R.K. Laxman, newspaper cartoonist in India, dies at 93

R.K. Laxman obituary: Cartoonist used Common Man for commentary on native India

R.K. Laxman, the acclaimed Indian newspaper cartoonist whose pungent commentary, often through the eyes of his beloved Common Man character, held a mirror to the absurdity and silliness of his country's politicians and those they led, died Monday in Pune, India. He was 93.

The cause was multiple-organ failure, his doctor said.

Laxman's almost daily cartoon called "You Said It" ran in the Times of India for six decades, offering a graphic chronicle of his nation's history, stretching from its infancy after independence from Britain in 1947 and continuing through its embrace of modernity amid corruption, poverty and religious discord.

His balding, bespectacled Common Man character has been immortalized on a postage stamp and spawned a television sitcom.

Laxman especially delighted in skewering India's ruling elite and their failure to deliver on promises to remedy the country's many problems.

In 1969, after American astronauts landed on the moon, he showed the Common Man being presented to NASA scientists as the perfect candidate for life on the moon. "This is our man! He can survive without water, food, light, air, shelter," Laxman's caption read.

"In a few strokes of the pen and one caption, he'd encapsulate the particular mood at that time finer than any of these analyses you'd read in the paper," former Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman was born on Oct. 24, 1921, the youngest of six sons of a school headmaster in the southern town of Mysore. Captivated by the illustrations in Punch and other British magazines, he began drawing as a child. One of his teachers encouraged him, but another exploded upon discovering the boy had caricatured him with bug eyes and buck teeth.

Rejected by a Mumbai art school, Laxman instead attended the University of Mysore, where he majored in economics, philosophy and political science.

He illustrated the novels of his brother, the well-known Indian novelist R.K. Narayan, before joining the Times of India in the early 1950s. The newspaper soon was featuring his cartoon on the front page.

His needling sometimes got him in trouble as an adult, such as the time he was hauled into court for lampooning nationalist rioters who were burning cars and buses in Bombay. His cartoon showed a rioter attempting to set a motorcycle on fire, "but he can't even light the matchstick," Laxman once told an interviewer. "A bystander says, 'What sort of patriot are you? You can't even burn a small motorcycle.' "

Laxman was acquitted.

On Tuesday, most mainstream newspapers in India carried prominent obituaries on the celebrated cartoonist. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a tribute, writing that India was "grateful to you for adding the much needed humor in our lives and always bringing smiles on our faces."

Laxman had been in worsening health after a number of strokes over the last decade. His survivors include his wife, Kamala, and a son.

"Cartoons soften the harshness of life," Laxman told author Ritu Gairola Khanduri in a history of Indian political cartooning. "When people laugh it softens the blow. The goal is as far as possible to see the ridiculousness of it all."


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