In a matter of weeks, we have lost our second master cartoonist. R.K.Laxman and Rajinder Puri had about as much in common as Pedder Road and Parliament Street. But, between them, they represent a range of cartooning that would do any democracy proud.
Puri was the last of the trio that made Indian cartooning a robust editorial art. He was completely self-taught, unlike the other two, Abu Abraham and O.V. Vijayan, who were mentored by Shankar. On a rare and rapidly reversed personal note, he once said that “brother Rakshat was the artist in the family”; he himself was keener on tennis and wrestling. The last is eminently believable and was in evidence in his cartoons, and no less in the daily debate over the morning coffee, a ritual that travelled over the decades from Embassy and Standard restaurants in Connaught Place to the India International Centre.
No one could have taught this fiercely independent mind anything. He had his own way of figuring things out. Last decade, when Photoshop became the flavour of the newsroom, he mastered the graphic software in his own unorthodox way, which would have made a trained professional squirm. But he chipped and chopped with “the blessed mouse” to tone, colour and texture his drawings as passionately as a cub cartoonist.
Earlier, over the years he had seamlessly transited from brush to dip-pen to throwaway markers through colour pencils and screen tints, all along retaining his trademark style. He insisted that impact mattered more than aesthetics. Through such adventurist fits of retooling, a lesser practitioner would have gone astray. But the power-packed staccato style stayed, and no less the combative tone. This mix in its original form earned him his first big break in 1959, as staff cartoonist with the Hindustan Times, edited by S.Mulgaonkar. The 25-year-old had returned after a stint at The Glasgow Herald and The Guardian in London. He’d later recall “the Fleet Street of Vicky and Searle” where postwar cartooning was beginning to grow out of the gentlemanly David Low mode.
The India Puri came back to was shedding the gentlemanly Nehruvian phase. To begin with, he was no Nehruvian, more of a Lohia-ite who never pardoned the Congress for partitioning the country. But when Panditji died, he came out with a fitting tribute: the cartoon grid filled with human forms that framed a void in the middle shaped like Nehru’s face. It was not blind fury all the way; the man loved Hollywood and Omkarnath Thakur and betrayed a certain slant for Sufism. Of course, with cartooning eyes wide open.
Little wonder then that Puri was among the few editorial commentators to foresee the Emergency of 1975. He had steadily antagonised PM Indira Gandhi through a series of cartoons that suggested a constitutional breakdown. The lady complained about a particularly unsparing one to J.R.D. Tata, the chairman of The Statesman trust. Tata merely told editor Kuldip Nayar to ask the cartoonist “to be a little less vicious in the future”.
Puri knew censors would have no such finesse under the Emergency, which came soon enough. He quit cartooning and became an activist who flirted with the Janata Party and BJP to mercifully return to his core mission: to critique the nation. In fact, beyond the nation. His work had appeared across the length and breadth of the country — from The Indian Express to The Hindu and The Free Press Journal to The Statesman; that wasn’t enough. His book, Recovery of India, is dedicated to the “young people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh”. Barbed wire is a recurring motif in his work. He wanted to cut across — to Karachi, where he was born.
The writer is chief political cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’