Cartooning for wildlife

Wildlife artist Rohan Chakravarty opens up to ornithologist and author Bikram Grewal about his unusual career choice, the people who inspire him and the joys of wildlife cartooning. He shares his thoughts on how conservation can be fused into any and every career choice we make.

How come a fully-qualified dentist became a cartoonist?
Every child is born an artist and I was no exception. Cartooning was always my chosen medium of expression, but little did I think of it as a career. Coming from a small town (Nagpur) meant exposure to very limited career options, and joining the medical rat-race was expected. Right from day one of getting into my dentistry course, I knew it wasn’t the right path for me to take. But what was the right path then?

Fortunately, coming from Nagpur also meant an exposure to a splendid array of wildlife. My wild tryst began as a volunteer for Sanctuary’s Kids for Tigers programme in Nagpur, where I led nature trails for school children. As a cartoonist, I found little pleasure in drawing on miscellaneous topics, but when I started drawing cartoons on wildlife, I felt a spark igniting within. Something connected deep down, a certain magic kindled, and I finally began to find a flow. The fact that cartoons brought in an angle of awareness, was an added advantage. After completing my dentistry course, I decided to give it all up, merge two of my interests — wildlife and cartoons, and see what results from this marriage.

Do you remember your first-ever artwork as a child? And where was your first work published?
I remember drawing rain in every artwork as a kid, and I find it a bit ironic that I grew up to be a hydrophobe! Most of my artwork in school focused on adapting my favourite cartoon characters into my own stories, and I filled notebook after notebook with comics; which some of my teachers still have with them. My first published cartoon was a shabby piece of work about a Bollywood star getting arrested for possessing cocaine. A clear result of nepotism, the cartoon appeared in a magazine that my mother, an ex-journalist, was a correspondent for. My first serious cartoon on wildlife was on tiger conservation that appeared in Sanctuary Asia way back in 2009.

Illustration: © Rohan Chakravarty

Why are your cartoons all to do with wildlife and conservation?
I have always connected better with animals than I have with human beings. I think I understand animals better than I understand most people I know (my partner will vouch for that!), and to make your first love your muse is only natural for an artist. Most cartoonists draw on politics and social issues, and I consciously avoided taking that route. Politicians generally make rather ugly subjects and my eyes are quite sensitive to beauty, so animals were always my first choice (not that I do not enjoy drawing ugly animals like the blobfish!). I had always wondered why, despite their glamour and allure, wild animals have never been on the front page of any newspaper, so cartoons became my attempt at popularizing wildlife and emphasizing conservation issues.

Who are your earth heroes and why?
I have immense respect and admiration for all the people I’ll be naming here, and major crushes on some of the women on the list! These include achievers both old and young, conservationists from India and around the world, heroes both dead and alive — Gerald Durrell, for some of the best narratives on wildlife; Dr Sálim Ali, not just for being India’s most well-known bird man but also for producing some of the liveliest descriptions of birds; Bittu Sahgal for possessing the ability to inspire a love for wildlife in the most uninitiated minds in just five minutes of speaking on stage (and for his fantastic Sanctuary Asia editorials — some of the best wildlife writing that comes out of India); Sir David Attenborough for making wildlife page three material; George Schaller for his immense body of work as a conservationist, Prerna Bindra for highlighting conservation issues in her writing so fiercely; Aparajita Dutta for her pioneering work on hornbill conservation; Vidya Athreya, the Indian leopardess; Nandini Velho for merging science, creativity and communities like no one else; Arati Kumar Rao for her inspirational work on documenting rivers; Asha de Vos for her work on whales; the list is endless.

Illustration: © Rohan Chakravarty

How supportive have your parents been in your pursuance of your career and what pitfalls did you encounter?
I consider myself fortunate for being born to extremely supportive parents, who may not have encouraged taking many risks, but have always stood by me each time I took career jumps. My mother fondly discusses my cartoons with me, and one quirk we share amongst ourselves is the celebration of every little achievement. My father may not always understand the point of my work, but he purchases copies of newspapers that carry my cartoons, every single weekend! This encouragement has meant a lot more to me than verbal praise.

Although cartooning is the most enjoyable activity I have ever known, making a living out of it isn’t exactly a cakewalk, especially in India. The fact that I am hopelessly obsessed with my work has helped keep discipline intact in my schedule, and the growth of the web has helped by resulting in more avenues for cartoonists to supplement their income with.

Did someone in your childhood imbue a love for nature in you?
My grandfather was a keen naturalist (and the son of a hunting enthusiast), and it was my weekly visits to the zoo with him that instilled a love for nature in both me and my brother, who is now a bat biologist. Our grandfather gifted us some wonderful books and encyclopediae on nature, and we knew about maned wolves, ocelots, margays and matamatas by the age of three!

What message would you give to the youth of today?
No matter what career you are in, it is always possible to fuse conservation with your vocation. In fact, in the times we live in, it is almost imperative that each one of us takes steps to merge our careers with conservation in one way or another. The more time you spend outdoors, the more you observe and explore, the closer you feel connected to the natural world, greater the drive there is to spread a message of conservation. Another great piece of advice I have for the youth is to constantly keep drawing, or simply doodling. It releases dopamine, which is the same effect as being in love, and being in love every day is a fantastic feeling!

First published in the February 2017 issue of Sanctuary Asia magazine