If Anju Sabu woke up one morning as a shark, she’d prefer being Carcharodon carcharias, commonly known as the great white shark. “They are a bit of loners, and yet, can hang around in a group,” she says.
“They have qualities no other fish has,” she adds. “But ultimately, we have to realise that being a shark or any other animal comes with limits that only humans can overcome,” she tells South First.
Sharks can’t protect themselves, but humans can help, no?
In her early 40s, the Nagercoil-born Sabu is a shark-fluencer. Creator of the Oh, Dakuwaqa series, Sabu loves drawing sharks and interests people with some jawsome theories.
‘The Shark’ is the main character of her comics. “The Shark is funny, snarky, and frustrated with human opinion of sharks,” she says.
The smiley, grey-finned creature is dapper-looking. Sometimes, it dons goggles and a tie; some other times, it is a top-notch saxophonist.
Whether it is a male or a female is for the readers to guess. “I hadn’t even decided if it has a gender because that might box it in,” Sabu clarifies.
Currently, Sabu spends time between Nagercoil in Kanniyakumari district and Chennai, where she enjoyed summers as a child with her maternal grandparents.
After pursuing an engineering degree, she also pursued MBA. Today, she works in IT for a multispecialty hospital. But given another chance to do it all over, she would pick art!
Quite a few people in her family are artistic or can draw. As a kid, Sabu was always encouraged to draw or paint.
“Unfortunately, in our country, we cannot change our educational paths once we’ve decided in high school [too young to make such big life-changing decisions] and our parents help us to the best of their knowledge to do something ‘steady’.”
As a child, she drew a lot of cartoons. She was pretty much influenced by every major comic or character in pop culture. Then between 2005 and 2006, she started a personal blog and used some cartoons to illustrate stories.
“I doodled sharks as early as the 90s and started using them in the cartoons and comics I was drawing for my blog.”
A shark tale
But why the interest in sharks?
“I think I was fascinated with sharks the minute I got to know about them. It was a few things: Nat Geo documentaries my dad and I used to watch together, ‘Sharks’ book by Ron and Valerie Taylor published by Reader’s Digest that we had at home, and of course, ‘Jaws’ the film,” she recalls.
“There is something about them — graceful, different, and just interesting compared to other sea creatures.”
Based on a novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws portrays sharks as mindless killing machines. That narrative needs to change, Sabu felt.
“It is important to know and understand that movies are fictional and that sharks cannot be simply villainised.”
So, Sabu uses her comics to spread facts and awareness about these majestic creatures “to inform people about the reality that very few shark species are dangerous and even those don’t have a murderous agenda”.
Her initial comics showed more human-shark interaction while the later ones focused on awareness about sharks.
She realised her toons had become a major hit when some shark conservationists from other countries asked her to make comics for a cause.
She also started making shark merchandise and sells them through third-party websites. “Prints and commissioned pieces are always available on request.”
Sabu has also done six exhibitions so far.
The first was Comic Con in Bengaluru in 2013. Then she did ‘Sharkartoons’ in 2015 — a small exhibit at a café in Chennai where she displayed 10 pieces for a month.
The following year in Bristol, Sabu won the logo contest at Finfighter’s Sharkfest. That same year, her work was displayed at the Spoken Word movement in 2016 at an art meet in Chennai.
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Sabu has also worked on shark conservation in other capacities.
“I have made commissioned and auction pieces for shark conservation organisations across the world. My first one was for a Taiwanese group that brought the practice of finning to my attention. I’ve done work for The Shark Trust (UK), HHH (Norway), Project Aware (UK), #MakeTime4Makos campaign for The Shark League (UK), and Save Our Seas Foundation.”
In the backdrop of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, Sabu feels it is critical to have healthy sharks in healthy oceans to have a healthy planet.
“Humans kill 100 million sharks every year. Most of them are by the cruel method of finning, where the fins are cut off and sold for shark fin soup. The rest of the shark is discarded back into the ocean where they drown.”
Another major threat is overfishing.
“Rather than using evidence/science and engaging in dialogue with local fishermen to fish in a sustainable way, greed has driven people to fish without limits. This does not allow top predators like sharks to reproduce fast enough to maintain the right balance in the ecosystem. Without healthy sharks, the other fish multiply too much and that leads to depletion of corals and creates changes in the ecosystem. The reefs supply much of the oxygen that is needed to replenish the earth. Messing up this system will lead to grave consequences.”
Sabu brings up such trivia in her comics quite effortlessly. It doesn’t ever feel like she is aimlessly advocating something. Her shark comics are humorous and yet hit the right note.
When we ask her for some trivia, Sabu goes: “There are over 500 species of sharks (and more being discovered); sharks have existed longer than dinosaurs; sharks have a fantastic array of senses that enable them to be apex predator; there are sharks that can switch between cold-blooded and warm-blooded; sharks don’t kill for fun or pleasure — and can go for days without feeding if they’ve eaten a full meal.”
The Dakuwaqa in Sabu’s shark comics series is a Fijian mythological figure.
“The Fijian Shark God was regarded as the most ferocious of all Gods that protected the reefs and ocean. He was a shape-shifter and had the ability to morph into anything. However, my comic is not about Dakuwaqa nor is my character named Dakuwaqa.”
She named her comic series ‘Oh, Dakuwaqa!’ to make it a sharky twist on the phrase ‘Oh, God!’
Finally, a multi-million-dollar question to this artist: Has she met a shark in the seas ever? Sabu isn’t too happy answering this.
“Sadly, I’ve only been on one dive, and for some strange reason, every single plan of mine to swim with sharks has been thwarted by major natural causes,” she rues. “So for now, I am keeping myself satisfied by trying to visit every shark-friendly aquarium I can. The first time I saw one in person was at the Shedd Aquarium. You can’t stop looking at them. No one wants to move away from the shark tank.”
Someday, she hopes, she can print a book on her sharks.
You can follow her work at OhDakuwaqa.com.
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(Prutha Bhosle Chakraborty is a freelance journalist. With over nine years of experience in different Indian newsrooms, she has worked both as a reporter and a copy editor)