A dance between humour and conservation is difficult to choreograph, but cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty strikes the right notes with ease. Trained in dentistry, a practice that was soon dropped to make way for working on comics full-time, he looks at his work as a medium to simplify conversations around wildlife and conservation. The award-winning cartoonist runs Green Humour, a series of comics, illustrations and cartoons on wildlife, nature conservation, environment, sustainability and more.
Born and raised in Nagpur, a city hailed as the ‘Tiger Capital of the World’, young Rohan and his brother knew all about ocelots and mata matas, thanks to stories and experiences passed from his grandfather as well as the extensive videos of wildlife they would be gifted. However, the interest remained dormant and sprung to life only in 2005 when he was in college. He dabbled with different cartooning genres but after wildlife happened, Rohan started finding rhythm in his work – a symbiosis between him and his muse. Now, he actively wants to address the lack of information and communication around conservation. In an interview with Ayushi Shah, amongst other things, Rohan shares the impact his comics have had, the role of art in the current discourse around conservation and tips on connecting with nature when you’re living in a city. Excerpts from the interview:
Ayushi Shah (AS): Rohan, do you think there is a gap when it comes to knowledge about regional wildlife? Kids often know more about wildlife from around the world than places like India.
Rohan Chakravarty (RC): I know kids and adults who can identify cars, but not birds. I want to involve people from beyond the spheres of wildlife and science in this discourse. When I started, most of my readers were from the wildlife, science and ecology community, but that changed after I ran my newspaper columns from 2013 to 2015. Especially the Sunday columns with Midday and The Hindu as they usually have seven to eight panels. They gave me a chance to focus on much longer narratives and simplify complicated issues through my comics. I was able to reach all kinds of people through them and develop my reader base.
AS: Your thoughts on the convergence of art and activism, especially on social media?
RC: I owe a lot to artists in this country because, at this time, you cannot go out and protest on the streets. The government has taken advantage of the situation with things like the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft 2020 in India. A lot of people in creative communication have amped the issue and can be majorly attributed to making the issue as resonant as it is today. As far as online activism is concerned, Twitter is where the pressure is built the easiest and is the hardest to ignore. It has gone a long way in making the right noises heard.
AS: In this current climate, the relationship between art, politics and the environment has gotten increasingly complicated. So, what do you see your role as an artist in this equation?
RC: I’m just a cartoonist doing my job. I don’t call myself an activist or an environmentalist – I don’t think I deserve those tags. Initially, I looked at my art as just a friendly handshake between wildlife and people. My work is entirely self-taught, so for me, my own art has become a way to retain and grasp new and interesting information that I come across. I teach myself first, and then my readers. However, the confluence between environmentalism and politics is happening way too often. This, too, is influencing my art and has given it direction.
AS: How do you deal with the heavier parts of your job like trolling or political threats? Is it always easy?
RC: No, it isn’t. There are good days and bad. On bad days, I just need to shut off from all kinds of digital interaction. On good days, I can see that trolling has actually helped me with anger management, and to develop a thick skin. I’ve learnt to just be ignorant about other negative remarks that I receive. It’s a sign of the fact that you are doing something right.
AS: On the brighter side, you have an impressive, loyal readership. What impact do you hope your work has on them?
RC: I would like to see more tangible impacts frankly. There have been cases, like this instance where somebody from Peru wrote to me saying that he refrained from buying a pet monkey after reading my comic strip about the illegal pet trade. In that case, my work could directly save an animal’s life. Then, there have been people who have stopped drinking civet coffee from South East Asia because it exploits wild civets after reading my work. There have been women from India who have written to me saying that my comic about eco-friendly sanitary products available in India make them aware of the fact that they can make the switch to these menstrual products. Similarly, this whole EIA episode – a lot of people have written to me that my comics have helped them engage with the complex information in an easy way.
AS: I vowed to never pick up a sea-shell after reading one of your comics. You make these environmental conversations not only accessible but in my opinion, also very cool. So how do you maintain this thin line between informative and entertaining?
RC: I don’t think this is a challenge for me because it is important for me to first enjoy my own work. And often, I tend to be a harsh critic of whatever I do. But the main motive is for me to enjoy what I make and the byproduct is spreading awareness and information.
In terms of research, a lot goes into every piece that I draw. If it’s an animal that I had the privilege of seeing personally, nothing like it. But I’ve drawn a lot of animals and birds from different parts of the world that I haven’t seen yet. So, a lot of homework, and reading up takes place. Thankfully, research papers, as well as video documentation of wildlife, are easier to access now because of the internet. And of course, nothing replaces the classic textbooks.
Of course, researching and creating an equilibrium between the romantic side of my work and the scientific side tends to get challenging at times. But that’s something I actively train myself towards.
AS: Policies and issues around the environment are often perceived as overcomplicated. Do you think that simplifying these big conversations is way ahead for us now, especially with the massive communication gap and jargons related to the environment?
RC: Absolutely. If you look at science communication in the West, it is developing into a business of its own. Scientists are beginning to realize that if their science does not reach people, there is no point in doing it. They are tying up with filmmakers, animators and other kinds of creative communicators to get their work to people. In India, a lot of conversation rests in the hands of indigenous people who live in and around forested areas. If the conservation community fails to reach out to them and to urban dwellers (who urban conservation ultimately depends on) then I think science will not have solved its prime purpose.
I think taking science to the layman and taking the layman’s response to science is important, and in this case, that mediator is me. So, I have actively been engaging with scientists and media houses that cater to different kinds of consumers of information. A lot of the projects are meant to be read by people living in and around forests. I recently tied up with a Hindi magazine that comes out from Bhopal called Jagmag to translate and reach out to a base of readers I cannot do so with my English comics. The way forward is to assimilate different sources, simplify them and make sure it is reaching the right people.
AS: What is the role of art in the ongoing ecological crisis?
RC: I think the human mind is accustomed to not just retain but also respond to information that is presented visually. And that’s where art comes in, in a big way.
AS: Could you give me an example?
RC: Take the issue of elephant poaching, and reading an article versus seeing a picture or painting of dead elephants. You are more likely to be moved by the image rather than the text. That’s what art does in simple words. What mine does is anthropomorphism and that helps form a connection between my reader and my subject.
AS: Let’s get to your book: Bird Business. Can you tell me a little about the making of the book?
RC: Everything I’ve learned as a bird watcher for 13 years has gone into the book. The main reason for creating the book (which took 4 years to make) was that a lot of bird-related literature available in the country tells people how to identify birds but not how to understand the bird that they learnt to identify; what the bird does, how it interacts with its environment and with us, its role in the whole web of life. I want to break that kind of information down. It involved field visits, learning new kinds of ontological tidbits from seniors, colleagues and experts. And yeah, I think for the book to have sold 3000 copies in a year, I would say it’s been received well for this niche.
AS: What problem do you hope your comics solve?
RC: My complaint is the way information is presented and consumed in this country. I have this presentation that starts with me asking my viewers to identify three sets of entities that are put forth visually: The first set of people is Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas, the second set is Narendra Modi and Donald Trump and the third is a species of Dragonfly which is very common in India called Ground Skimmer. And most people, unless you are scientists, can identify the first two sets of entities but not the third one. And that is my main complaint because my life and the lives of my viewers revolve more around the dragonfly, rather than Priyanka Chopra, or Narendra Modi, as the dragonfly eats mosquitoes and saves us from diseases.
I want people to look beyond how news is presented and seek their own information from the sources they find reliable. And so the whole vision behind doing park maps is to involve people living around parks, and people visiting these parks to make them feel that this is something that belongs to us, and the onus of protecting that particular space or that particular boundary is on us. And if there is something wrong happening, in or beyond that space then the onus is on us to make the right kind of noise about it and act accordingly.
AS: Tips on connecting with nature when you live in a city?
RC: One does not have to travel to forests to understand the web of life, what space we share our species and the role they play in our lives. I think that this kind of education begins right at home. This year, during the lockdown, I have tried to change the way I look at wildlife myself. To my amazement, I found five species of jumping spiders in my house. You don’t even have to go out! And these spiders have been eating fruit flies from my kitchen and saving that fruit from rotting.
And I think the way the Indian government has been looking at development, will lead to a scenario where the conservation of urban biodiversity will become very important in the coming days. Not limiting communication around those issues to forests or tigers is the future of this discourse.
AS: I heard birdsong for the first time during the lockdown in our busy city. One change you hope environmentally stays post corona restrictions?
RC: Sadly, I don’t see the pandemic as something very hopeful or something very positive for nature, because the way we are planning to bounce back is going to be lethal. But, I do think we need to adapt more to the ways of life we have learned during the lockdown like working from home and saving fuel. The most important thing is – more conversation between people, scientists and the government.
AS: What is the biggest fear you have for the future of this planet and the environment? And how do you think we can avoid it?
RC: To summarize, the three biggest threats to conservation in India are our dependence on fossil fuels, misgovernance and overpopulation (which, I know, is a very tricky answer). I do understand that the footprint of somebody in the West is five times higher than somebody in India. But that doesn’t mean the population is not a problem – the sheer number of people that we have in our country do deplete our resources directly. And so, I am childfree by choice. I feel that the onus is on people who are educated and privileged to stop reproducing and people who are less privileged than us can eventually occupy that space in 10-20 years.
AS: Top spots in India to develop an affinity with the planet.
RC: Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. The bird count in that area is next only to the neotropical rainforests of South America. The other is Gorewada Biodiversity Park, just two kilometres from my home in Nagpur. The city-forest has everything from leopards to migratory goals. Hundreds of birds from Siberia and Central Asia visit this tiny lake. The ducks that breed in the Caucasus Mountains and in the Arctic come all the way to my hometown. That’s a beautiful connection to form with a place that I may or may not ever visit in my life.
AS: Good news on your radar?
RC: A pangolin was radio-tagged for the very first time in February 2020 in India – so there is some really good science happening in the country. This youth activism around EIA in India is another bit of good news. The government has been pushed on the backfoot. And no matter what, what the decision will be, we have seen that with sheer numbers and amplification of voices, we can put the government on the backfoot – that is something good. The convergence of art and activism is a very recent development, and I think that’s also very good news for us and generations to come.
AS: What are the steps that should be taken for protecting the environment by everyone?
RC: I don’t want to preach because it is difficult for me to always practice myself. But, as individuals, two simple things we can do is to consume less and vote better.
AS: Lastly, conservationist Belinda Wright referred to your comics and said, “I know several like myself, but I know just one you”. What is next for you?
RC: I am not somebody who plans into the future, I just want to do better. I want new exciting challenges and keep growing as an artist. I’ve heard that cartoonists tend to get less funny with this – I hope that doesn’t happen to me. That’s one of my primordial fears.
The interview has been edited for clarity.