Laughing at Own Cartoons: Interview with Chin Cartoonist Vapual
14 June 2011 [CG Note: Chin cartoonist Pu Chan Thawng Ling, better known as Vapual, is a much-acclaimed talent that has made enormous contribution of cartoons to the Chin literature since 1980s.
Admitting he also laughs when he looks at his own cartoons, the 44-year-old singer, composer and educator talks about how he started drawing, his achievements, and the Chin public on their understanding of arts in general.
Pu Chan Thawng Ling currently lives with his wife and five children in Aizawl, Mizoram State, India, running a private boarding school.]
Chinland Guardian: When did you start drawing cartoons and what motivated you to do so?
Vapual: I started drawing cartoons when I was in the Third Standard. Our brother Pu Thang Cung Nung was staying at our house in Hakha while he was studying. He was interested and good at drawing cartoons. By looking at some of his books, I remembered drawing some from them. In addition, I was also somehow motivated by drawings by my elder brother Pu Tawk Cung (PPP) and his friends. I clearly remember secretly sneaking into my father’s office and taking some blank papers to draw cartoons on.
Chinland Guardian: Did you take any drawing lessons during your childhood?
Vapual: While I was in High School, my mother used to bring some tutorial books on cartoons for me from Rangoon. Besides, my visit to Pu Saw Duh Luai, from Falam, and research with him also contributed a great deal to my understanding and skill. I was practicing most of the times out of my interests, and drawing on my own initiatives.
My father subscribed to a cartoon magazine called ‘Shwe Thway’ for us while I was in Primary School and I got familiar with Burmese and the cartoons in it. It was in 1982 that I first drew cartoons, which were used in the Thantlang magazine. And I continued drawing cartoons for the Chokhlei (Rhododendron) magazine published by Chin university students in Rangoon. However, I didn’t have any formal lessons or classes for drawing cartoons.
Chinland Guardian: How did you improve your skills and keep abreast of the current trend?
Vapual: I joined an arts school for two years while I was at Rangoon University. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish the course as there was political unrest in the former capital. During closures of universities in Burma in 1988, my friend Hruai Tu and I went to Aizawl, Mizoram State, India. It was the time when the late Chin cartoonist Pu Hram Tlai was about to travel to Chin State, and we looked after his shop for five months. I had a chance to learn about oil painting, which I didn’t happen to study at Rangoon University.
When I went back to Thantlang Town, Chin State, Burma, I opened a summer art school for children. I was so happy to see that my student won the first prize of drawing competition held in Hakha, the capital of Chin State. Of course, I had to admit that I improved my skill of drawings during the course of my work as an instructor.
Chinland Guardian: What do you find most challenging when drawing cartoons?
Vapual: Drawing is not an issue at all. One of the most important parts of a cartoon is an idea behind it. To tell you the truth, having an idea is one of the most challenging parts. If I had some ideas, I could sit throughout the night drawing one cartoon after another. My interest is to draw a cartoon that gives some sorts of ‘morally constructive’ messages and leaves some space for the public to think.
Chinland Guardian: Have you ever had any personal confrontation or negative feedbacks due to your cartoons?
Vapual: I have never come across any incidents as such so far. Sometimes, the fact that the Chin people do not properly understand the value of drawings makes me feel dissatisfied. For instance, people would drive a hard bargain, not knowing the price of drawings is not the same as that of other items. At times, I feel like giving them for free of charge. Some people who understand the value of drawings give us positive comments and encouragement, which are actually priceless.
Chinland Guardian: We learned that there was an exhibition of your cartoons in Aizawl, Mizoram State, and that the Mizoram government was willing to introduce them to their school curriculum. Tell us more.
Vapual: Mostly, I drew cartoons at my leisure time, just out of my interest and passion. They were not initially intended whatsoever for anyone to see. If I am not mistaken, it was in 2002 that I started posting some of my cartoons to a Yahoo group email called ‘Rungcin’. Later, my friend H. Hmun Siam asked me if he could translate into Lushei language and in 2003, a booklet of my cartoons about protection of wildlife animals was published. The book was actually launched by Deputy Speaker of Mizoram Government and I believed it was the first book of its kind ever published in Mizoram State, India.
In 2009, the first solo wildlife cartoon exhibition of my work was organised in Aizawl and it was opened by Mizoram Chief Secretary Pu Vanhela Pachuau. Mizoram Government officials including Chief Minister Pu Lal Thanhawla and wife gave me good comments in support of my artistic works. Pu Hawla told me that he would inform the Education Department of the possibility of putting the cartoons into the curriculum. It was also clearly written in the Mizoram Daily news. But it hasn’t been implemented yet as far as I know.
Chinland Guardian: Share with us the responses you received from the Chin public.
Vapual: I think we, the Chin, are still in the initial stage of appreciating cartoons, let alone drawing itself. It is discouraging but somehow related to the political situation of our country. As an artist, I clearly know that it is not yet possible to make a living out of Fine Arts in our area although a meagre amount of income could possibly be made from , for instance, signboard and billboard drawings. It is very sad to see that some talented young Chin artists would do something else to make a living rather than drawing or painting that they are actually interested in and good at. As I have said, it is because of the ongoing situation of political instability in our country. However, we shouldn’t give up.
Chinland Guardian: Do you also laugh when you look at your own cartoons?
Vapual: To be honest, I am a kind of person who can laugh alone. Well, I actually laugh when I look at some of my cartoons that I have kind of forgotten.
Chinland Guardian: As the Chin public are still new to almost any forms of arts, tell us more about cartoons and how many cartoons do you think you have drawn so far?
Vapual: Yea, there are many art forms, genres and styles. In order for us to understand in general, we may divide into realism, modernism and abstract art. These arts are sometimes very complicated and not easy for the public to understand. In the artist’s point of view, I find them very interesting and deep as well as satisfying.
I think I have drawn between 2,000 and 3,000 different cartoons associated with culture, religion, politics, education, environment and wildlife protection. At least 25 different magazines, journals and newsletters have used them in their publications in Mizoram State, India and in Burma until today.
Chinland Guardian: Anything you would like to share with us…
Vapual: There are many talented young people out there, with no access to proper education, especially in the fields of arts. It is my hope that these people be encouraged and guided toward improving their interests and skills as well as talents, and that we find the ways for them.
I strongly believe that it will be a benefit to the Chin community if we can publish and distribute, for instance, a cartoon book about protection of wildlife animals in our own language that our people in the villages can read, understand and enjoy.
Interview by Van Biak Thang