If you haven’t heard of Rohan Chakravarty you’ve been missing out on an entire parallel universe of laughs. Add to that chuckles, sniggers, guffaws and other varieties of ROFL. If you are a wildlife enthusiast or a birder, your error of omission is unpardonable. Read between those laugh lines, and you’ll see that Rohan is a wildlife crusader in mufti. While his gags are spot on, his witty, sardonic swipes at real, pressing environmental issues are unerring and razor-keen.
Rohan, who calls Nagpur home but has been based out of Bangalore for a while, trained to be a dentist. However, destiny and a beautiful tigress conspired (or perhaps inspired?) to get him to sink his fangs in this rather unrewarding pursuit. Most of us with bad teeth have more than a rough idea of how much dentists take home on average, and naturally Rohan’s career choice raised as many hackles as eyebrows. Making a living as a cartoonist, by Rohan’s own admission, isn’t for the “weak-arted”.
So here’s redemption. Rohan’s first solo exhibition – Wildlife the Toonie Way – will grace the august halls of the Indian Cartoon Gallery on Bangalore’s MG Road from September 13 to 27, 2014. After you read this interview, you’ll drop everything and go.
In a freewheeling email conversation (whatever the heck that means) with Travel Editor Bijoy Venugopal, Rohan Chakravarty chats about work and play though usually both mean the same thing to him.
What’s Wildlife the Toonie Way all about?
Wildlife the Toonie Way is a series of wildlife caricatures I am illustrating in a bid to create a bank of fun, delightful and quirky illustrations that capture wildlife in its full glory, intended for publication and use in wildlife/ conservation related multimedia. Having created more than 70 such pieces, I am conducting my first solo exhibition in Bangalore, from September 13 to 27, where I will be displaying and selling prints of these caricatures.
What’s so inspiring about wildlife? Do you find them cooler than politicians or celebs?
I love drawing things that are beautiful. That rules out politicians. I also love drawing things that aren’t fake. That rules out celebs. I have tried my hands at various subjects as a cartoonist, but only wildlife gave me a true sense of contentment. I think I just relate better with animals rather than people. (It’d be so much wiser to just piss on your property to say it’s yours, rather than build a fence around it!)
You poke merciless fun at your characters but always leave an underlying message in there for humans. What are you getting at with your cartoons?
Frankly, the core purpose of drawing cartoons for me is just to make some mischief every day and have fun. The conservation messages and the trivia thus portrayed are the by-products.
You’re a conservationist and activist at heart. And there’s nothing funny about the fate of wildlife the world over. Is there a serious side to Rohan the cartoonist?
My friends often call me a grumpy ol’ man, so I guess the humorous side to me is the actual surprise! Reading about all the pain, injustice and exploitation that wildlife faces every day, does make you clench your teeth and fists in anger. Fortunately for me, my clenched fists always find a pen in them and they’re learning what to do with it.
How far have you travelled to get an idea of what a certain critter looks like? Share that story with us.
The first story that comes to my mind is my attempt to sight the Greater Adjutant Stork, an endangered bird that is found only in a massive garbage dump in the outskirts of Guwahati. I had just landed in Guwahati and was supposed to travel to Arunachal Pradesh the following morning to attend the Arunachal Bird Festival. Since it wasn’t dusk yet, I knew I had a chance of seeing the bird. I had done a rough sketch of the Adjutant in the plane, and using it like a police sketch, me and a visibly dumbfounded cab driver (because no one before had ever asked him to be driven from the airport straight to the city’s largest dump), embarked on the stork’s trail, and we were shortly rewarded with a sighting of around 150 of these very rare, very ugly birds!
Who or what inspired you to become a cartoonist? What’s the story behind Green Humour? And does your family think you’re nuts?
I think I learnt to appreciate the nitty-gritties of the cartooning business from a very early age watching the work of Hanna Barbera and Genndy Tartakovsky. Even though they were motion animators, their shows had gags crafted very cleverly (and I really pity the kind of shows kids today grow up watching). Tartakovsky particularly has been a prime source of inspiration, right from the very first episode of Dexter’s Laboratory I watched. I was so smitten by his work, that as a school kid, I often adapted his characters into my storylines and created little comic books out of them. I drew these comics everywhere – in my notebooks, on the corners of textbooks, on my desk, on the wall. Some of my teachers, who borrowed my notebooks full of comics, still have them!
By the time I was into my teens, the thought of pursuing cartooning as a career had somehow been vanquished by peer and parental pressure of being a part of the ‘SEE/PMT’ rat race. Somehow I made my way into a dental college and finished my degree sailing through it aimlessly and lifelessly. It was during my dentistry days that I met a beautiful tigress on my first serious ‘safari’ and I then tried my hand at portraying conservation messages through cartoons. Over time, some of these had started getting noticed and published, and while I knew that making a living out of it would be out of bounds, it was certainly something I would want to have a shot at. I trained myself with animation design, took up a job in Bangalore as a pre-production artist and illustrator, funding myself while I conceived and drew my wildlife cartoons, ‘Green Humour’, by the side. In June 2014 I quit the job to devote all my time to Green Humour, and see where it goes.
There’s no doubt that my family thinks I am nuts. But still somehow, I have their unconditional support. I think somewhere deep down, they’ve got to be nuts too!
Share your five favorite cartoons and dissect them for us – the trigger, the gag and the message, and why they are your favorites.
My favourites are the ones that crack me up each time I read them. Here are 5 of the published ones.
I wanted to portray the grave conservation threats frogs are facing today (every other frog these days is threatened with extinction!) in a nutshell and I was thinking of the quickest and funniest way to do so, when the idea struck me. I love the expressions on the frog and the princess’ face in the second panel. The princess looks just as clueless as humans are about climate change.
I’m an absolutely abominable dancer, so this tiger more than makes up for my two left feet, I’d say!
It’s ironical how the pangolin’s defense mechanism against predators (rolling up into an armoured ball) has become its biggest drawback against poachers (who simply pick the ball up and boil the animal alive to remove its scales). I wanted to bring out this irony in a manner that was funny as well as provoking. Also, I’ve had a lot of those moments that the rhino is having here, in my brief stint with yoga.
I really, really enjoyed drawing this cartoon. I think it’s fairly obvious why!
This is my ode to one of the species I admire the most and is so far, my pick among my published work. There’s a dose of silliness and science in it, and makes me laugh out loud like the polar bears when I see the terns go ‘plop plop plop’.
How easy or difficult is it to make a living as a cartoonist, especially one that doesn’t draw politicians? Is this now your full-time occupation?
Making a living as a cartoonist today is not for the weak-‘arted’, and I must confess that I’m yet to get there myself. Newspapers are dying; and the internet and the cartoonist haven’t quite figured out what to do with each other. Syndicates wouldn’t think twice before distributing yet another strip about teenagers or pet cats, but would shy away from even looking at something new. If you’re a gag cartoonist today, you’re a medieval samurai in imperial Japan.
But the best as well as the worst part of doing what I do is that I don’t have an example to follow. It’s both a demoralizer and an ego-booster for me, depending on my mood.
If you weren’t a cartoonist, what would you be?
Probably an actor or a singer. I’d definitely have something to do with Bollywood! But there’s a certain vision you develop being a cartoonist, finding amusement in very trivial details of life. I don’t think I’d choose to live my life any other way.
Your first exhibition. Are you nervous?
I’ve displayed my work four times in the past, but this is my first solo exhibition. Nervous? I’ve run out of fingernails to chew, so I’ve been considering switching to toenails now!