Vol. 5 Num 3 Sun. May 30, 2004  

The myth of Tokaii
Silver jubilee of the famous Ranabi-character celebrated

With a bald head, thin limbs and swollen belly, he is a street urchin of about eight. Clad in a short chequered lungi, he lives on the footpaths or in the big unused construction pipes strewn about this city of Dhaka. He lives on left-overs of others or food thrown away in dustbins. Despite the apparent destitute status, however, the boy is always cheerful making fun and uttering witty scathing reflections, in his usual Dhakaite language, on things around him, which constitute contemporary society. The precocious talkativeness is a major attribute of the boy, who is known by the name of his class rather than a real proper name.

The street urchin is our 'Tokaii', the most loved cartoon character in Bangladesh created by artist Rafiqun Nabi--or Ranabi, as he is widely known. Ranabi's Tokaii, an inseparable item of the erstwhile weekly magazine Bichitra, turns 25 this year.

Gallery Chitrak is holding an exhibition to celebrate the anniversary. Titled Tokaii-er Sharadin, the display of 100 paintings and 40 ink-and-pen drawings on Tokaii was inaugurated on May 28. Professor Mustafa Nurul Islam, artist Hashem Khan and editor of Shaptahik 2000 Shahadat Chowdhury were guests of honour at the inaugural ceremony presided over by artist Qayyum Chowdhury.

Tokaii started in the year-beginning issue of Bichitra on May 17, 1978. An illiterate boy, why has Tokaii become so famous? The answer lies in the playful witty language with which Tokaii is always pointing at the hypocrisy and inhumanity, anomalies and loopholes of the society. Tokaii, however, never speaks of any revolution or change. 'He does not demand anything of the existing social system,' said artist Hashem Khan in his speech at the inauguration ceremony. 'His uttering rather gives the sensitive mind food for thought--he just points at the peculiarity of the society.'

Although the exhibition celebrates 25 years of Tokaii, Shahadat Chowdhury, the editor of Shaptahik 2000, however, believes that Tokaii's 'real age should be 33--Tokaii is exactly contemporary with Bangladesh.' He pointed at the unchanged face of Tokaii since it was first conceived and related it to the fact that 'we have become accustomed to their existence.' Shahadat gives Ranabi credit for the popularity of Tokaii. As he says, 'Through his creation Ranabi has made us tolerant and sympathetic towards these little street urchins.'

Gallery Chitrak has brought out a book containing Tokaii-cartoons on this occasion. Eminent painter Qayyum Chowdhury launched the book at the ceremony.

Tokaii's fame essentially lies in his dialogues. Sometimes he speaks like a philosopher: asked if he knows what a family is, the homeless Tokaii reflects, 'I known mine--footpath, dustbin, the crows etc'. Or, asked if he has ever visited the Ekushey book fair, the illiterate urchin ponders, 'No, that's not for us--that's for the literate ones....'

Often he makes fun of the society's hypocrisy. Asked what his vow is on the children's day, a grave Tokaii says, 'To grow up soon'. Or, when someone expresses surprise at his swollen belly, a smiling Tokaii reasons that he has 'eaten' a lot of 'speeches' given on the occasion.

Tokaii's world is full of fantasies where he talks to cows, crows and other animals. And his conversation with these harmless animals reflects just how harmless Tokaii himself is also. To the fantasy of a crow wondering what would happen if it could exchange life with Tokaii, the puzzled boy answers, 'What else! We would have meal at this some dustbin!' Again when a lean cow reflects on the fact that it has no buyers, a delighted Tokaii comments, 'Then you are a Tokaii among the cows....'

In one drawing, a man asks Tokaii what would he do if he suddenly became rich. The unscrupulous urchin replies, 'Would ask like you the same question to the Tokaii of that time.' Again asked what he did at the Eid, when Tokaii says, 'Did acting of being happy', the satire is obvious. Often Tokaii's satire is rather direct. In answer to what he prefers as daily meal, rice or bread, Tokaii says, 'Nothing special! Whatever people throw away!' Or, when asked what would happen if someone rolled the pipe in which he lives, Tokaii says, 'What else can happen!! I'm already rolled away from everything!'

The exhibition features some 100 paintings chiefly in watercolour. The paintings show the roguish boy in different situations--sometimes lying on a bench beside an electric pole, or making friends with street dogs, or in pursuit of collecting wastepaper from place to place, or sometimes playing on the mandolin. In these paintings, Ranabi has obviously romanticised the character.

The exhibition runs until June 1 from 10 am to 9pm.

Picture courtesy: Shaptahik 2000, Tokaii (Suchintan Prakashani)