A White Knight in Green Humour
An interview with cartoonist/conservationist Rohan Chakravarty from Green Humour.
Rohan Chakravarty has the difficult task of bringing humour to the bleakest of situations, wildlife conservation. But he does it with such charm that it is impossible not to smile looking at his work. Perhaps one of the few natural history cartoonists, or perhaps the only one in India, Rohan's work doesn't just make you laugh but also educates you with quirky little details about animals, birds and nature. He has just released a book which promises to be just as interesting (and fun) as the rest of his work which we regularly guffaw at on Instagram.
Soup caught up with the cartoonist to ask him about his work, his inspiration and his favourite animal.
Where did you grow up and did you always want to become a cartoonist?
I grew up in Nagpur- the Tiger Capital of the World! I have strayed considerably on my career path. I studied to be a dentist (not joking).
After completing my graduation and realising that rotten mouths didn't make very appealing offices, I started training myself for a career in animation, and worked with a film studio in Bangalore for three years as an animation designer. That stint helped me pick up the necessary skills to become a full-time cartoonist.
What got you interested in nature and wildlife conservation?
I've always had a dormant interest in wildlife, which triggered into action much later in my life. Initiation happened as a pre-school kid when my maternal grandfather started gifting me encyclopaediae on wildlife; and I knew about ocelots and mata matas by the age of three! The first tigress I saw seduced me into starting Green Humour.
How do you find inspiration to draw these characters with such whimsical humour?
Humour is a very interesting and diverse entity. It varies so much from person to person, it surprises me that no one's made an effort to tangibly quantify it!
I think humour shapes up over a variety of factors. I've inherited my sense of humour from my late pet dog, Natwarprakash. The whimsicality, I guess, comes from being a very reserved and introverted person.
What do you hope to achieve with your work?
It really gets my goat when I see glamour and politics on the front pages of newspapers everyday. Why? Because I feel that a Pied Cuckoo visiting India (which eats bugs and pests in fields, freeing our crops of pests and thereby helping our farmers bring food to our plates) is far more important news than what Aishwarya Rai wore at Cannes or which cricketer was auctioned for the highest bid in the IPL, or which politician was auctioned for the highest bid in the Karnataka elections. That is what I hope to change with my work- bring mainstream attention to wild animals and their conservation.
How has the situation in conservation changed since you started work? Do you feel positively about the future?
While communication around conservation has grown and is beginning to prove very effective, the politics that ultimately governs conservation has gotten a lot worse. I do feel positive in a sense that many young people are now aware and passionate about wildlife, but a huge amount of work still needs to be done in terms of getting the government's attention to various conservation issues.
How do you feel we could educate locals in cities that come very close to living with predators like leopards? How can we co-exist peacefully, if at all?
Communication is what ultimately helps bridge such gaps. People around national parks and tiger reserves, who depend on the forest or a livelihood, are often the worst affected by man-animal conflict, despite not being the cause of it themselves. I am trying to direct as much of my effort as I can to illustrate awareness material on such issues in collaboration with NGOs that work in and around forests. A recent Hindi poster that I created deals with one such issue- conflict between cane farmers and tigers around Dudhwa, and how confrontations can be avoided by adopting some simple measures.
Do you often travel to forests and reserves to research your subjects? Where do you normally work from?
I frequently tie up with NGOs and government boards to produce illustrated maps of protected areas, during which most of my work-related travel happens. Travel over the years has become an indispensable part of my work, as there is no substitute for first-hand information and reference-gathering. Google images cannot always tell you how a Wren holds its tail up when it forages or how vivid a clump of blooming rhododendrons looks against a snowy backdrop!
Tell us about your comic book, 'The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky'.
The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky is my first comic book, being published and distributed by WWF India. The series was developed for WWF's new education website for school kids, 'One Planet Academy', which WWF later decided to publish as a book. The comics are about three characters- Uncle Bikky, an ornithologist, his niece Chunmun, an aspiring wildlife photographer, and their dog Duggu, an aspiring bear! Across 16 comics through the book, they travel to different parts of India and bring the reader face to face with India's astonishing biodiversity. My friend and award-winning children's book writer Bijal Vachharajani has penned the essays and activities that accompany each of the comics.
Is it sometimes disheartening to work as an environmentalist and someone who uses humour to engage readers, considering the situation the world is in today? So how do you wake up and inspire yourself to continue your good and important work, every day?
Yes, I think being a conservationist is one of the most disheartening lines of work in the world! Every gathering of conservationists that I have attended has ended in disillusionment! What really keeps me going is an assurance that the fight is not being fought in vain, and that I am an inconspicuous but active part of it. To give you some examples, a reader from Peru once wrote to me that he refrained from buying a Pygmy Marmoset as a pet, after reading my comic about the marmoset pet trade. I've received mails from readers in France saying that they stopped buying Civet Coffee after reading my comic about how inhumanely the coffee is produced. I've heard from Indian women that my comic on eco-friendly sanitary pads convinced them to make the switch from disposable to reusable options. It's a slow, draining and most often a losing battle, but there are those rare glimmers of hope. I hope to have more such positive and tangible impacts of my art in future.
Which is your favourite animal, if you have one? :)
The answer to that question changes every week! My current favourite animal is the Small Indian Mongoose, a species I meet every day on my morning walks to Jahapana City Forest in Delhi. It really amazes me that a creature this tiny is thriving as the apex predator of an extremely oppressive urban ecosystem that the Indian capital offers to its fauna!