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June 20 , 2003

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Cartoon: the Art that Tickles

Mustafa Zaman & Shamim Ahsan

Cartoon is an expression with a kink, it is an idea visualised in all its wacky and exaggerated shades to poke fun at every subject. In the upsurge of the media it has become an essential ingredient of the recipe that is information. As an image that addresses everything from politics to trivialities in our life, it has the power to peeve a few and amuse, entertain and even enlighten the rest. The cartoon that works is the one that cracks a smile in most of our faces.
The newspapers are the biggest connoisseurs of cartoons. They often dress news and stories in mind-boggling images, giving it an irresistible flavour. They run editorial cartoons tackling pressing socio-political issues with humour, so that they pop out of the front page to confront the reader point blank. Those who create all these images remain a mystery to the readers. SWM tries to unmask a contingent of cartoonists, who make today's newspapers worth looking at.

Rafiqun Nabi

Among the few well known names of this genre of art is Ranabi, as he is popularly known by his readers, the shortened version of the name Rafiqun Nabi whose identity as a leading artist is just as prominent. For the last forty years, Ranabi's Tokai has gained a cult status; the poor little street urchin that he created for Bichitra, the news magazine, back in 1978, has earned its creator wide acclaim and unprecedented popularity.

Rafiqun Nabi started out as a professional cartoonist in 1963; his first contribution was to weekly Purbodesh. Later in the mid 1960s, he became a regular in Shochitro Shandhani. There he used to illustrate with humorous cartoons the celebrated column Kaal Penchar Dairy by Abdul Gani Hazari.
In Purbodesh, which later became a daily, he continued with socio-political satire till 1965. It was around this time that alongside other acclaimed cartoonists of the subcontinent, R. Nabi got a chance to contribute his works to Shochitro Shandhani. This, he says, “was an honour for a young artist like me”. These editorial cartoons were done with much freedom. Later in the late 1960s the Weekly Express, an English periodical, sought his expertise. Here too the socio-political issues were addressed through his cartoons. During 1969, he got involved in another periodical named Forum, published by Rehman Sobhan and Hamida Hossain. The bigwigs of the subcontinent belonging to different principles were the contributors to this publication. “I never realised that names like Amarta Sen would later become so famous, it never occurred to me then” says R. Nabi with amusement.

“It was Forum, the political manifesto of that period, that was to infuse the idea of independence among the masses. R. Nabi contends that they were drawn hastily, but the subject matter was rightly emphasised.
After independence the artist left the country for Greece in 1973 to study printmaking. Upon his return found himself out of job and to survive he began to contribute cartoons to the weekly Bichitra. In 1976, R. Nabi got an offer of a regular job in Bichitra and Dainik Bangla. Soon his cartoon started to feature regularly in both the publications -- the column cartoon in the daily Dainik Bangla and a separate cartoon slot in the weekly Bichitra. R. Nabi realised that his works had already started to enjoy a wide following. One and a half years later Tokai was born.
Tokai, the cartoon character, was fashioned after a boy named Mokka. The boy, who was only three or three and a half, used live in Narinda where R. Nabi spent his childhood. Mokka was the remnant of the word motka (fat). “This chubby little boy's quips had no match,' remembers Nabi.
The first Tokai cartoon appeared in the anniversary issue of Bichitra in May 1977. The round-faced Tokai with two or three hairs on his head was shown with a brick, makeshift secretariat table, the caption declared: “Lets play secretary secretary”. It was a pun intended to prick at the administration. With this particular work the tokai saga, that still continues, kick started.

In the same weekly, a story based on a youth Shukhan, a straitlaced countryman lost in the humdrum of the city, started to appear.
Alongside teaching and art making, R. Nabi managed to continue drawing cartoons. “The caricature of persons in high government post, or overt political message was never my forte,” says Nabi, who, more often that not, without hasitation, produced works of this nature when the time came to respond to a crucial political situation. His ultimate vehicle however, remained the Tokai cartoons and the column cartoons.
R. Nabi denies any possibility of conflict between the painter and the cartoonist. He believes that an artist can be successful in innumerable fields if he chooses to. Although he has quit doing Tokai cartoon at present, (he says he is tired of doing it), his column cartoons appear on a daily basis in the front page of Jonokontha. And his socio-political forays are expressed in separate cartoons in the weekly 2000.

The popularity of a cartoon can sometimes even astonish its creator himself. Back in the early eighties when President Cup football was all the rage, Bangladesh was to play in the final. That day a cartoon appeared in a major daily that pocked fun at the lavish arrangement of the game at night under newly set up floodlights. The city was in the grip of an electricity crisis, so Nabi thought out a cartoon that showed a man trying to find a TV that runs on kerosene. On that day, in the evening when the floodlight went off at the stadium were the artist was also present, their was a roar, people started saying, mimicking the cartoon of Nabi : Bring in Kerosine...
It is this affect on people that keeps R. Nabi going. “As cartoonists we can only indicate certain truths, the rest is up to the people in power,” argues Nabi.
With his conversation-based cartoons, Rafiqun Nabi has captured the imagination of multiple generations. He is planning a show of Tokai cartoons of his choice in the future.

Shishir Bhattacharjee

As a cartoonist, Shishir Bhatta-charjee had set a precedent in building a career out of portraiture-based caricature. The precision with which he draws and the serious intention behind his ideas are the two deciding factors which make his work tick.
When he was still a student of painting at the Institute of Fine Art, Dhaka, he tried out satiric depictions of the socio-political scenario. The artist himself thinks that this tendency had egged on his adventures into cartoondom.

In 1987, after completing his masters degree from Baroda, Shishir found a country plunged in struggle against an autocratic government. A number of magazines printed in cheap paper giving this struggle a voice came out. Deshbondhu was one such publication, to which Shishir started to contribute. In fact, the main attraction of the magazine was the cover and the inside cartoon by him.
Shishir's execution was markedly different from other cartoonists, so much so that he inspired awe from the would-be cartoonists and undulated adoration from the masses. “I found out how easily I could reach the people through this media,” recounts Shishir. In both painting and cartoon he strove to do the same thing, --- criticism of the existing socio-political order. The artist realised back then how easily communicable cartoon was.

The culture of political cartoon was given a new lease of life through Shishir's cartoon. But a ban on Deshbondhu thwarted his ambition. After this, he started to draw for the weekly Ekota, the paper of the communist party. “
The genre of editorial cartoon that I am accustomed to do now had developed from working with Ekota.
By then the autocracy had fallen and the artist was offered to draw political satires for Ajker Kagoj. Before committing to this paper, Shishir always was in two minds about whether he would be a regular contributor. “My mind was made up, from this point on I considered myself a committed cartoonist,” says the artist reflecting on the past.
About his influences, Shishir says, “I had to start from scratch, as their were hardly any references to be stimulated by.” The work of Lurie and works by few Indian and English caricaturists inspired him. He cites the name McPherson, a Canadian, whose tackling of satire and the way used the brush stimulated him and provided impetus to an already developed style.
When asked whether his involvement with cartoon ever got in the way of his paintings, He says, “They always fed off of each other, as they exress the same subject.”
As a social critic, he had always felt that his involvement in caricature gave him an insight into the popular psyche. By way of realising his ideas in two different methods --- one, a popular mode, the other, a little esoteric--- Shishir had the chance to find out their effectiveness. With his political conviction in mind, he also confirms that he never let the idea of taking up cartooning as a profession get into his head. “My commitment was always ideologically inspired,” says the artist who now works for the daily Prothom Alo.
Regarding the freedom of a cartoonist, Shishir is convinced that it is the political power structure that bears on the output of each artist. In the changing circumstances after the Operation Clean Heat fiasco, the cartoonist finds his access to the media to have suffered a sever blow. The compunction on the part of the newspaper authority had put a restraint, and the cartoonists themselves are hesitant about their critical creation. “We talk about press freedom, but the reality suggests an otherwise bleak scenario,” laments the artist. Asked about why his works are irregular nowadays, he attributes to the dwindling number of cartoons to the present political culture of censure and retribution. “We can't even bring up the issue of muktijudho and razakar (the quislings) nowadays,” reveals Shishir Bhattacharjee. Alongside political hegemony, big company monopoly also plays a part in restraining the freedom of the cartoonists.

Shishir contends that his idealogy is firmly grounded in gender awareness and the spirit of the war of liberation. “I want to address the socio-political truths as lucidly as possible,” declares Shishir. He also says that while creating one of his images he firstly takes into account the tolerance of the people or the quarter that a particular cartoon addresses. This too puts a certain restraint on the freedom of expression of a cartoonist.
The artist wants to see a political culture tolerant of criticism and satire, the absence of which pains Shishir. He says, “If Sheik Hasina saluting Zainal Hazari can be published during the previous government, why cant this government be criticised in the same manner...”
Shishir asserts that the popular sentiment is reflected in the cartoons of each era. And if this freedom is not given to an artist, how would we find the expression of the prevailing realities let alone exposing the hidden truth, which, Shishir Bhattacharjee feels, is the duty of a cartoonist to dig up and reveal.
There is an album of cartoons by Shishir Bhattacharjee that came out in 2002, the evidence of his acumen is apparent in this medium-sized book.

Sharier Khan

A student of journalism, Sharier Khan's involvement with cartoon was inevitable. He was a problem child; not that as a child he used to drive the teachers mad or vandalise the neighbourhood, he was so engrossed in reading and drawing comics that his mother had to often rebuke him to send him out to play.
Sharier remembers the occasion when his mother, exasperated by her child's infatuation with comics, burned a bundle of cartoons that he had drawn himself. That was when he was in class seven. His involvement with cartoon and comics went back to even earlier days. He began to draw comics when he was only six. “In the mid seventies comic books were really cheap, I remember buying them for only ----a piece,” says Sharier.

Before that it was his father and the older brother who used to buy him the comic books. He remembers sifting through those publications by Marvel, Harvey, Archie and even Mad. In the late seventies comic books were scarce. From that point on he started to contemplate seriously on drawing his own comic book.
“I must be the person who had read the most comics book in Dhaka, when I didn't have comic books of my own, I used to borrow them from a friend who owned thousands of them,” emphasise the artist who now is the chief reporter of the Daily Star. About his passion for cartoon, he says, “I was a boy with a head full of mischief; cartoons, for me, is way to extricate those ideas.” His cartoons are proof enough of his playful mind, he tackles even the most political of subjects with a quirky sense of humour that is a sure fire as far as humour is concerned.
There is a lot of emphasis on action of humans in Sharier's caricatures, this he attributes to the influence of the western comics. When he was in class five he drew his first comic book. He kept at envisaging and drawing his own comic books till he was 14 or so.

In 1988, when he was in class seven, Unmad, a magazine inspired by American Mad, was published. This had made Sharier hopeful. He, along with few friends decided to bring out a comic magazine. Group endeavour entailed a lot of hassle, so he decided to go solo. Sharier ended up as the creator of Tiny, a hand-made magazine of his own, in which he put together all his ideas. “I drew things that caught my fancy and things that pleased me,” says Sharier.
Sharier kept on creating one character after another. At seventeen he drew a protagonist named Babu, which ended up in Rising Stars, the supplement of the Daily Star that catered to youngsters.
At nineteen, in 1986, he created a 62 page Tintin inspired book. Motivated by the western war cartoons, he also drew, at that time, “Mission D day”, that came out in Bortoman Deenkal. But Sharier was unhappy with the kind of behaviour they meted out to him, they didn't even pay him his due. After 24/25 weeks he called it quits. Later, in the early nineties, the second part of the strips was regularly featured in the Rising Stars.

During his study at the Dhaka University he came up with “Rabbi the Journalist”. The cartoon strip of this character was featured in the daily New Nation. He fashioned this guy after Mr. Inam, the news editor of the Daily Star.
Sharier is of the opinion that Bangalees don't know how to laugh. For a young man out to bring about a change in the humour department, he, when he was a student of journalism, was greatly amused by the shared effort of R. Nabi and Jafar Iqbal in creating “Mohaakashe Mohaatraash”, an refreshingly new cartoon strip.
Sharier fondly remembers how the late S.M. Ali, the founding editor of Daily Star, appreciated his works. From December 1991 on, Sharier became a regular contributor to the Daily Star. His first was a full-page comic on parliament. It was his first political foray. In early 1992 he began his front page editorial cartoons, for which he became widely known. Sharier wears his success lightly, about his long absence from the front page, he says, “I got tired of doing it.”
He also confirms that drawing caricature is not the only passion he has. When asked whether he is going to start doing caricature soon, he says, “I do it when I feel the itch to do it.”

Bipul Shah

cartoonist's popularity is unmatchable, Bipul Shah found out about it when he went to bail out a nephew of his from a predicament. His nephew owned a scooter, the driver of which was caught by the mob after a small accident. As revenge, they simply took the scooter to their own mohollah (neighbourhood). When Bipul went their for rescue, he was faced with a scene where a group of young men was ready to lay claim to the vehicle. But as soon as he revealed his identity, the whole scenario was changed into one of amity. One of the leaders was declaring out loud that “he was a fan of his cartoons”.
Back then he was with the daily Bhorer Kakoj. When Prothom Alo was launched in 1998, he joined, and till this day, he is churning out one cartoon after another for this publication. He started out as a column cartoonist, and at present he continues to draw those dialog-based cartoons, occasionally producing works in a bigger format to adorn the special issues or the supplements.

Bipul's entrance in the domain of cartoon was not an accident. He was deeply involved in politics during his teen years, as a Chhatro Union cadre, he knew that cartoon could be a vehicle for political message. But it was not until he met the creator of Tokai, R.Nabi that he fully realised that he too could become an artist and express his politics through his works.

It was during the early period of the autocracy of Ershad that to observe the World Youth Day, the communist party was organising special programmes in every corner of Bangladesh. In Netrikona, where Bipul was resident with his father, a whole contingent of activists and political leaders arrived. The Ershad government, in a bid to thwart the political movements, confiscated the passport of R. Nabi and the delegate who were to go to Moscow. This gave Bipul, the chance to meet R. Nabi, who came to Netrokona with others.
The boy met the man whose Tokai always enthralled him. “Nabi sir drew me a cartoon and said that every body can become a political activist but not many can draw cartoons...” recalls Bipul who, inspired by R. Nabi, later got admission to the Institute of Fine Art, Dhaka, in 1985.
By late 1980s, Bipul himself was drawing cartoons. In two consecutive Bangla Academy book fairs, Bipul with his classmates from the Institute of Fine Art brought out a cartoon magazine. In one cover, Shishir Bhattacharjee's celebrated fusion of Ershad and a Donkey was featured.
For Bipul, as well as for many others, cartoon was a means to fight against the military regime. “Back then I never thought of earning anything by drawing cartoons, the response of the public was the only reward” remembers the artist.

It was not until 1996 that Bipul was professionally involved. His first job was in Bhorer Kagoj. Before that he used to contribute to Shomoi, a periodical that paid him a meager sum. In Bhorer Kakoj the title of his column cartoon was Doinondeen and now in Prothom Alo it is Epith Opith.
Bipul believes that cartoon is, often, more effective than a serious news item because it combines the news with an image. He also attributes the cartoon boom of the eighties to the upsurge against Ershad rgime, as it was during this time that cartoons became an effective weapon against autocracy. Yet the artist is of the opinion that at present there is this need for nursing of this genre to let newer cartoonists emerge.

M A Kuddus

One of the best-known cartoonists of the country M A Kuddus is perhaps the most prolific among the professional cartoonists. Only in his late twenties, Kuddus has already a staggering 3,000 cartoons to his name.
Kuddus' career as a cartoonist started somewhat by chance. He just began to work on a part-time basis in the cartoon magazine 'Cartoon' as a designer. One day as he was working he overheard the conversation of a few cartoonists of the publications who were working on a cover story on filmstar Moushumi. It so happened that they suddenly got stuck at a point and Kuddus, who had been following the development of the story attentively, readily came up with a brilliant idea. Everybody appreciated his idea. “Suddenly I felt a kind of strength inside me. I began to feel that I can also do cartoons,” Kuddus recalls. For the next issue Kuddus came up with an entire cartoon strip. It was on 'making primary education mandatory'. It was printed and so were the following three cartoon strips in the consecutive issues. The appreciation and applause both by his colleagues and the readers sparked off a long-dormant desireof which even he was not very confident of till thento become a cartoonist. But his excitement over his newly-discovered talent died down soon. All on a sudden 'Cartoon' was closed. His ambition to become a cartoonist was threatened to be nipped in its infancy. The next few months a jobless Kuddus would be a practising cartoons and compare theme with those of Shishir's.

“I had 8 to 9 thousand taka in the bank and I thought I must get a job before that amount is finished,” Kuddus recalls. It was June 1995. One day, Kuddus went straight to Ajker Kagoj office with some of his works and one of them got printed the very next days. Kuddus began to work for the daily and later joined the Sangbad, towards the middle of '95. Since then he has been working for the Sangbad.
Unlike his sharp and biting cartoons he is quite a simple and open-hearted man. But when it comes to his work he is uncompromising, sometimes to the extent of stubbornness. He places greatest emphasis on the independence of the artist, without which an artist is never his real self nor at his best. He expresses his satisfaction over the freedom he enjoys in the Daily Sangbad, something many cartoonists who are working for different national dailies, don't enjoy. “I will quit the job the moment I feel I cannot work here independently anymore,” he says.
Kuddus has also won an honourary award in the 20th Yomiuri International Cartoon Contest. Japan '98 and has a book with his cartoons of 1996. He has a dream.“I want to go on doing good cartoons,” Kuddus says simply.



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