Mokkais from Madras: Cartoonist Lakshman talks funny business
Murukku meesai, veshti and a kind of humour that is quintessentially Madras - Lakshman Balaji is excruciatingly funny and has a hilarious series of toon with wordplay and puns. Lakshman's cartoons are self-titled as 'Hand-drawn cartoons, meticulously crafted mokkais' - a category where jokes are manoeuvred around a particular word or phrase. If we've got to trace its etymology, it goes back to a Burmese word 'macaunbu' which means 'not good'. However, Lakshman's art is quite opposite that.
"While I have been drawing cartoons for longer than I can remember, the page has been in existence for about two years," says Lakshman, 24. "A friend of mine suggested that I upload my cartoons on a separate portal rather than my personal profile, and so, in the midst of my final year exams, I created the page. I decided to call it Lakshman's cartoons." His cartooning skills may be on point, but giving a name for his own page perhaps isn't. "I am the best when it comes to giving unique and creative names, no?" he says sarcastically.
While puns are his core narrative, his family is a recurring theme in his cartoons. His mother constantly feels that he doesn't do her features justice. "She's a pretty woman, and good-looking people are hard to draw," says Lakshman. "That's why I find it supremely easy to sketch myself, or my father." Now pursuing his higher studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the Chennai boy has a whopping 45,038 followers on his social media page. "My father is very encouraging, and once in awhile, comes up with jokes so bad that they take my breath away. And it's not just my parents, but my entire family that's extremely supportive.” Amidst severe homesickness, he mentions his grandfather, a lovely man who patiently sits and listens to him explain the joke behind every cartoon.
Lakshman's art influences revolved around artists like RK Laxman, Ram Waeerkar, VB Halbe, Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Don Edwing, Uderzo and Morris. However, his art features plenty of Chennai lingo and references to the city's flavour and vibe. So does your mother tongue and being a Tamilian reflect in these cartoons? "Definitely. My mother taught me the basics of writing and reading so as to ensure that I wasn't completely illiterate in my mother tongue. So many people are these days!" Lakshman, however, wishes he had received formal Tamil education in school. "I would have been able to make more Tamil wordplay cartoons."
Almost every joke or concept occurred to Lakshman while talking to his friends and family. So, what’s the cartoonist’s take on food, music and fashion? “Chennai is a definite 10 when it comes to food, that's for sure. Much to the despair of my mom, I have gorged myself on food from every vandikadai (push cart) in Chennai. Easy 10. Music, another 10. You get awesome carnatic music and there are independent musicians who come up with their own original content. Fashion, I don't know because I don't pay much attention to it. But when Dumbledore can chumma chumma keep giving ten points to Gryffindor for no solid reason, I can also do the same. 10 points to Chennai for fashion!"
So, what does the Madrasi in you miss now that you've moved to pursue the American dream? "My family, the Madras sun, a particular elf-eared friend, and most importantly, health faucets!"