Illustrations in R. K. Narayan’s Classic Works


Illustrations in R. K. Narayan’s Classic Works
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Known widely as a prolific writer and a master storyteller, R. K. Narayan is one of the pioneers of Indian writing in English and the modern short story. To that end, he is not only the recipient of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, but also of  the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award. His creative genius is centered around the fictional town of Malgudi, conceived by blending imaginative details with inspiration drawn from contemporary society.

The works built on Malgudi are primarily stories for children, although closer analysis reveals a much more sinister adult world underscoring the tone of the novels. Thus, illustrations and comics accompanying the literary works are an integral part of Narayan’s creations. In fact there is a popular story that R. K. Narayan would undertake ten kilometer long walks each day to create a new story, which he would then discuss at length with his brother R. K. Laxman. Laxman’s sketches of the characters and situations drawn up by Narayan in his walks would become the first illustrations that were featured in Narayan’s works based on Malgudi. 

Image – Burns Library

The well-known sketch of the fictional town had been done by Laxman based on the stories of Malgudi. The town is designed by Laxman as an ordinary settlement with rail tracks and an unremarkable railway station made of concrete. However, there is an undeniable magical quality about the sketch which is purposely set in the time of dusk to give it a hazy, unreal aura. This is the perfect combination of the senses that Narayan aims for in his stories, for Malgudi is realistic enough for his readers to identify with its occurrences, but it is also deliberately given an atmosphere which suggests that it is based on imagination.

The television adaptation of Malgudi Days contains this sketch as well as other illustrations created by Laxman for this purpose. Occasionally Laxman doodles on certain characters of the short stories have been sporadically added to certain editions by the publisher. Most of these sketches are bare structures and are not complete forms like the conception of the railway station, and despite being casually inked on paper bear the true mark of artistic genius. Among the other illustrations done by Laxman for his brother’s literary works are the sketches on the short stories by R. K. Narayan featured in The Hindu. 


Naturally, with times moving ahead the nature of these illustrations has begun to change. The illustrated Swami and Friends no longer bears the casually sketched structures of the characters, but have carefully constructed figures which use bold and bright colours. These drawings, albeit making the novel immensely more attractive to its targeted audience (that is, the children), bear the risk of missing the mark with respect to the purpose of the sketches drawn by an adult hand.

The minimal and basic use of illustrations aided in sparking the imagination of the reader while making it adequately apparent that the world depicted in the novels was one just like the regular world of everyday life. While broken lines and silhouetted figures are mostly found in the older sketches, predominantly fuller forms and coherent shapes are some of the features of the new ones. These not only serve to make the novels colourful, but also create a sharper resemblance with ordinary reality. Hence, pictures of an idyllic childhood are frequently seen. In a recent edition of the novel there has also been blatant misrepresentation of Swami who is shown to be living in the countryside and not in the town of Malgudi as described by Narayan. 


In recent times several comic strips have been designed inspired from the writings, but they serve as independent pieces of art and not illustrated novels. A trip to a lesser known corner of Mysore, the railway station of Chamarajapuram, shows the most obvious inspiration for Laxman’s sketch of Malgudi. A visit to the actual location and its startlingly realistic depiction by Laxman makes one realize that Narayan had been justified in his description of the setting as “a small platform with a banyan tree, a station master, and two trains a day, one coming and one going”. With the lack of vivid attention to detail, such an artistic rendering has been lost in the present times. However, with the surge of the newer kinds of sketches based on interpretations of the real lines by Narayan, one takes heart in the fact that the memories of Malgudi have survived beyond its times.

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