He’s no Pangolin, but just might be a shape-shifter. Each week, he changes stripes to teach some wildlife basics, call out the world governments and give voice to ecological concerns on Green Humour, his much-acclaimed cartoon strip. Mr Prakash Javadekar as the environment minister is a recurring visitor but the potshots aren’t limited to him. Gautam Adani, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi – cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty’s witty barbs are aimed equally at all ecological deniers and “proponents of growth”. Only, it’s the animals doing the talking for once, exposing our beastly ways, and giving us a glimpse of their own lives. In this world built by Rohan, you watch nature TV, tigers are movie critics, sharks go to work in pajamas, bees teach you a thing or two about socialism and butterflies go on military missions. There are some handy pick-up lines too. We talk to Rohan about wildlife, art and his life as a cartoonist.
So how did Green Humour come about? It was coming face to face with a wild tigress that gave me the idea for the cartoon. I was volunteering with an organisation called ‘Kids for Tigers’ which needed me to take kids to nature and bird trails. That’s how I started learning about wildlife and conservation bit by bit. At that time a lot of talk around conservation was doom and gloom; moreover it was filled with jargon. I figured a more creative approach can bring wildlife closer to more people.
Sure enough, the comic is a wealth of information. Where else would I have learnt that red-eared slider turtles are the new colonisers? But where does the inspiration come from? Wildlife! It can be anything from a lizard in my bathroom to a polar bear I have never seen before. When the source of inspiration is first-hand it results in more personal and effective stories. Much of it though is scouring books, research papers (especially if it’s a new species) and watching documentaries. The first-hand encounters have been because of the wildlife maps commissioned by various organisations and governments, both in India and abroad. They have taken me to different places where I could witness conservation issues and how they are dealt with both at the government and community level – a lot of my knowledge has resulted from that and it reflects in my cartoons. I do enjoy cartooning and my illustrations equally though.
What were the challenges? One of the biggest challenges has been to get publishers to take me seriously. It’s something I still struggle with. Few of the organisations that run me regularly are seeing the point (of the comics )now. Bringing out books is a different experience altogether.
You have been a cartoonist for 11 years now. Do you ever feel stuck? Oh, the creative block happens everyday. Over time you realise it’s a process of growth because it is an indicator that you need to take a break, read and replenish your grey matter.
Is social media a useful tool for cartoonists? For a long time the internet and cartoonists didn’t know what to do with each other. That is changing now, many young artists are making use of Patreon. So even though the internet has many issues – plagiarism, polarised opinions, you never know where your work will turn up, artists are adapting and the faster they do the better.
I wouldn’t advise artists to rely on social media entirely. A lot of them these days get trapped in pandering to social media responses, what people like and draw just that. I’m consciously trying to avoid that trajectory for my art. I want to draw what I believe in.
Social media has been helpful, it has multiplied my reader base and helped reach out to international organisations. It’s a place where there is a lot of backlash, especially when the topic has political overtones. Social media promotes extreme polarisation of opinions. When it comes to environmental matters, it is important to understand that it’s not always black and white. It’s proving to be difficult to raise the grey areas and highlight the nuances…it’s something I want to focus on.
Some people who inspire you Archana Soreng is an environmental activist from Odisha and a part of the UN’s youth advisory group on climate change. I have learnt a lot from her work. Nandini Velho has been a mentor to me. She is an ecologist from Goa and has been at the forefront of many campaigns including the one around Mollem. Then there’s marine biologist Asha De Vos from Sri Lanka who I really look up to. She has been pioneering whale conservation in our region. There are countless more.
When it comes to cartoonists, Bill Waterson and Gary Larson have been the prime sources of inspiration. Also, animator Genndy Tartakovsky, who created Dexter’s Laboratory. He really influenced my art growing up. In fact, my book Bird Business was a tribute to his style.
Rohan is a morning person and lives with two Indie dogs. He has weekly columns in The Hindu, Sunday Mid-day and Roundglass Sustain. His latest book Green Humour for a Greying planet is out now. Previous books include The Great Indian Nature Trail, Bird Business and Making Friends with Snakes. You can follow him and keep up with his wildlife encounters on Instagram.