Environmental cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty talks about his new book, how he began cartooning about wildlife, the most pressing issues and the difficulties as an artist.

Rohan and his dog are sitting together he is holding his book Green Humour open and both are apparently reading it with the dog covering half of Rohans face
Features Books Monday, July 19, 2021 - 18:41

Once you turn the last of the 200 and so pages of Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour for a Greying Planet, you might just start thinking of creatures you had never spared a thought for before. I don’t quite mean the endangered ones or the ones in conflict with man. I mean the little-thought-of creatures like the dung beetle (that quite literally feeds on dung) or the angler fish (it’s got a light of its own) or the Indian dancing frog (duh, it dances). Only because they are so fascinating and I am beating myself up for never having heard of them before.

In the foreword for Rohan’s fourth cartoon book, environmentalists Janaki Lenin and Romulus Whitaker say that conversations around wildlife conservation and man-animal conflict had always appeared too drab and lacked the wit that Rohan has so endearingly brought into his cartoons.

That was one of the first factors he noticed too when quite accidentally he got drawn into the world of wild life by a laughing dove. Quite ironically, he says in an interview with TNM, that he has now ended up using birds to make people laugh now. But when he got pulled into this fascinating world of wildlife, Rohan realised that all the communication that happened around the subject had not been too engaging. It took him time to develop his cartoon column called Green Humour that regularly appears in newspapers and other spaces, but once it did, people from all walks of life began to pay attention. He also runs a popular Instagram account with over 137,000 followers where he posts his cartoons. Humour made it easier to tell these really pressing tales that needed telling.

“I always had a dormant interest in both cartooning and wildlife but I never thought of either as a career. I actually studied to be a dentist. However, after graduation I knew this is not what my heart is in. While studying dentistry, I had already been bitten by the bug. It happened when I volunteered for an organisation called Kids For Tigers. I was required to take schoolchildren for nature walks and bird watching trails. That needed me to be aware and educate myself about wildlife,” Rohan says.

Too many issues, too little time

He had already been drawing cartoons about political and social issues and cartoons of celebrities. Once he got “bitten by the bug” called wildlife all he had to do was divert his cartoons into that niche area. But being niche was not limiting at all. On the contrary, Rohan says that there are too many issues he’d like to talk about and too little time and space to put them all out. “The canvas I have chosen – wildlife, ecology and conservation – it is something that evolves day in and day out. New science emerges every day, new discoveries happen. That really makes the scope of what I am drawing infinite. It is both exciting and pressurising,” he says.

While he slyly and sometimes very openly puts pressing issues on the mouths of all his animals, it is the birds that the author is most partial to. The largest section in all the 11 chapters is on birds. In fact his previous book was entirely on birds – Bird Business, released in 2019. In Green Humour, Rohan has declared his love for birds – “Birds have been the gateway to the world of wildlife for many like me, simply because they happen to be everywhere!”

They are also on his book cover, flying accusingly over a smoke-emitting factory. To be fair the back cover has two frogs, dodging the plastic waste ‘generously’ strewn on the water bodies they inhabit. A lot of his cartoons depict the water waste, industry waste, corporate waste, and the general pollution humans have been creating across the planet.

Pressing issues

If Rohan has to narrow in on three pressing issues regarding the subjects he draws about, he would mention the dependence on fossil fuels, the lack of implementation of renewable energy and at the risk of offending many, over-population.

“Windmills pose a great threat to the most endangered bird, the great Indian bustard (an interesting aside from Rohan’s book: bustard would have been the national bird had it not been spelt too much like the unpopular curse), but little has been done about it. Regarding population control, I know the present bill (being introduced in Uttar Pradesh) can be problematic if it is discriminatory. But otherwise a population control bill is necessary. It is a fact that places that are managed well in terms of environment have low population density. But of course for all this to happen, you need someone responsible chairing the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change,” Rohan says.

He has not shied away from criticising the government whenever there is a “collision of politics with environmental matters”. But he has not faced the kind of difficulties that political cartoonists criticising the government do. There are though the occasional trolls and negative criticism from supporters of the government. “There is some concern with respect to freedom of expression as an artist,” he admits.

Connecting with readers

However his first priority when he draws cartoons is to enjoy what he does – “have fun with it.” Any information or education that passes on from those pages is a lucky byproduct, he says. There have nevertheless been impacts. “While earlier, I found a lot of readership and acceptance from the science community, the readership began growing when I started putting cartoons on newspapers and columns. People from various backgrounds began to engage with my work. Cartoons especially come with the responsibility of conveying information the right way,” Rohan says.

One feedback he got was about gender stereotypes. Putting himself into the shoes of the rare humans that appear in his cartoons, Rohan had a tendency to portray male biologists or conservationists. However, realising the lack of representation of women in the field, he began putting women characters upfront. Rohan is surprised when I point out that nearly all his marine biologists and conservationists in Green Humour are women. It must have been a subconscious attempt to represent the women in the field. One cartoon takes a direct dig at the sort of discrimination women in the field face.

Green Humour is Rohan’s fourth book. Before Bird Business, there was Making Friends with Snakes (But from a Distance) and The Great Indian Nature Trail.

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