Cartoonists are a special breed within the journalistic fraternity, and
around the world first-rate practitioners are very rare. Because they can
pierce the heart of a problem with the few lines of a sketch, they are
understood as well by the less literate as by the erudite. The feelings a
powerful cartoon evokes involve the total personality, rather than only
With this unique effectiveness a gifted cartoonist can blacken the prospects
of a public personality with a single sketch of his chin or nose. But this
talent must be tempered by a sense of the broad underlying yearnings of the
society, plus a persistent search for the truth that lies beneath surface
appearances. No school has yet been able to produce gifted cartoonists; they
are born and self-trained.
From an illustrious intellectual family in Mysore, South India, RASIPURAM
KRISHNASWAMI LAXMAN was drawing by the time he started school. Self-taught,
in high school he was illustrating the short stories of his author-brother,
R.K. Narayan. He also began to study the cartoons in The Hindu by David Low,
dean of British cartoonists, who would one day visit the young man in Bombay
and compliment him on his work.
When LAXMAN started to work on the Free Press Journal in Bombay in 1946,
Indian newspapers had yet to appreciate the power of the political cartoon.
It was after he joined The Times of India in 1947 that LAXMAN's
extraordinary talents were recognized. Today many readers look first for his
cartoons when they pick up their morning papers. Meanwhile he has expanded
his talents to become an accomplished writer of short stories, articles,
travelogues and a novel, Sorry, No Room.
Besides his newspaper readership LAXMAN has reached out to another audience
for his cartoons. For nearly 30 years his cartoons "You Said It" have
appeared in inexpensive paperback books. The preface to an early volume,
reprinted in six editions, gives the flavor of his occupation:
"A cartoonist works for an industry in which time is of the essence. The
Damocles sword of deadline rules his days, which for him follow one another
in a bewildering order of importance: tomato shortage, nuclear threat,
five-year plan, pot holes, corruption, monsoon forecast, adulterated drugs,
prohibition and mission to the moon ...."
LAXMAN's trademark is his portrait of the Common Man—a small figure with a
bulbous nose, caterpillar eyebrows, the hair behind the ears bushing out
below a bald pate, and mustache like a brush. His dress is unchanging—a
dhoti, long shirt and checked coat. His mien suggests a determined staying
power. As his creator wrote: "You can not do away with the Common Man. They
have tried it for centuries and not succeeded. . . he is the mirror image
[of millions of readers] . . . the conscience that pricks the evildoer, the
social offender, the practitioner of all those trades which we might have
liked to practice but for fear of the police, if not of God."
Through the eyes and fate of this long-suffering, harried, cheated and
burdened, yet brave and uncomplaining character, LAXMAN gives his readers a
sense of identity with the experiences that constitute India's national
life. Both the bad and the good become real and shared.
This ability of now 60 year old LAXMAN, the cartoonist, has prompted
journalist colleagues to dub him their "national treasure." For above all it
is through public enlightenment that civilizations stumble up the long
stairway that supposedly leads to progress. And as India wrestles with the
compounding dilemmas of the world's most populous democracy, it is the sane
and hopeful daily effort of persons of LAXMAN's profession of journalism
that must help point out the better paths.
In electing RASIPURAM KRISHNASWAMI LAXMAN to receive the 1984 Ramon
Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts,
the Board of Trustees recognizes his incisive, witty, never malicious
cartoons illuminating India's political and social issues.