insisted that the Hindi music be played at an exceptionally high volume. There was no chance for exchange of ‘journalistic views’ leave alone banter.

Through the years in college, my association with Star and MRS continued. He would give me occasional assignments and background on stories that I was following.  Although writing in English did not come naturally to MRS, he honed it over the years through repeated practice.

His news reports were structured tightly in the classic “5 Ws and 1 H” formula, and it served him well.

There were reams and reams of buff paper on which he wrote with a cheap ball point pen that leaked, smudged and grew errant due to over use. He had this peculiar habit of bringing the nib close to his lips and blowing at it, like as if he was fanning a dying cigarette. He did that always, probably to fuel his pen’s fervor.

As an old-school journalist brought up on letter press, MRS also used and understood sub-editing notation better than most journalists. He used a red ink pen to underline a letter twice for capitalisation, a hurried swirl to denote deletion, “stet” if he wanted something to stay as is.

And for all his limitations with the language, if you were ever at a sudden loss for a word, those standard ones that you use to embellish journalistic copy, MRS would spout it in a second. The words swam in his head all the time.

Instinct and Intuition guided his journalistic disposition.

Passion and Persistence gave it  further ballast.

***

In 1993, “MRS” won the Karnataka Rajyothsava award. And as it happens in journalistic circles, there were whispers of how he had engineered it all, how it was a complete joke, how he was underserving, etc. MRS continued unfazed, doing what he did best, day after day after day. In due course, the tired critics went to sleep.

Many years later, at the Taj Lands End in Bombay, I hastened to the breakfast buffet for a quick bite before a conference. I had by then quit journalism to join Intel.

I heard a familiar “Hello, Chethu”.

I swung around to see MRS holding a bowl of fruits.

Over breakfast, he told me that Intel had flown him down to cover the event and simply amazed me with the information he had collected about the company’s latest products and plans. He kept jotting down notes verifying and cross-checking facts as we spoke. That evening we promised to get together but it didn’t happen.

During R.K .Laxman’s  last visit to Mysore about two years back, MRS took on the entire responsibility of hosting him in the City. Apart from ensuring that the Laxmans stayed in a friend’s hotel he organised their trip to Chamundi hills for an exclusive darshan. Laxman was profusely thankful to him during the visit.

On their last day in Mysore, MRS called me over the phone. He began with enquiring about my well being and slowly moved on to  a long conversation on Laxman’s perspective on various issues around him. I took the journalist’s bait and went with the flow filling him with facts, quotes, trivia.

I imagined MRS at his desk, his pen scribbling away on sheafs of paper, periodically blowing into his nib, probably conjuring the headline, the lead, the middle for his copy.

MRS will continue to write wherever he is. In the end, the smudges don’t matter really.

Also read: A song for an unsung hero: C.P. Chinnappa

***

IN MEMORIAM

Naresh Chandra Rajkhowa: journo who broke Dalai Lama story

Chari, a lens legend at The Hindu

Harishchandra Lachke: A pioneering cartoonist

T.N. Shanbag: Man who educated Bombay journos

Rajan Bala: cricket writer of cricket writers

Jyoti Sanyal: The language terrorist and teacher

Russy Karanjia: The bulldog of an editor

Sabina Sehgal Saikia: The resident food writer

M.G. Moinuddin: The self-taught newspaper designer

When Samir served a thali, Vineet served a scoop

15 April 2011

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: As it approaches its dosquicentennial, India’s biggest English language newspaper, The Times of India, truly deserved a meticulous biography to tell the world on “what goes on inside this amazing media machine”.

Sadly, Bachi Karkaria‘s Behind the Times (Times Books, 325 pages) is not that.

Poorly structured, poorly sourced and poorly edited, Karkaria’s is an airy tribute to the war-room surgeons who botoxed the Old Lady of Boribunder into a sassy lass, but it airbrushes the foot soldiers in the trenches, on whose sweat, toil and guard stands “The Masthead of India” across the nation.

As Karkaria’s creation “Alec Smart” would have said:

Marwadiya! It’s a bloody Parsimonious salute, dikri!”

Yet, despite its Bombay Gym view of Dadabhoy Naoroji road, Behind the Times has its moments in demystifying some of the myths built around its formidable helmsmen— the brothers Samir Jain and Vineet Jain—and in humanising a gigantic group.

***

On SAMIR JAIN, vice-chairman (VC): On the international Response (advertising) conferences—holidays really—the participants not only wallowed in VC’s generosity, they also learnt about cost consciousness from him. Once Indira Deish [of Times Response], while taking her room key, instructed the receptionist to give her a wake up call, and send a pot of bed tea with it. She felt a tap on her shoulder, turned around and saw VC. “He put his hand into his suit pocket, pulled out something, and put it in my palm. It was a couple of tea bags. After that, I always carried a box of these, and ordered only hot water. I learnt the value of thrift.”

Much earlier Indira learnt a similar lesson during the sesquicentennial celebrations in Delhi where she was part of the reception team. At the accompanying dinners, Samir Jain taught us “never to change a plate mid-meal. It unnecessarily added to the caterer’s bill.”

Thrift lesson #3 came from a regular office advice. Samir Jain, preempting the later global fashion, sent detailed instructions on how to recycle, reuse, and refuse to waste. He made it a ‘criminal offence’ to send a fax on a letterhead. The ‘grains’ pixelation of the printed header added three minutes more to the transmission time; so it was far more economical to photocopy and then fax….

Mahendra Swarup was inducted to bring his global marketing skills to Vineet’s baby Times Internet Limited. Before formally starting he naturally had to meet Samir Jain. Swarup had been struck by flu, but he went anyway at the appointed time to Jain House at 6, S.P. Marg, then still the whole family’s address.

If he had been less of a newbie, he would have postponed the meeting because Samir Jain is extremely susceptible to colds, and immediately dispenses with anyone with the slightest sniffle. However, Swarup recalled an extremely solicitous Samir Jain not dispensing with him, but dispensing medication. He summoned a minion to bring out an array of ayurvedic pills and potions, and discussed their various powers. And that was the sum total of the 40-minute ‘interview’. Later in the day, he even sent more vials to Swarup’s house….

For Swarup [who came from Pepsi], the early differentiator between the MNC and VC styles was the dining table. “Whenever we were at lunch, he observed what I relished in the lavish thali, and what I was ignoring. He told me what was good for me, and what I shouldn’t eat. Not just that, he served me personally. And would often show up at my house followed by the driver staggering in with a large hot-case. He’d say, “Mahendraji, aaj aap ki favourite kadhi banayi thi.”

***

On VINEET JAIN, managing director (MD): Vineet Jain rolls up his sleeves—-meticulously in v. neat folds—and buckles down to the nitty-gritty in all the media that exercises him at that time. he even orchetrates news stories on Times Now, as he did during the rescue of Prince, the little Rajasthani boy who fell into an open 60-ft-deep borewell, in 2006. His social connections enable him to add muscle or masala to a report.

And on one memorable occasion, the MD actually one of the big news stories of 2009: that Manu Sharma, the politically connected main accused in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case, was out on parole ostensibly to meet his ailing mother, but actually partying….

The MD was on the case like a proper newshound. He alerted Vikas Singh, the Delhi resident editor; he told the Delhi Times reporter not to file the story till he had vetted it himself. He then called Vikas again, and told him to hold the story because “there’s too much hearsay. Tell the reporter to go back and get the bar manager’s quotes. On tape, and clandestinely if necessary.”

In the meanwhile, Vikas had a run-in with his immediate boss, Jojo (executive editor Jaideep Bose), who was hollering him on the line from Mumbai pressuring him to release the story for all editions so that no one else out-scooped the ToI.

Vikas told him, “The reporter says it will hold.”

Jojo thundered: “Who the hell is this reporter?”

Vikas replied: “MD”.

***

On R.K. LAXMAN, cartoonist: The most notable feature of the creator of the common man was that he was completely lacking in the common touch. To all but a close circle of personal friends and a coterie of the editors he worked with, R.K. Laxman was arrogant to the point of rudeness….

Laxman and [his wife] Kamala had gone to Qatar as guests of the sheikh. A public lecture was part of the deal. The opening line of his speech left his audience and his princely host stuned. He said, “Ever since I have set foot in your country, I have been most unhappy, in fact down right miserable.”

He then went on, “If a car is to pick me up at 10, it is always there at five to 10, with the AC switched on. I never have to open the door, the smartly uniformed chaffeur has always jumped out to do this for me. My heart sinks every time I drive through your country. The ride is always smooth with none of the potholes I am used to back home. Every street light is working. The walls are clean without a single blob of betel juice. How do you expect me, a person from Bombay, not to feel totally depressed about this?”

***

On DILEEP PADGAONKAR, former editor: Dileep was, in his colleague [former Bombay resident editor] Dina Vakil‘s memorable phrase, an ‘impresario editor’…. Dileep presided over a fine dining table and the TOI, many would aver, in that order. One of the nuggests in the newsroom’s annals is that the only time he sent out a memo and one steeped in aged balsamic at that, was when The Sunday Times of India appeared with ‘bouillabaise’ misspelt. For the Francophile and foodie editor it was a crime worse than a murdered filet mignon.

***

On GIRILAL JAIN, former editor: As DileepPadgaonkar described him: “He was given to making Spenglarian statements covering vast ages and aeons in a single sentence. he was a blend of Curzonian ambitions and Haryanvi conceits.” No surprise then that when he went to Iran to interview the Shah, he is supposed to have ended up tutoring the Pahlavi monarch on matters of geo-political strategy. On an evening, Giri would walk in the Lodhi gardens, puff at his cigar and come up with statements that would flummox even the lofty companion he had chosen. he would pronounce, ‘The Hun will be pitted against the Hindu.”

***

On  SHAM LAL, former editor: When Sham Lal retired, the newsroom (which he had never stepped into) gave him a farewell. It was held in the 6th floor canteen where the aam janata, not ‘invited’ to the august directors’ lunch room, ate. Sham Lal was seldom seen in the latter, so he probably did not even known of the existence of the former. He was escorted up in the lift and into the huge hall. News editor, chief reporter, subs, peons, all sung his fulsome (sic) praises. The quiet but universally admired editor was presented ‘floral tributes’ and a salver.

Then the master of ceremonies grandly announced, ‘Now Mr Sham Lal will give a speech.’ Sham Lal slowly shuffled to his feet, cleared his throat, and as the packed hall waited in anticipation for an outpouring of enlightenment from the man who had attained intellectual nirvana, he merely said, ‘Thank you’. Then he went back to his chair and sat down….

At a party in Mumbai, Sham Lal was cornered by a large, garrulous American woman. After a 15-minute monologue, she stopped mid-flow and asked, “Am I boring you?” and Sham Lal replied with extreme and genuine courtesy, “Yes I am afraid you are.”

***

On PREM SHANKAR JHA, former assistant editor: The editorial HQ was still Mumbai, and he wouldn’t roll up to the portico in a taxi like his colleagues. He arrived with his bulk perched incongruously on a frail moped. He would come directly from his morning tennis at the Bombay Gym and would fluster into the edit meeting invariably late, dripping with sweat and clumsily dropping his helmet and racuqet. Sham Lal would mildly glower and Prem would clasp his podgy hands and say, ‘Maaf kijiye, Sham Lalji, maaf kijiye’….

One day, hearing hysterical screams from the inner cabin, the long-suffering Iyer entered to find his portly boss balanced precariously on a chair, quaking in impotent terror and staring at a cockroach on his desk. As soon as he saw his steno, he ordered him to swat it. Iyer froze at such an unBrahminical directive, with Prem getting more and more apoplectic by the minute. He finally shouted, ‘Kill it, kill it, you f***ing vegetarian.’ Iyer fled.

***

On J.C. JAIN, former general manager: J.C. Jain was among the most powerful GMs of the time when this was top executive position. He had a reedy voice, sometimes cruelly described as ‘having one vocal chord’. The story goes that on a visit to Hollywood, JC met the smokey-voiced beauty, [Humphrey Bogart's wife] Lauren Bacall. Trying to think of something smart to say to this icon, he quipped: ” Miss Bacall, is it true that you are sometimes mistaken for a man?” The lady arched her famous eyebrows and retorted, “No. Are you?”

***

On T.N. NINAN, former Economic Times editor: T.N. Ninan was extremely possessive about his editorial domain. Samir Jain was raring to bring many innovations into ET, but Ninan, more as a matter of principle, was less than enthusiastic. One of these was ear panels, but Ninan resisted on the belief that the masthead should not be devalued by small ads on either side.

Irritated, the VC called the Bangalore branch head, Sunil Rajshekhar, and said, “This is what I want, and it has to be in ET there tomorrow.” Sunil passed on the VC’s instructions to the RE, Nageswaran, who mentioned this in a routine mail to his boss. Ninan blasted him, “Do you report to me or to Sunil Rajshekhar?” The hapless guy spluttered, “But, Mr Ninan, the VC asked for it to be done.” Ninan thundered, “I don’t care who asked. I am the Editor.” Yes, he was. But not for long.

***

On JUG SURAIYA, edit page editor: Some time in 1987, Ashok Jain summoned Gautam Adhikari, and said, “I am told there are no good young journalists in India outside the Times.” Gautam said, “No, sir, there are many good journalists, and I am sure they would be happy to join us.” The chairman said, “Give me a note.” Gautam made out a spreadsheet which included their brief bios, even a ballpark estimate of their current salaries…. Gautam’s list included Chandan Mitra, Swapan Dasgupta and Jug Suraiya from The Statesman.

When Gautam called his old quizzing friend and said, “Could we meet?” Jug thought he wanted to join The Statesman, and sounded out the editor. Sunanda Datta-Ray removed his cigarette-holder from his lips and replied, “He will be an asset. Ask him to telephone me.” But when they met at the Elphin bar, it was Gautam who was doing the offering. To everyone’s surprise, Suraiya was willing.”

***

On SWAMINATHAN AIYAR, former Economic Times editor: The economics whiz Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar had many quirks. As a genius he was entitled to the full quota. One of these was unqiue: he always carried his cup of tea to the 3rd floor loo in Times House, Delhi.

***

On PRITISH NANDY, former editor, Illustrated Weekly of India: Some-time Science Today editor Mukul Sharma had acted in Paroma, an edgy film made by his ex-wife, the well-known actresses-turned-director Aparna Sen. He played the foreign-returned photographer who had an affair with his subject, a traditional Bengali house. The beauteous Rakhee essayed the title role. Mukul boasted to his friend Pritish that when he lay atop her for a bedroom shot, he counted 29 golden flecks in her amber eyes. Nandy smirked and said, “36”.

***

On PRADEEP GUHA, former response head: Two years into Pradeep Guha’s powerful stewardship of Response, and his raking in the moolah by the shovelful for the group, the chairman Ashok Jain turned to his son, Samir just after PG left the room, and ingenuously asked, “Achcha, yeh banda karta kya hai?‘ (What exactly does this chap do in the organisation?)

***

On DINA VAKIL, former Bombay resident editor: In December 2003, Salman Rushdie returned to his boyhood city, Mumbai, after a gap of 16 years. The interview team comprised three people: resident editor Dina Vakil, who had published an excerpt from Midnight’s Children in the Indian Express and had met Salman when he was a young tyke, and was allegedly featured as Mina Vakil in the Ground Beneath her Feet. The other was Rushdie fan Nina Martyris. Bringing up the rear was the veteran photographer Shriram Vernekar.

Terrified that Shriram would innocently discuss the ‘scoop’ with his photographer friends in other publications, Dina threatened him with dire consequences as her car drew up to the Taj. “I will kill you,” was her (usual) refrain as she wagged a perfectly manicured finger in his mystified face. Shriram, whose storming ground was the Sena shakha and Ganesh visarjan, didn’t know what the fuss was all about.

While shooting them, the genial Shriram did his bet to put a slightly awkward Rushdie at ease, by engaging him in small talk. He lowered his camera, looked up at the celebrated writer and said conversationally, “First time in Mumbai?” Even as Dina rolled her eyes and looked like she wanted to throttle Shriram, an unfazed Rushdie twinkled, “Not quite.”

***

On RAJDEEP SARDESAI, former assistant editor: Why just the stenos, even the peons were totally clued in and, when it came to Byzantine state politics, the Maharashtrian ones could teach a thing or two to the younger assistant editors. Once Rajdeep Sardesai, hot off the dreaming spires of Oxford, wrote a whole three-part series on the rising presence of the Shiv Sena without, it was whispered, meeting a single sainik or visiting a single shakha. On that occasion, it was left to the more hands-on Kalpana Sharma to fill in the gaps.

External reading: The Economic Times review of the book

The Times of India review of the book

The Business Standard review of the book

The 25-paise mag where R.K. Laxman began

4 April 2011

R.K. Laxman may have made his name after a lifetime at The Times of India, but it was for a small Kannada humour monthly called Koravanji that the Mysore-born cartoonist drew his first works.

The magazine had been inspired by the British satirical magazine Punch. The first issue saw the light of day, today, 70 years ago and shut down 25 years later, in 1967.

A CD containing 300 past issues of Koravanji (which refers to fortune-telling tribal women) was released in Mysore last week, and a website has been launched to keep the jokes going.

***

Prof A.V. Narasimha Murthy, former head of the department of ancient history and archaeology of the University of Mysore, recounts the origin of Koravanji in Star of Mysore.

“The editor of Korvanji was Dr R. Shivaram, popularly known as RaShi. He was a medical doctor but his stethoscope could detect humour. It seems that he was a regular reader of  Punch, the internationally known humour magazine.

“The college in which RaShi was studying auctioned all the old magazines including Punch. Shivaram managed to collect Rs 3 to buy them. But the Principal of the college himself purchased the lot at Rs 4.

“The boy was highly disappointed. But the understanding Principal presented all the volumes to Shivaram as a gift. This precious gift from the Principal was a turning point in the career of young Shivaram and years later he started the monthly magazine Koravanji.

“The first issue appeared on Ugadi day of Chitrabanu Samvatsara (1942). Each issue was sold at 4 annas of 25 paise. Newspaper agents purchased the copies but did not pay the Editor/MD. The doctor who had made a good name had no cure for these agents.”

Koravanji‘s editorial menu comprised humourous skits, light hearted poems, parodies, gossip, limericks, cartoons, etc. The absence of obscene lines and double entendre was a stand-out feature, according to the professor.

Links via E.R. Ramachandran

***

Also read: 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

EXCLUSIVE: The unpublished doodles of R.K. Laxman

Has namma R.K. Laxman drawn his last cartoon?

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

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