The Art Wants What It Wants

By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

In conversation with Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy on life and art

We’re meeting at a café after three long years. We grab our hot bevvies – Americano for him, tea for me – and find a seat amidst the bustling action. He’s just back from his first overseas trip with his wife and has that fresh travel glow. I remark on it and he says he’s in the best shape of his life. I believe it too. He asks me where I am in terms of life and art, and I make the typical millennial adulting-is-hard excuses. He spears me with that discerning eye – that combination of empathy and scrutiny, and cuts through the noise with two words: peer pressure. And once again, I am reminded why Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy, editorial cartoonist extraordinaire, founder of the Cartoon People community, is the fantastic artist that he is.

Swimming against the tide

Tanmoy is no stranger to the kind of peer pressure placed by society on artists. If you’ve seen his Draw My Life video, you’ll know it took a lot of courage, overcoming self-doubt and peer pressure to embark on his career as a cartoonist to begin with. His own struggles with making it as a cartoonist, turning it into a viable career choice prompted him to create space for other aspiring artists, and this is how Cartoon People was born. Tanmoy has used this platform to guide and mentor budding artists, to highlight their work through various live and online challenges, and it is this vision that guides his journey into publications today.

“Any expression, creative or not will be challenged and questioned, once you let it out in the world. If you express yourself only to receive pressure, think of it as a reward. Because if you are expressing yourself, but no one cares, it means your expression is not strong enough to make a change”
~ Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy

I raise the point about unfair expectations and limited resources. The answer Tanmoy provides is not quite what I was expecting. “I think a person needs to understand that there is no level playing field in this world. By that what I mean is, it is not that your peers don’t want good things for you. It is just they have a different reality than yours. Everyone does! Someone may be wealthier than others, but not healthier. Someone can be healthy and hard-working but poor. Someone can be talented, but lack networking skills. The opposite could be true. The point is, everyone has unique experiences, and can only offer suggestions from their relative perspective. These might not work for you if your reality is different. You need to embark on your own journey to understand yourself.”

Tanmoy’s tips for approaching a career in a creative field

  1. Go slow and keep your options open. Enjoy yourself, but build a financial fallback that can sustain you throughout your career.
  2. Don’t get distracted by the financial fallback plan. I’ve seen too many promising young artists pick up a job to pay for their artistic goals, but then get too burnt out on the job to pursue their original dream.
  3. Don’t burden yourself with too many commitments. If you’re struggling to juggle family, work, and creative projects, prioritize and minimize before you burn out. And PSA – it’s okay to be a little ‘selfish’ and say no.
  4. Do it for yourself, not for external validation. Make it about you and your process. You are doing it because you love it, enjoy the journey. Everything else will follow.

About building career in a creative field, in Bangladesh I say: Double the work and triple the achievements. We’re still lacking a proper support infrastructure for artists, which means if you’re in the field, you essentially have to be your own manager/promoter/PR on top of being a creative – a problem I see fixing itself in the near future. But also because the industry is so new, even the smallest achievement is celebrated by the masses. The competition isn’t cutthroat yet.

One has to wonder why all of these hardships and sacrifices are worth it, given the actual economic realities of the world today. Tanmoy talks about an epiphany he had during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This was right at the beginning, when paranoia was peaking, people had very little information, and we were seeing the mortality rates shooting up every day. I’d come into contact with someone who tested positive the next day, and just hearing this, I started feeling symptoms, and immediately isolated myself. You can imagine, at that point, I was convinced I was dying. What’s interesting is, the thing that bothered me most in that moment was not my loneliness, or concerns for my loved ones; it was regret over all the stories I haven’t finished telling.” It was the realization of the truth of his passion for his craft that made him set his priorities straight. Already with a decades-long career in editorial cartooning behind him, several highly acclaimed projects, including the Mujib comic series under his belt, he is now embarking on the journey of ‘Cartoon People Comics’- A Bangladeshi comic book and children book publishing house, from where he aims to tell quality visual stories. CPC’s first publication, “Cartoon People Comics Volume 1” is a delightful compendium of 18 strip comics by the country’s newest and brightest talents, and is available for purchase from the Cartoon People Facebook page. “I am also starting my own fantasy super hero comics series called ‘Rustom Palowan’ which will be out this November” he adds.

“Art is a way of learning who you are”
– Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy

The metamorphosis that Tanmoy experienced during the lockdowns and pandemic paranoia has made him think deeply about the relationship between art and mental health. It’s a topic he’s dabbled with since the days of the Milkshake Collective shows, and has been invited to speak on the same on many panels, so it stands to reason that he was approached by his followers and friends for his perspective as they struggled to make sense of the new normal.

“We only understand the value of art in difficult times. For example, when your life is going well, a song is just a song. You don’t think much about it. But when you are grieving someone’s death or a left behind place, maybe that song is your only tether to that person and time” he says, adding “So during lockdown, drawing and coloring became a better healing process for many of us than any other therapy. And those artists who do this for living and had an art block during pandemic, they tried other mediums like photography, dance, craft to re generate their creative juice”

With a beautiful studio to call his own, a supportive partner and two adorable furbabies, a slew of achievements on his metaphorical trophy shelf, a brand new publishing house to call his own, and a number of passion projects simmering on the pot, it’s hard not to feel happy for Tanmoy, who says he is ‘doing all the things that would make 12-year-old Tanmoy proud”.

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