THE WORD “CARTOON” got its modern sense, denoting a comic drawing, in 1843. It appeared in the still-new British weekly Punch to describe the magazine’s popular caricatures of London political life. When the news reached London a couple of decades later that someone had launched a magazine called IndianPunch, Charles Dickens was incredulous. “Punch in India,” he mused. “The idea seems unpromising. … The Asiatic temperament is solemn, and finds no enjoyment in fun for its own sake.” Within a few short decades, as the anthropologist Ritu Khanduri describes in Caricaturing Culture in India, the satirical ideals of Punch were appropriated, indigenised, and, with an irony worthy of one of its cartoons, transformed into a vehicle for anti-British commentary in the colony. The empire’s humourless Asiatic subjects were laughing back.
By the time RK Laxman was born, in 1921, the political cartoon had put down deep roots in India. Caricatures of politicians appeared, accompanied by wry or raucous captions, in publications in virtually every major Indian language. The future icon of political cartooning in India received some of his first commissions from Koravanji, a Kannada magazine self-consciously in the tradition of Punch, published from Bangalore beginning in the early 1940s. His great fame, however, and the instant recognition and affection his style inspires, came from his work for the institution where he spent nearly all of his professional career: the Times of India.
The thousands of editorial cartoons, large and small, that Laxman did on an unrelenting schedule for the Times of India from when he first joined its staff, in 1951, until he died, in 2015, have become not just a commentary on, but part of, the history of independent India. The figure most Indians associate with Laxman, “the Common Man,” was devised early in his career and stayed with him through his life: puzzled, ageless, powerless, ubiquitous, and always silent.