ASTANA – An anonymous author has created an Instagram account @abaicartoons with illustrated quotes from “The Book of Words” by famous Kazakh poet, philosopher, educator and founder of Kazakh written literature Abai Qunanbayuli. The account has gained over 6,000 followers since its launch in early July.
Asignificant figure in Kazakh history, Abai translated the works of Russian and European authors such as Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Krylov, Alexander Pushkin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Lord Byron into Kazakh, most of them for the first time. He also worked to develop Kazakh education and was a reformer in the spirit of rapprochement with Russian and European culture on the basis of enlightened liberal Islam. His major and most famous work, “The Book of Words,” is a philosophic treatise and collection of poems which encourages Kazakh people to embrace education, literacy and good moral character in order to escape poverty, enslavement and corruption.
“Abai has always been an important part of our cultural heritage; Kazakh children grow up memorising his poems by heart from an early age. However, Abai’s works have never been presented in a new and exciting format, such as cartoons or comics. I believe that classical literature should be revived in many different ways, because with each retelling, we discover something new about the work and about ourselves. I think the project became popular because everyone loves Abai and my cartoons just made him more accessible,” said the anonymous author in a recent interview with The Astana Times.
“I memorised his poem, ‘Don’t brag until you find knowledge’ in fourth grade and it has been stuck in my head ever since. It is a poem about the different traits of human character and as a child I loved its upbeat rhythm and easy rhymes. While studying in college, I read and re-read ‘The Book of Words,’ writing down my favourite passages in my sketchbook,” he added.
“The Book of Words” became an inspiration for the project’s creator, who decided to remain unidentified. Followers only know his nickname, DidarKM, which is written in every illustration.
“I chose to be anonymous because I wanted my followers to concentrate on Abai’s words, not me. However, despite my continuous requests to stay anonymous, I am often asked by journalists to reveal personal details, such as occupation, age, hometown and gender. For now, I plan on staying anonymous for as long as I can,” he said.
One of the most interesting things about the project is that all the quotes in the illustrations are in English, so the author not only draws Abai in a modern way, he translates his words.
“Translating directly from Kazakh is a very challenging task, as Abai’s works include obsolete words or specific Islamic terms that need to be contextualised. I try to concentrate on delivering the meaning as opposed to doing a dry, word-for-word translation,” said DidarKM.
Choosing the cartoon format to deliver Abai’s words of wisdom to the audience is very unusual combination.
“I was always fascinated with how comics and cartoons can be used to convey complex messages. One of my favourite works is ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman, the only Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel. ‘Maus’ showed me that the deceptively-simple format of comics can be used to explain difficult cultural concepts because of their universality. A lot of people in Kazakhstan say they feel like they can find a part of themselves in Abai’s works. In my simple, minimalist cartoons, this concept is visualised. We are Abai,” said the anonymous artist.
DidarKM said he chooses quotes he thinks are interesting and memorable, while also picking controversial passages that might fuel an interesting discussion.
“I love symbolism, so I choose quotes with concrete objects that I can illustrate,” he said.
As the project has gained so much popularity and positive feedback, Abaicartoons’ author announced the illustrations will be available for sale as cards. The proceeds will benefit the victims of nuclear radiation in the Semey region, Abai’s birthplace.
“It’s an opportunity to share my culture’s wisdom with the rest of the world in an accessible format. And more importantly, it is something that I love to do,” said the cartoonist.