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Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman, famously known as R. K. Laxman, was an Indian cartoonist who created the comic strip ‘You Said It’, featuring the “Common Man”—a silent observer representing an average Indian. The comic strip chronicled the life of an average Indian, his hopes, aspirations and troubles and the politics through his eyes. A bulbous-nosed bespectacled observer dressed in a dhoti and a distinctive checkered coat, was a character most beloved to the Indian masses and has entertained generations of Indians over the past several decades.

Born to a headmaster, Laxman was the youngest of six brothers and also had one sister. Laxman’s fascination with drawing began early on and he loved to look at the illustrations in magazines and newspapers even before he could read. He began drawing as soon as he could and filled the floors and walls of his house with doodles. As he grew up he started drawing caricatures of his father and teachers, much to the amusement of his siblings and classmates. One of his brothers, the famous writer, R. K. Narayan was a budding writer then and Laxman used to illustrate the stories his brother wrote.

He was highly impressed by the works of the British cartoonist Sir David Low whose works often appeared in ‘The Hindu’. It did not take him long to realize that drawing was his life’s calling and set about to make a career for himself as an artist. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree and began taking up freelance projects with newspapers, eventually landing his first full-time job as a political cartoonist.

He was appointed by ‘The Times of India’ in 1947 on a salary of Rs. 500—a princely sum in those days. Initially he provided illustrations for the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’ and comic strips for a children’s magazine. Soon, his cartoons started appearing on the front page of ‘The Times of India’, and his reputation as a cartoonist grew day by day. Eventually, he became the paper’s chief political cartoonist.

It was while working at ‘The Times of India’ that he came up with the idea for the cartoon strip ‘You Said It’, featuring the “Common Man”, the character that every Indian would come to identify with. ‘You said it’ adorned the newspaper’s front page into the 21st century. The strip was witty and funny while at the same time serious and sarcastic. The Common Man was a mute spectator to the events unfolding before him—he represented the silent majority of India. The character was so popular that he was featured in a commemorative postage stamp released by the Indian Postal Service on the 150th anniversary of the ‘Times of India’ in 1988. The comic strip also served as the basis for a comedy series on Indian TV, R.K. Laxman Ki Duniya (2011–13).

Just as the Common Man, Laxman’s portrayals of characters, events, happenings, etc. were always very crucial in evoking the latent feelings of rationality and critical thinking in many. It is precisely why they have become a part of the NCERT textbooks, specifically in the social sciences/ political sciences curricula. His portrayals are a very potent example of how visuals can be used to inculcate critical thinking amongst learners.

Laxman published numerous short stories, essays, and travel articles, some of which were collected in The Distorted Mirror (2003). He also wrote the novels The Hotel Riviera (1988) and The Messenger (1993) and an autobiography, The Tunnel of Time (1998).

He was honored with The Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1984 in the category Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts (JLCCA). In 2005 he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour.

The creator of the “Common Man”, cartoonist R K Laxman passed away on January 26 at 94 in Pune.

Among other things, the legend had an uncommon interest in a common bird: the crow. In his autobiography, “The Tunnel of Time”, Laxman fondly recalls his love for them. He liked crows for their colour and intelligence. What attracted Laxman to crows has also intrigued scientists for a long time. Referred to as the “feathered primates” by scientists, they are considered equal to humanity’s closest cousins, the great apes. No wonder, Laxman so much admired crows, which he once described as a really “uncommon” bird.  

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