Written by Doug Baumwoll
Image courtesy of Raqib Hasan Apu
“Please, have a seat,” Raqib politely offers, a boyish charm instantly perceivable. I can’t put an age on him; he could be anywhere from his early twenties to his late thirties.Please, have a seat,” Raqib politely offers, a boyish charm instantly perceivable. I can’t put an age on him; he could be anywhere from his early twenties to his late thirties.
“Thanks.” I sit down and join Raqib Hasan Apu from Dhaka, Bangladesh in a local public house. “Actually, I was sitting at the bar over there.”
“Ah,” he chuckles easily at our crossed signals. “I sat down here without checking there.”
“Right. Well, great to see you again.” I’d met Raqib socially a few times over the last six months, but this is the first time we’ve sat down together and chatted at length one-on-one. I had jumped at the chance to interview him, as I love all things Indian, having lived there for over a year during three separate visits. Of course, Raqib is not Indian, but I knew Bangladesh’s identity had been intertwined with India’s for a long time. And I had wanted to know more.
Normally, before I interview someone, I do extensive research, depending on the subject and how familiar I am with their background, up to four or five hours. Before this interview, however, I purposely did not do any research, wanting to try a new approach that I thought might be more free-flowing and organic.
“So,” I begin, “let’s start with Bangladesh. What is the population there, about 10 or 15 million, right?”
Raqib looks at me, wearing his black frame glasses, bushy, thick, jet-black curls piled on top of his head, and absolutely nonjudgmentally responds, “Yeah. About 160 million.”
I feel like an idiot.
“Wow. I had no idea. That must put Bangladesh at about the fifth or sixth most populous country in the world.”
Phew. I feel a bit better now, having been at least in the ballpark on that one.
“Your family name, Apu, is it Indian?”
“Yes. It’s Bengali.” Raqib proceeds to tell me the story of Bangladesh and how its sometimes tragic fate has been interwoven with that of Pakistan and India over the last 70 years. When India and Pakistan became separate countries in 1947, western Bengal remained part of Hindu India, and eastern Bengal became part of East Pakistan, a Muslim majority country. Bangladesh then fought for and gained independence in 1971, following a genocide [which was perpetrated by Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan, and was an ethnic cleansing of Bengalis ending with some 3,000,000 deaths].
“And your first and middle names?”
“They are Arabic.” Raqib’s family, along with 91 percent of Bangladesh, is Muslim. Four generations ago, his family was Hindu. He describes himself as atheist.
“And can I ask you about the historic floods? This is what I remember in my general knowledge of Bangladesh.”
“Sure. There were two major ones, in 1988 and 1998. These affected tens of millions of people. I remember the second one well, as I was a teenager then. I’m 33 now.”
“And what was your family like?”
“We lived in Dhaka. My father owned a transport business of trucks and passenger buses. My mother was a housewife raising two kids. We grew up middle middle-class, you know? There are so many levels of middle class there.”
“Like in India, yes?”
“Yes, public schools.”
I knew that Raqib worked in animation, and had seen many of his caricatures and comics on his Facebook wall. “Have you always loved drawing?”
“Yes, in middle school I actually loved drawing realistic human figures. A bit stylistically. I loved reading Marvel and DC comics like Asterix. Spiderman was my favorite, actually.”
“And did you have lots of art classes in school? Did your parents actively support your interest in art?”
“No, I did not have many classes in school. No art teacher that inspired me. I remember my high school art teacher showed us how to draw a mango,” he laughs good-naturedly. “I wasn’t really interested in that.”
“And your parents?”
“Well, my parents never said ‘don’t do art,’ but they never encouraged me either. Actually, at about 17, we had a family fight, involving not only my parents but also my aunts and uncles who lived very nearby, when I announced that I wanted to pursue art in university, like figure drawing and painting. We argued about money and lack of jobs in art and some religious issues. In the end, I went to a prestigious university in Dhaka and majored in art and sculpture. So the prestige helped calm things down with my parents. Also, I began actually earning money during university, so that eased tensions with my parents, too.”
“Oh, how did you earn money?”
“Well, a new animation studio opened near the university, so I applied for a job, and got hired and began earning money while also going to school.”
“Were you a good student?”
“I wasn’t especially studious, I would say, but I was productive – drawings, paintings, and sculpture.”
“Do you remember any professors who really spoke to you?”
“Yes. Two professors were prominent sculptors, I was privileged to have them. They guided me well in the creative process and techniques. Their personal lives inspired me a lot.”
“What else can you tell me about university?”
“Well, during university, due to political upheaval, I went to India for a year. It took me seven years to finish university. One year, there were no classes given at all. We formed an animation studio and had clients such as advertising companies selling TVs, cell phones, and then we got a UNICEF account through an earlier connection I had.”
“Interesting. I had no idea there was a market for animation in Bangladesh. So, how did you end up in Korea?”
“I had a Bangladeshi friend who had done some film work connected to the Busan Film Festival. He learned about a scholarship available to the Korea National University of Art (KART) in Seoul and told me to apply. I won the Major Asian Art Scholarship, a full scholarship to the film school, and I majored in animation beginning in 2012. They also provided a living stipend.”
“What were your notable achievements there? I mean, what did you produce?”
“During those two years I produced two short films, about seven minutes each. It was a lot of work, because I just do drawings on my tablet and don’t really use computer graphics. One of the films screened in the Hiroshima International Animation Film Festival in 2014 as a student production. It was a great experience because there were many international students there for one or two semesters as exchange students. I finished in June 2015 with a Master of Fine Arts.”
“And then were you worried about your visa running out? Did you want to return to Bangladesh?”
“Actually, even before the graduation ceremony, I went to another art school to talk with a professor there about enrolling as a PhD student. ChungAng University [private] had a professional-quality animation studio. As we chatted and I showed him my portfolio, one thing led to another and the next day I started working for him, and he got me a new E-7 visa. After a few months working there, he sent me to Gwangju, where the university also has a stop-motion studio. I was tired of the hustle and bustle of Seoul life. Though I do miss Seoul sometimes, of course, as I lived there for three years.”
“What projects have you done there?”
“I completed two seasons of an animation show called Galaxy Kids, where I was one of eight animators; we would each do one sequence of the show. Currently, I’m working on a project called Big Five, which will come out on KBS-1 next year, also for kids.”
“What is your true personal interest? Your calling?”
“Well, now I consider animation and film-making as a hobby, not as a profession. I want to become an independent artist, like doing paintings. But I am really interested in the world political situation, and wonder how I can contribute my personal opinion to the discussion. And I believe now that I can make a significant contribution to the discussion regarding politics, economics, religion, overuse of SNS and the virtual world, and social justice issues through my drawings and caricatures.”
This next question was really a personal one for me because, as a writer, it is frustrating to not find outlets for your work. “Where will you post your drawings, where is the outlet?”
“Good question,” he says, with that boyish smile again. “For now, just on my Facebook wall. But I hope to start a blog.”
“And is your content specifically about Bangladesh, or more global issues?”
“My drawings are more global, and not about specific issues in Bangladesh.” He shows me a brilliant satire cartoon lampooning various issues (Trump, Saudi dress code, and Saudi ownership of Mecca).
“How long did this one take you?”
“Maybe 15 minutes.”
“Wow.” I’d have guessed much longer.
“Good art challenges beliefs, norms, and society. My upbringing was conservative, and I wanted to fight that. Bangladesh still has some prejudice between the Muslim majority and Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities.”
“Will you return to Bangladesh some day?”
“I don’t feel I need to go back, to return, there for any reason. Actually, I cannot do my cartoon work there. I would be at high risk publishing drawings there. Bloggers are killed on the street there. That drawing of Mecca I just showed you? It is not criticizing Mecca but just including Mecca in the drawing could be dangerous.”
“And economically, can you earn a solid middle-class wage there as an animation artist?”
“Economically speaking, I could return there and earn a good middle-class living. My friends are doing that in many different fields. We have an improving social economy there.”
And that’s it. Two pints (me) and two rum and cokes (Raqib) later, it was time to go. I immensely enjoyed speaking with Raqib – an incredibly friendly, open, and honest person – and I think he enjoyed speaking with me, if not because I am an insanely interesting guy and impeccable conversationalist, then because he got to tell his story to someone.
Gwangju hosts hundreds of foreigners from scores of countries. Check out the international events here. Go to the Saturday afternoon talks at the Gwangju International Center. Look for international groups based at the universities and elsewhere.
I have always preferred to get my information about a country directly from a person who has lived there as opposed to a news outlet, be it TV or print. In my experience, if you strike up a conversation with someone about their country, heritage, and national identity, they will happily talk about it, knowing you are genuinely interested in it and nonjudgmental of what they tell you. They sense you simply want to learn about the world and its people from primary sources. Give it a try sometime. You can view Raqib’s work in the Photos section on his Facebook page, which is public. You can also find “Apu’s Cartoons” as a separate page on Facebook.
Doug Baumwoll, a professional writer and editor for 25 years, trains in-service teachers in writing skills and methodology. His personal writing interests include visionary and speculative fiction, climate change, energy, and social justice. He is the founder of SavetheHumanz.com.