Face to Face with Ronobi and Shishir Bhattacharya
On a Monday morning, Rafi Hossain and Zahidul Naim Zakaria from Star Insight had a
candid chat with legendary cartoonist Rafiqun Nobi a.k.a. Ronobi and
His student-colleague Shishir Bhattacharya
INSIGHT: Why don't we revisit your history? What first drew you to cartoons?
Ronobi: Well, my beginning as an artist was neither predetermined nor expected. When I was in school in the mid 1950s, I first came across the magazine MAD. I also came across a few Indian papers and saw a lot of illustrations. That was, in a way my first introduction. I used to collect these magazines. Back then, I didn't realize I would be a cartoonist, never. But I was always interested in looking at them and learning about them. Then to kindle a simple hobby, I enrolled in an Art school, and started drawing.
INSIGHT: What was the first piece of art you drew?
Ronobi: The first cartoon I drew was very touchy, I was in Class X and I made a cartoon about beggars. The theme was poverty, and my motive was to portray its state in Bangladesh using beggars. It still remains a very personal piece of work, and it has never been published. This was when I was in Pogoz High School, in Old Dhaka.
INSIGHT: So, sir, when was your first official cartoon published?
Ronobi: That was ages ago! I remember that was published in a weekly magazine by Johir Raihan.
INSIGHT: What gave rise to the name “Ronobi?”
Ronobi: My student life was in the middle of major upheaval and revolution. The Student Union back then used to call for a lot of cartoon posters. That's when my first formal interest grew, but I never gave it too much of an attention since I was a government official at the time and I could not use my real name to sign posters. I needed to find a sort of stage name, but I didn't want a completely different name as an artist as well. Therefore, sometime during the mid 1960s, I came up with the name “Ronobi.”
INSIGHT: Sir, would you please share how you came up with the concept of “Tokai?”
Ronobi: The story of how I came up with Tokai is quite interesting, and its conceptualization stretches almost a decade. I should first tell you about Shahadat Bhai, first he was my friend in Art College. He lost a lot of years from his academic life since he wasted a lot of time after his SSC. When I became a teacher, he finally enrolled in class. I became the teacher of my friend! He had a good hand at drawing and simultaneously was a great story writer. He wrote short stories. We both contributed to many papers including Ittefaq and so our works were being published in many places. We were very well acquainted since we were parts of the same gang.
The first time I thought of Tokai was in 1969. It was the time of revolution and I used to see street children in the first line of processions. Once the Editor of Purbodesh, Kazi Idris told me “Look at these children, it seems as if I saw the same bald headed children during the British Revolution.” His words touched me deeply. I loved his statement.
It was also during these times that a photograph of Rashid Talukder really created a buzz. The theme of the picture was in the same lines as the thoughts in my mind back then. There are some chains of events here that
cannot be ridiculed, these were emotional times and I started thinking about Tokai from 1969.
Bits and pieces came out slowly, Shahadat and I worked together. There was this little street boy in my area called, “Moka,” I made him the model of my concept. There was another boy called “Toka Miah.” Now, I was not trying to make something funny, I was trying to make a serious streak; I didn't want to make fun of their situation. They were already the subject of neglect and banter of society, I did not want to do the same. I thought of taking the name of “Toka Miah,” or then “Tokon,” but then gave up the idea almost immediately, since the name “Tokon” usually gives us the idea of a boy in a middle income earning family.
Then I came up with “Tokaina”, but it still felt incomplete. I wanted a name that could universally refer to street children all at once, and then the name “Tokai” dawned on me. After a long trial and error process, the concept was christened in 1977, 8 long years after the first concept. The name is one of my most treasured creations. My wife loved the name.
I told Shahadat about my concept and told him about the name. He suggested that I start immediately from the coming week. Tokai started first in Bichitra. The gag was old, but the name was new, the face was new. The response from the first publication was enormous. I was shocked to see the sight of the heap of letters! We received countless letters proving just how much the people loved Tokai.
The first cartoon showed the Tokai pretending to be a great secretary. He was sitting in his office at his table which was made out of bricks from the street. Once the character became popular, the people's expectation towards my cartoons grew by the day, and I was always tense about what to draw next.
Once Bichitra closed down, Tokai stopped. Then it was started again in Shaptahik 2000 when Shahadat called me. I really enjoy working with Shahadat. Above all he creates a good working environment, and it's fun to work with him.
INSIGHT: What other plans do you have for the future, sir?
Ronobi: I really don't have the time anymore. A lot of people request a lot of things of me, they ask for series of cartoons; they ask for many things, but I am already involved in many things: I am a teacher, I paint, which is a different world, the main world really, and then there is Tokai, which is both a passion and profession.
INSIGHT: How did you come to become a teacher? How much do you enjoy teaching?
Ronobi: I never thought I would be a teacher. I was pulled into being one. The day my results were out, that very same day I received a letter from Jainul Abedin, he had called me personally and once I went, he asked me to join! During that time I was already working part time in publication and earning 275 taka per month, and the teacher's salary then was only 180 taka with a yearly increment of taka 10. So financially, I had no incentive to become a teacher.
But, how could I refuse the words of such a man?
He was even trying to persuade me by saying that eventually the pay will increase once the institution expands. The next day he called my father, and requested him as well. My father was a policeman. He told me that I should not even think about refusing the offer of such a highly revered man.
The truth is I was scared. I did not think I could tackle the students. I was nervous. I had never imagined myself as a teacher.
The first time I went to take a class, I had two escorts Shafiqul Amin, the vice principle, he was a really well-built man and Kazi Abdul Basher, a 2nd year class teacher. These were all painters.
I was well dressed in a white panjabi. I was supposed to take a class of the 2nd year batch and right next to the classroom were the 4th year batch - my immediate juniors. The problem was a lot of people of my batch failed and they again joined their junior batch, who was sitting next to the class I was supposed to teach. And they all started clapping and greeting me with great vigor. I was so embarrassed! I almost started shaking with nervousness, and Abdul Sir said “Ki miah, kapo keno?”
Now the students were all new, and I as a teacher was new as well. I was introduced by the other teachers and they left. I was completely dumbfounded and didn't know what to do. Instead of teaching I started questioning the students. “Where do you come from?” I transferred the pressure of my first class onto them!
INSIGHT: Could you tell us a memorable story of yours as a teacher?
Ronobi: Well, there are so many of them. But there's one that I will truly never forget. It was in the year 1960. If you ask anyone from 1960s, the students only know two hangout places, “Madhur Canteen” and Sharif's Cha Place, which was next to the library. We loved it because he had a specialty, he would sell toast biscuits with a layer of butter spread. I remember that he used to also sell tehari at 50 paisa.
I was new and I didn't know what to do. I had been there many times as a student, but now I sat there for the first time as a teacher. One of the new students from the class I was teaching came up to me and told me, “Sir, actually I just wanted to tell you I was late in getting admitted, so I request you to please deal with me a bit differently. I am actually older than you.” Can you imagine? His name was SM Khaled. This student had actually come up to me in order to make sure that he receives the amount of respect his age deserves!
There was another student by the name of Monjurul Hye and he told me, “Sir, I was an Imam; I thought of a lot of things and then finally ended up in an art college.”
I will never forget these two students, they came from different professions and they were quite mature. They knew I was a new teacher, and they were in a position to harass me. They could very easily if they wanted to, but they never did. They were very cooperative.
The institution was very strict regarding student teacher relationships and Abdul Sir was always keeping an eye on me since there were girls in the class and I was new. And Bashir Sir used to warn me by saying, “Bujcho, beshi edik shedik takiyo na.”
INSIGHT: Any other mentionable personalities from your batch, sir?
Ronobi: There are so many of them! I remember Keramot Moula and Ronjit Niyogi both of them used to be great at lithography. Then there's Profullo Roy, he was one of the best in the class at drawing. There was Anwar Hossain, who was the water color specialist of the class. He works for the television industry now.
INSIGHT: Why do think that some people accomplish being great artists, whereas people with the same education in the same class fail to do so?
Ronobi: The truth is once you leave Art College, the drive to imagine and paint diminishes as other jobs replace your passion. The same did not happen to me because I was engaged with painting through my teaching. That was my plus point; it maintained both my passion and my practice. Even though I don't believe in luck, I was lucky. Honestly, I never asked to be in the Art College, it was my father who sent me without any expectation. My father liked painting and drawing, he was artistic. But he couldn't be one himself due to many constraints, but he never lost the interest. So he sent me instead.
I never asked to be a teacher, but that was asked from me eventually. I never asked to go abroad, I was sent. After I had been teaching for about ten years, a scholarship came for a teacher to go to Greece and study further. Everyone unanimously decided it was me! I didn't even apply, and I didn't even want to go, because I was newly married with a small child at the time. But then I was sent to do a post-graduation on “print-making” in Athens, Greece. I tried to refuse, but they just wouldn't let me refuse the offer. It was not even in my thinking. But I had to go. Both my colleagues and my family asked me not to let such an opportunity slip by.
I had never gone around looking for work. I had never requested editors to let me draw some illustrations or cartoons. Editors themselves have found me and asked me to do it. Shahadat was a big help throughout.
INSIGHT: What do you think is Shishir Bhattacharya's uniqueness?
Ronobi: In my experience, I have always seen that a cartoonist or an artist can never become popular without surrounding events. Once Shishir came back from India, it was the time there was revolution going on against Ershad, and newspapers were growing interested in printing cartoons about what was happening. And Shishir's skill coincided with the market's need, he just found himself at the right place at the right time.
Don't underestimate him though! The first requirement is the skill, which he definitely has. But many others with the same skill are not as successful as him. A lot of events came together in Shishir's life, a lot of magazines came out together, Deshbondhu, Purbavash, etc and Shishir's cartoons were featured in all of them. He was lucky too.
INSIGHT: So many students graduate every year, but why don't we see many new faces as cartoonists?
Ronobi: The first aim of art graduates is to become artists, mainly in paint form, so they move away from cartoons. And honestly, just being a good artist is not enough to be a good cartoonist. Other than having creative imagination, a cartoonist also needs good taste and wit and they also need to know there market. They need to plan which paper they want to draw illustrations for. There are very few interested to be cartoonists and moreover there is not enough communication between them and the papers that are likely to hire them. The papers are not that interested to communicate. Cartoonists cannot survive without papers; they are more dependent on the market than conventional artists who sell paintings at luxurious prices.
INSIGHT (to Shishir): Has Ronobi been as inspiration to you?
SB: Of course, he has! Rono Sir has inspired me from two angles at the same time. Firstly, he is my teacher. Charukala was not a place of cartoons. He inspired all of us as a teacher. His qualities as a teacher, his ability to make us understand and his personality as a teacher was an immense source of inspiration for us.
At the same time, Ronobi the cartoonist was also inspiring, but honestly the cartoonist was not as inspirational as the teacher. I did not know Rono Sir from my beginning at the Art College, because he was in Greece when I was admitted.
After he came back from Greece, there was a very big exhibition in Charukala about the various paintings he had drawn of Athens. That's when I first came across his work. I had heard of Nobi Sir, but had never seen him or his work. I met him after I went beyond the foundation courses, and went to the painting courses.
[Ronobi cuts into the conversation]
Ronobi: Teachers always keep a sharper eye to the better students. And I had identified Shishir from the beginning as a good student. I could tell how good he is because I went through the annual painting submissions for the annual Charukala exhibition.
SB: A lot of people start somewhere, but few of them continue and see it to the end. A lot of people lose interest. And once a person's name and reputation falls, it's hard to get back up. But then again, once a name is established, it's hard to lose the image, because everyone wills you to maintain your reputation with regular upbeat work.
Timing in my life had always been in my favor. Moti Bhai, from Ajker Kagoj, and Shyamol Dotto wanted me to work for daily papers. Then Prothom Alo started and there was a solo exhibition of mine in the year 2000. Moti Bhai moved to Prothom Alo, and I followed. I usually never work for daily papers since it is a much greater responsibility than I want. I like doing work for weekly magazines, where work is more manageable and less demanding.
Ronobi: I feel that Shishir's success as a painter and cartoonist was also powered by his childhood in the village. He has seen more of Bangladesh than many people living and working in Dhaka and the majority of the people can relate easily to his cartoons. As a teacher I have seen a lot of people striving to learn, but Shishir's ambition was always really great. He had left his family in the village to come to Charukala in Dhaka all by himself to study.
INSIGHT: Did you always know that you will be a successful artist someday?
Shishir: When I was much younger, in 1973, a school teacher had taken a very important initiative. Everyone in the whole village of Thakurgaon was to sign their names in a list. We were observing International Literacy Day for the first time.
I had a small exhibition there, based on the liberation war. A lot of people used to paint inspired by the whole situation, gathering visuals from photographs and movies. And these paintings were a part of the entire exhibition. The president himself was supposed to come and look at everything.
When Kamrul Hasan came, I wanted to give him a gift - a painting of mine. He looked at the painting, and before signing it, he stared at it for a long time. I could see it in his eyes that he liked it! And he didn't sign the front, lest he ruins its beauty, rather he signed at the back, and wrote something beautiful. My father looked at it and was really inspired. That's when I first felt the desire to become an artist. I felt that people would really like my paintings. But then when I gave my SSC, I couldn't get admitted.
The problem was that it was really far away and communication back then was really bad. I enrolled after my HSC exam. And that was the first time I got on a plane, I bought the ticket with 99taka. It was the first time I saw Biman Airlines.
Since I could not get in after SSC, this was my last chance. Any later than this would be too late, I would be over aged.
But I was late nevertheless, and I had missed the last day for submission of admission form and they wouldn't accept it. Then Younus Bhai really requested him and finally they accepted my form. It was quite a scene. For some reason, they were convinced that I deserved a chance. And then I scored the highest marks in the admission exam.
INSIGHT: Do you think a painter can be a good cartoonist at the same time?
Ronobi: India's Gonesh Pine, Famous Cartoonist and Illustrator, said in an interview that his career as a cartoonist has helped him to be an artist overall. He said if one can use wit alongside good drawing, it creates a whole new dimension.
In our country, however cartoonists have been completely separated from artists, which I think is due to commercial reasons. Illustrators never earned a lot of money and most artists are therefore not interested. In terms of skill and state of mind, I don't think that these two things conflict in any way at all. A lot of big artists are also cartoonists, but the fame is gained usually as an artist. But being an artist is one in oneself, but cartoonists need papers and magazines to become renowned. I have seen that cartoonists are really talented, and I see that there is a link between simple paintings and cartoons, I think there is an exchange of skills when the same person tries both.
But there is a difference in thought, cartoon will be published, it is a graphic media. We used zinc plates and we couldn't finish our work without good sunlight.
SB: People who do not make cartoons, but simply paint say that they enjoy an absolute freedom, there are no constraints, and no technical difficulty, and they have what I like to call “creative pleasure.” There is no such thing in cartoons. When you are drawing a cartoon, the piece is very specific, and freedom is only up to what you are supposed to do, which is not really freedom.
In Rono Sir's painting, there is nostalgia, there are emotional parts, and a small wit inside it somewhere that makes the whole painting graceful. But, the same thing is not there in cartoons.
Ronobi: People ask me to leave cartoons, and do paintings. They say I could do so much more! But I say what else is there for me to do? Have I not climbed the ladder enough? Do I really need to climb further?
INSIGHT: Sir, we know how busy you are. Does over engagement reduce your opportunity to paint?
Ronobi: No, I find my time amidst everything. I paint everyday, almost. That's my personal work and I do it a lot. Cartoons on the other hand, are time bound and publication oriented, so that is once or twice a week. But painting, I do everyday. At the end of the day, the passion wins over profession. But, yes I agree, that if I dedicated myself completely to painting, maybe my art would have been better, at least quantitatively if not qualitatively.
INSIGHT: Who are your favorite cartoonists and artists?
Ronobi: That's a very hard question to answer. There are so many of them, of the top of my head, my favorite cartoonists are Vicky, John Low (French cartoonist). It's very hard to pick a few, there are so many. I like cartoonists of the Saturday Review, and then there are Laxman, Omio, Abu, etc.
Amongst painters, my favorites are uncountable. But a few mentionable ones would be mostly the same as any common man's liking, Salvador Dali, Matis, David Hockney (British), Picasso, Prag, Van Gogh, almost all impressionist painters. Czesanne's name must be mentioned, he was amongst the first, and Paul Klee. I have been taught by Zainul Abedin and Kamrul Hasan. They are also favorites in my book. And to go on, there are many Bangladeshi artists who hold their place in my heart: Syed Jahangir, Shafiuddin ahmed, Kaiyyum Chowdhury, Devdash Chakraborty, Mohammad Kibria, Razzaq, Mostofa Manowar, Rashid Chowdhury, and a lot of other teachers. I am really proud to have been the student of these people.
There is a lot of poverty, even in the art sector in Bangladesh. We do not have the same materials, nor do we have the same paint. But according to talent, and according to skill, I believe we are well above the average international standard. I think we are the best amongst all developing countries. Amongst the developed one, we may not be.
INSIGHT: Do you think the world can identify Bangladesh's talent, sir? Do you think on seeing a Bangladeshi painting, they will be able to identify its origin?
Ronobi: Honestly, it's hard to define such a standard. When paintings are focused or subject based, then the source can be identified. Otherwise it cannot be. The genesis of non-objective paintings cannot identified by the painting itself. Examples of non objective paintings can be color culture paintings, or abstract art, and many more. Even if you look at Japanese paintings, it's not traditional anymore. The modern world is always the same everywhere. The trends everywhere are amalgamated. But Bangladesh can be identified with people. But that does not certify that the painting is Bangladeshi, but the subject is.
When Shahabuddin gives a caption, “Mukti joddha,” to a running figure, people will tend to think in that direction and the painting is identifiable. Instead if we write, “running figure,” then it becomes general, and it would be the same if the painting is displayed in Bangladesh or Paris.
INSIGHT: Who are your favorites, Shishir Bhai?
SB: As Rono Sir said, it's hard to pinpoint a few. Amongst cartoonists: Abu Abraham, an Indian. He worked for the London observer. Later “Abu's Column” was created in The Times of India, and he used to write and illustrate at the same time. He also worked on a book called Bangladesh '71, published by The Times of India.
Then there is Rono Sir himself, I love his work. There is a series in banner paintings by sir, based on processions, war and many things. There is one where people are throwing shoes at Yahya Khan. These are expressions of political movement. There are definite victims and villains. And no one could portray social humor better than Rono Sir.
Nazrul's cartoons really inspired me, some of which were based on Biman's disaster. Due to illness he does not work anymore. He was shot once.
Another favorite artist of mine is McPherson, he works for a Canadian paper. He was a brush artist. His political cartoons were amazing. And I used to feel like it was my own work. His style, humor, idea was amazing. His work is amazing.
Amongst favorite painters, I would say George Grozs, Picasso, Hogarth and David Hockney. His work is unbelievably smooth. Amongst the renaissance artists, I really love the work of Pierre de la Francisca specialized in historical paintings. There's another artist I should mention Damien, a realist painter who was once arrested for his work.
Amongst Bangladeshis, my favorites are Janiul Abedin, S.M. Sultan, and Kamrul Hasan. Kamrul Hasan's work is incomparable. His watercolor was even better than most oil paintings I have seen. S.M. Sultan's work was really powerful, he could visualize and generate highly philosophical ideas. Other than Nobi Sir, I am also particularly fond of Kibriya Sir's work. I have never seen better depictions of certain emotions. Kibriya Sir really has the power to imagine and relate to an emotion graphically. Amongst my other teachers, I also love Shafiuddin sir's work immensely powerful. He is like a role model to me. Then there is Shahid Kabir, who taught us that everything is a learning process. We used to think that everything that we will create will become a masterpiece. He taught us that in order to keep learning and in order to make ourselves better we have to make mistakes. We learn through our mistakes.
INSIGHT: Do you feel that you haven't done that many paintings?
SB: Yes. Yes, I do. It's because of a lot of realities that impeach in my life, I never master up the involvement in art to do a lot of work. There is a huge process involved, and it takes a lot of time. An artist cannot work without proper motivation, and usually the required mood is disrupted by worldly constraints around me. In developed countries, people are mostly detached from their families and responsibilities, and artists are the most extreme of cases. But in our country, an artist is no different than the average clerk; he has no luxuries in his life and has to worry about his bread and butter like every other commoner. And this deteriorates the spirited mindset that an artist really needs in order to create. As a result of such factors, I don't paint too much. But my work is moving along just fine.
Ronobi: Many people finish seven paintings in seven days; but depending on my mood and involvement, I usually need around seven days for one piece of work. Sometime it's because I am lazy, and I just don't work fast enough. But mostly it is because I give myself the time to grow attached to the work that I am creating. I want to think about it deeply as small scratches turn to objects or expressions, and brushed twists of colors turn to an entire environment. I had only 7 solo exhibitions in my life, Shafiuddin has only one. Many artists have up to 150 exhibitions in a lifetime.
INSIGHT: I'm sure our readers will want to know what your thoughts are about the upcoming festivities. Sir, what do you think about Eid?
Ronobi: I look at it as a memorized speech. Get up, get ready, and eat the vermicelli that has been served on the table and go to pray. Afterwards, the children would wear new clothes. Actually so would many adults. I enjoy looking at my huge family. Eid is like a family reunion to me. But then again it's the same thing every Eid.
SB: The occasion starts with Shab-e-barat. In my village there would be an Eid mela. This fair was really interesting. I would love seeing the whole extended family going to pray together in the morning. To me, it Eid symbolizes purity. It's as if all the people become pure at least on this day. I like seeing the kind of love they show to each other on Eid Day. In the city, I don't see the same kind of purity.
Ronobi: A big part of Eid is about the first sighting of the moon. Still today I try to see the moon that announces the Eid. My grandson leads me to the roof by hand in anticipation of the first sighting. Now there is a committee that does this.
INSIGHT: Do you think that art in Bangladesh is up to the world standard?
Ronobi: There is no world standard in the art industry/market. But in commercial terms, meaning which countries art is being sold more; India has emerged as a major player. According to the market mechanism, Bangladesh did not get in. But we have the quality, we have the talent, but we do not yet have the market orientation. There are some galleries here, that are trying to promote art in Bangladesh, but this is on a national scale. Kaya and Bengal Arts have made a lot of progress. But to succeed on an international level, we still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go.
SB: Eventually, a Bangladeshi artist and a clerk think about the same things, and the artistic condition, the mental state slowly fades away. Worrying about gas and electricity availability and month end income does not make an artist. Our lifestyle is not appropriate for artists. But let's look at the positive end, these questions are coming up because something is happening. At least something! It's amazing that we Bangladeshis can do so much from so little.
Ronobi: Pakistan used to depend on our artists a long time ago, but now they have nurtured the talent locally and they have emerged as well. Even Nepal has.
SB: And then there are so many other constraints that hold our imagination back. There are state related problems, family-related, political, and personal, etc. But we still go on and strive to maintain who we really want to be, amidst the difficulty and in the middle of unfavorable conditions.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007