Cartoonists need to draw in from their life experiences, they have to be perceptive, quick-witted, passionate, erudite, wise, and funny to paint a vivid portrait of the society using as few words as possible. In Bangladesh, the foundation for cartooning was made popular by artists like Rafiqunnabi, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Sharier Khan and Ahsan Habib, among others. Now young cartoonists are carrying the flag forward by experimenting with different forms and styles. Hear their stories from their own mouths in this week's issue of the Star.
A small boy clad in lungi with a sack flung on his shoulders, a couple of strands of hair sprouting from his head, a toothy smile on his face. His observational skills are unmatched. Whether it be corruption in the government or witty banter with his wealthier counterparts, this child might have the ability to tickle your funny bone but he also has the power to incite you to think, to ponder on the things that are wrong with the society and the larger world.
We can try as hard as we want to bring Tokai to life with our words. But only the brushstrokes of a brilliant mind can breathe life into the street urchin that has become a part of our culture. Rafiqunnabi's or rather Ronobi's Tokai, the cartoon character that we have come to love and maybe even be in awe of, has become immortal as a voice of the poor, the marginalised, the misunderstood.
Ronobi might have started a trend but cartoonists like, Ahsan Habib, Shishir Bhattacharjee and Sharier Khan popularised cartoons amongst the masses and the classes, alike. Each had a distinctive style of storytelling. They set the foundation for many others to follow, and it's all thanks to them that we can now boast about a new crop of cartoonists who are not scared to experiment.
You might think that the job of a cartoonist is fairly simple; all they have to do is draw something that makes you laugh. How difficult is that? Very difficult, actually. If pictures speak a thousand words, no picture speaks as well as a well-drawn cartoon that pricks people's conscience and questions society when it goes awry.
Mehedi Haque's cartoons speak for his talent as an artist, and his innate ability to use humour to beautifully depict the state of the world as we know it. Political satire, graphic novels, gag strips, Haque, is a master of most cartoon forms. A humanitarian at heart, Haque's cartoons mostly deal with contemporary social issues, as readers can't turn away with a single look; his cartoons are bound to make you think, and think hard.
Haque credits his cartooning career to famed cartoonist Ahsan Habib and his satirical magazine, Unmad. As his first boss, Ahsan Habib not only helped Haque develop his individual style, but also helped shape his way of thinking, says Haque. “I learnt how a cartoonist can take a basic issue and turn it into a subject of satire at Unmad,” he adds.
One of the founding members of Dhaka Comics and Secretary of the Bangladesh Cartoonists Association (BANCARAS), Haque believes that we need to make global standard comics if we hope to compete with the creativity of international cartoonists.
“We need to develop a cartoon industry if we wish to see our comics and cartoons appreciated by international audiences. We have yet to establish signature characters that can be easily identified by everyone. We need to have an institutional backup; every cartoonist doesn't necessarily need to be a student of fine arts but a small department in universities will only enhance cartoonists' ability to understand the fine details of cartooning,” he adds.
But it's not all bad news, says Mehedi. The cartooning industry is going through a transitory period at the moment. We just need to read the pulse of the people, develop our skills and move forward, he adds.
Sadatuddin Ahmed Amil's first cartoon was published in a news daily on his first day in college. His deftness in drawing political cartoons is unquestionable but Sadat is not one to be satisfied with exhibiting his own talents. As president of BANCARAS, Sadat believes that there is scope for every cartoonist to grow and thereby, expand the cartooning scene of the country.
Contrary to popular belief, cartooning is not all about drawing skills, says Sadat. He gives the example of popular stick figure cartoons posted on social networking sites. These cartoons don't use complicated techniques or even try to focus on how the cartoon looks, he adds. The idea is the point of focus, that's what makes people laugh.
“As a cartoonist working for a newspaper, you need to keep three things in mind. Firstly, you need to know whether your comic or cartoon is socially acceptable or not. Then you need to check whether it supports your newspaper's policy and finally, you need to develop your conscious social awareness,” explains Sadat.
When asked about rivalry within the cartooning community, Sadat answers with a small smile that this community is a closed-knit one. Even though he says that he is not sure whether this will be the case in the future, he assures upcoming cartoonists of a strong, united platform through BANCARAS and Dhaka Comics that aims to promote young talent and diverse ideas.
You'd think that a woman cartoonist would not be able to make her mark in a scene dominated mostly by men. But Nasreen Sultana Mitu has not only managed to break the gender stereotype by entering this field, she is also considered to be one of the most promising cartoonists of the country.
“I don't find it particularly disturbing that there are not that many women cartoonists. If you come to think of it, how many women reporters do you see in print media? Or in any other off-track professions for that matter? Women are still restricted to think that they are meant for specific profession like teaching or medicine, and it will take time to change that. But rest assured, in the world of Bangladeshi cartoons, I can honestly say that gender truly does not matter; talent, however, does,” says the cartoonist.
Currently taking on dual careers as a lecturer at the University of Rajshahi and as an assistant editor at Unmad, Mitu believes that the scope available for cartoonists is much greater than it was eight to ten years back, thanks to people like Ahsan Habib and Shishir Bhattacharjee.
“Platforms like BANCARAS and Dhaka Comics act as guiding points for young cartoonists. Those who are trying to break into the cartooning market have different kinds of questions, many of them might seem quite silly like how do you approach publication houses for freelancing work, what's the process of salary negotiation, what kind of approach should be taken to draw political cartoons. However, from a newcomer's point of view, these same queries might break or make their careers. Earlier on cartoonists didn't have an organized forum which would address these problems but currently, we are lucky to have an organization like BANCARAS,” says Mitu, who is also working as an illustrator of textbooks and plans to work more intensively in this area of education.
Arafat Karim is testament to the adage that age is no barrier to success. Currently a student of the Department of Fine Arts of Dhaka University, Arafat joined Unmad after acquiring the first position in an anti-corruption cartoon exhibition organised by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
The young artist says that he never trained to be a cartoonist but was drawn to this field after his drawing skills developed at university. Arafat's graphic novels are a sight to behold but you'd be surprised to know that all his drawings are sketched and coloured manually without the support of technology.
“I don't really draw political cartoons. I focus more on comic strips, graphic novels and drawing the covers of satirical magazines. You might think that you need a special talent to be a cartoonist but that's not so. I have learnt much more from my surroundings, from my seniors than I did by browsing the net or reading international comics,” says the reticent artist.
Zaki, a secret agent, is a character developed by Arafat for Dhaka Comics. He hopes to establish this character and to make it popular to local audiences. “Among local cartoonists, Sharier Khan's books sell the most in book fairs and exhibitions. He successfully built a signature character that everyone in the country is familiar with. We don't have many longstanding comics or cartoon characters in Bangladesh. Dhaka Comics hopes to change that, as they are trying to introduce new characters and styles in the market,” he adds.
At an age when most kids are limited to school, friends, games and family, Syed Fida Hossain took his first steps to realising his dream of being a cartoonist by compiling Shishir Bhattacharjee's cartoon cuttings. “Call him my guru or inspiration but Shishir Bhattacharjee is the reason I'm into cartooning,” says Fida, who is currently working at The Dainik Banik Barta.
As a cartoonist, he tries to portray his point of view on critical issues in a way that involves humour. He argues that self-censorship is an important aspect of drawing cartoons; a cartoonist might think that he is making a hilarious point through a “risqué” cartoon, but readers will never accept anything that they consider to be obscene. However, he says that when his publishers don't allow him to publish anything “controversial,” he posts it on his Facebook wall.
Like Mehedi Haque, Fida argues that the art of cartooning is neglected in academic institutes. Even in institutes that are supposed to enhance creativity, the mentality is to mould students as painters or sculptors but not cartoonists, he says. “Thankfully, Mehedi bhai and other senior cartoonists have now taken the initiative to organise workshop for aspiring cartoonists,” he says. With the current lot working hard to build a platform for future cartoonists, Fida is hopeful that Bangladesh will soon overcome the transitory period and enter a more rewarding phase.
Khalil Rahman grew up in a small village in Jhenidah, but the size of his residence never compromised with his passion of capturing the world through his cartoons. After graduating from university, Khalil joined The New Nation in 2003, etching political cartoons that gave shape to his ambition of making a difference.
“My math notebooks were filled with doodles not equations or problems. I would be chided at home and school for that but all that didn't matter to me. Where I come from, people didn't even think that there could be a career in cartooning. I am glad that I could prove them wrong,” says Khalil with a smile.
While it's believed that cartoonists have the freedom to express themselves as and when they want, that is far, far from the truth, says Khalil. If you are working for a newspaper, the executive or the news editor gives the cartoonist certain briefs and angles that they have to follow, and then they have to get their cartoons approved by the authorities in question.
Ahsan Habib, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Shahrier Khan – pioneers of the modern art of cartooning in Bangladesh. Shahrier Khan's Baisc Ali is probably one of the few local comic strips that have stood the test of time. His front page cartoons on current affairs have been lauded for their originality and finesse creating a sizeable following that includes many aspiring cartoonists. Ahsan Habib's Unmad, however, is credited by most cartoonists as the most significant learning centre that shaped their career. The renowned artist and cartoonist Shishir Bhattacharjee, who was the only Bangladeshi artist to showcase his works at the exhibition 'System Error: War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning' at the Palazzo Papesse in Siena, is regarded by the current lot of cartoonists as a mentor and guide.
Ahsan Habib says that as a nation we love to laugh and make others laugh. If we just utilise this skill in a professional format and add the skill of observation and quick-wit, it's easy to draw cartoons and comic books.
“I think it is a positive sign that newspapers no longer just focus on political cartoons. Gag cartoons and cartoon strips have also started to make appearances and that's a positive thing. Moreover, with forums like Dhaka Comics and Fanush, we can see a range of works and cartoonists who are ready to go beyond their comfort zone to experiment with different forms,” he says.
Although Sharier khan himself has a number of graphic novels and a collection of his comics published, he agrees with Habib adding that even though there is a demand for different kinds of cartoons, publication houses do not seem to take this market seriously.
“Cartoonists are doing a great job and readers are craving for more but as like most things in Bangladesh, the literary sector is also very adult oriented. Publishers think that they will incur huge losses if they release comic or cartoon books in the market and thus are reluctant to see the opportunity staring them right in the eyes,” he explains.
Shishir Bhattacharjee says that even though he considers cartooning to be a hobby, he is seeing the emergence of artists who consider it to be their profession, and thus a lot of good things can be expected from them.
“The current generation of cartoonists are trying to develop their own style and I believe that they will do a much better job than me. I think that the media needs to focus more on the art of cartooning; publishers will only be interested in publishing comic and cartoon books when there is a strong campaign and marketing for it,” he adds.
Pen in hand, sense of humour fine honed, an acute sense of awareness, the new generation of cartoonists know how to put the message across. The current lot are not sitting around, waiting to be “discovered” or pining to get their works published. While we complain and grumble about how we can never catch a break, these cartoonists have taken the step to build an industry in which we can take pride in the near future.