Sketching Tibetan Cartoons

[Guestpost by Jamyang Phuntsok]

As a schoolboy I remember picking up English newspapers to look at the comic strips and having the hardest time figuring out what they actually meant. I never understood the joke or the story, if there was one. I didn’t even like the drawings that much. Yet, I routinely pored over them along with halfhearted attempts at the crossword and word puzzles. It was rather wondrous for me that newspapers carried these light entertainments between such opaque objects as stock market figures and the news of international politics.

The cartoon that the Tibetan newspaper ‘Bhoe-kyi-duebhab’ carried was impenetrable on an altogether different level. Had I been a more prudent or dedicated reader of the paper, I’d have certainly written letters to their editor complaining about the arcanity of their cartoons. They could have been Zen koans. But there was one that I remember making sense to me – about two (Tibetan) journalists complaining about special treatment accorded to foreign ‘journalists’ at Gangkyi. That cartoon struck me as quite pertinent and topical.

One of my first series of cartoons in 2011 was based on my imagining of two Khampa men traveling around on their horses, far removed from law and civilization. I equipped them with swords and primitive rifles (called ‘bhura khadhong’ in my Dege dialect) and set them upon a land filled with bandits and ghosts. Also, at that time I had watched ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ which may have influenced the dynamics between my two Khampas.

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In 2012, I went to the Kalachakra at Bodhgaya and, afterwards, on a pilgrimage of several Buddhist sites in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Instead of inspiring any profound religious sentiments, those travels pushed me into musings about a nice cup of chai. At Varanasi, I had the best cups of chai in my life and I ended up doing a cartoon about it:

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So, I happened across one of my favorite subjects of cartoon – Lord Buddha. Religion is often an easy and justified target of satire and humor but they weren’t my main motivation. I was more interested in thinking about the Buddha as a person who I would’ve really liked to meet. I figured he’d have a healthy sense of humor.

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If I remember our weekly Buddhist teachings at CST Paonta correctly, misquoting or misrepresenting the Buddha is like hitting a jackpot of seriously bad karma. To sidestep this moral black hole, I introspect about my motivation and often end up with this somewhat affirmative question – “Surely, the Buddha himself wouldn’t mind these silly cartoons?”

A less problematic subject, karmically at least, is our Tibetan society. Like any good old society, it is full of hierarchies, absurdities, and hypocrisies. Any half-serious cartoonist would do well to explore and expose these inconsistencies. In fact, his or her eyes should gleam at  the plethora of low-hanging fruits. Some these to be laughed at, some to be laughed with.

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Then there is laughing at oneself. I encountered this notion when I recently did another cartoon featuring two Khampa men. This time I was less interested in the geographical or historical setting but more in the ‘Khampa-ness’ of my two characters. Certainly, this is a subject that extends well beyond the scope of mere cartoons. I just tried scratching the surface and guess what I found? Contradiction and swear words.

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