Interview: Rohan Chakravarty on his book, Bird Business
The author of the genre-defying Bird Business talks about birds, illustration, and the influence of popular culture on his workUpdated: Jul 12, 2019 20:32 IST
Rohan Chakravarty’s new book, Bird Business, defines genre. It illustrates sequences on the behaviour of 100 wild Indian birds. It isn’t a cartoon or graphic novel; it mixes science, observation and art. Something like a giant comic strip telling a hundred different stories on well-known and little-known birds. The book was four years in the making.
Which is the first wild bird you remember observing?
The laughing dove. It was 2005, I had just started volunteering for Kids For Tigers (an outreach programme of Sanctuary Asia magazine). I didn’t know anything about birds, except having watched them on TV and read about them in books. I went for my first bird walk with two local experts who run the ‘Nagpur birds’ website. It was November 12, ornithologist Salim Ali’s birthday. And the first bird we saw was the Laughing dove. It was just going about its business. It made that laugh, which it is named after. It started my journey as a birdwatcher. And ironic to start my cartoonist career with a bird laughing!
I really enjoyed the book. I find it interesting that you have taken not just beautiful, rare species but also common, and some fairly plain-looking species. Tell me more about how you chose the 100 species.
It wasn’t a conscious choice to pick common species. But my focus was on portraying diversity in behaviour, and common birds can be so interesting. This is not a field guide. This doesn’t tell you how to identify birds. It’s about the different, fascinating tweaks evolution has made in their design.
For instance the closely-related birds the black-necked stork, the open-billed stork, and the greater adjutant stork behave so differently because their designs are different.
And it is not just the colourful birds that attract me. I am driven to the ones that look drab but are really special despite that. My favourite sequence in the book is that of the Nilgiri flower-pecker. It is nothing remarkable to look at. But consider its relationship with the mistletoe and how it helps the latter grow. Had that tiny bird not existed, the mistletoe would have trouble existing in an Indian forest. And that’s so remarkable.
Why do you draw wildlife?
I relate to wildlife more than people. For some time, I was dormant, I couldn’t find my feet. I was studying dentistry which I didn’t have professional interest in. I tried to make cartoons on popular culture and politics, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. I found a sense of direction through wildlife, not just my art but also my life.
And no other wild animal has the mischief and the character that birds have. That’s why I’m partial to drawing birds.
Some of the action sequences are reminiscent of superhero comics. The birds are like superheroes, hunting and surviving. What are your art influences? And how does the illustration interact with the text?
None of the conventional superhero comics like DC or Marvel have influenced this book. Not Marvel and DC. But my influences are the TV series by Genndy Tartakovsky. He created Samurai Jack and was an animator on Powerpuff Girls. I was obsessed with both them. A lot of the illustrations follow this visual style and composition of cinematics; Genndy says a lot through minimum style and colour. In this book, I had a hundred stories to tell. So I couldn’t be too elaborate, that would have taken a lifetime. So, I have tried to express myself in minimal illustration style, but there’s also detail.
Apart from the illustrations -- the shaheen falcon sequence is my favourite -- I also like the accompanying text. You describe a pelican with its beak pouch as having a double chin. A black drongo as Hellboy. You’ve effectively placed wild birds in popular culture. How do you respond to criticism that you have anthropomorphised the subject?
My usual works involves cartoons – which involves anthropomorphising. But I do feel we need to make art interactive and contextual. In this book, all the characters are wild creatures, so they are not personified.
Regarding popular culture, I’ve grown up devouring movies. That reflects in my work. I love the action cinema of Hong Kong. The Raptor (bird of prey) sequences are directed in a way that Wong Kar-wai and John Woo would direct an action sequence. Their minimalism, and how a scene is cut, reflects in my sequences.
As for the text, my brief to myself was — write according to the way naturalist David Attenborough would narrate a wildlife sequence!
A question on the setting. I found the book quite rooted in India. A sparrow goes to visit a kirana shop. A greater adjutant Stork, named after a soldier, “marches” through a Guwahati garbage dump. How does India affect your work?
One of my complaints is that Indians know American and European wildlife better than they know Indian wildlife. Because it’s so well documented and written about. If you ask a school-going child about National Parks, Yellowstone will come to her mind before Kanha. The Big Bad Wolf is known much better than [Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book character] Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. There is a dearth of interesting information around it.
So I wanted to add to the information that people have, and also show Indian neighbourhood birds. For instance, the movie Thugs of Hindostan should have had an Arctic skua—a thug-like bird that steals food on coastlines—rather than their fictional version of a golden eagle, which in reality never goes to the coast.
Part of the reason I did this book is also to try and change the way birdwatchers watch birds. Twitching (crossing birds off lists) is the trend rather than birdwatching. Birders and photographers who are just after numbers and rarities end up doing more harm than good, using unethical means like bird-call playback to meet their targets. I’d like the reader of this book to “observe” more and “chase” less.
Which is the most Indian quintessential bird?
What a tough question. I would say the House Sparrow – in its way of life. It’s gregarious and commensal with people. It also has a very cheerful demeanour. And it knows how to make the most of any resource available, a sort of jugaad!
The rest of your work is quite political. You have commented on the environment minister, government functioning and individual projects. Most art on nature tends to be a lot about pretty pictures of unspoilt nature. Why do feel the need to be so political?
I quite dread drawing about politics and politicians. I’m bad at making human faces. And trolling these days can push you into a shell. But misgovernance is a part of environmental calamity. There is a communication gap I am trying to address. We have to give out that kind of information.
I have to end by asking you which was the hardest sequence to make.
The one with the murmurations of rosy starlings. Rosy starlings make flying formations in the sky, and this is one of the most dynamic and energetic things to watch. It’s a challenge to capture that in a static illustration. I’m happy to say that I marginally succeeded. It took about ten drafts before I got there!
Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Twitter: @nehaa_sinha