The calm of his whitewashed studio walls is a far cry from the frenzy he recently created on social media. Sitting with his laptop, Orijit Sen straddles the real and virtual almost nonchalantly. Early this year, the 53-year-old graphic artist and satirist trended on social media. Two of his nude artworks were blocked by Facebook as they violated its community standards. This led to an outpouring of support from friends, fans and followers; and of course, he was trolled.
Since then, Sen has become increasingly vocal about his opinions on the burning issues of the day – from Donald Trump to sedition – in the way he knows best: through art. His illustration on Rohith Vemula’s suicide has taken the form of posters during recent protests in solidarity with JNU from New Delhi to New York.
Most recently, he was in the news for his work at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Sen and his team spent a month creating larger-than-life (ranging from seven to 12 feet tall) installations of his favourite characters from literature. There was Anna Karenina, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Napolean from Animal Farm and more. Made of materials that people can easily identify and connect with – bamboo, paper, wire, fabric – these installations became pitstops for selfies at the festival.
Back at his studio, the artist sits rolling a cigarette at the far end of a room that was once an industrial shed. There are framed old posters of Baba Marx, Chai Guevara and Bob Mali – some of Sen’s older works. He’s dressed in the way interesting people in Delhi often are: fashionable, yet kind of bohemian. We expected nothing less because Sen, along with his wife Gurpreet Sidhu, founded People Tree – the iconic artisanal clothing and accessory brand. He begins to tell us the story of his life and work – and for the next two hours, the twinkle never leaves his eyes.
An artist is born
“My father was a cartographer who’d get posted along India’s borders. I developed an interest in landscapes on those trips with him. I could also read maps and the maps told me stories,” Sen says. With no internet or TV, the only visual art he could lay his hands on were comics. When his mother tried to teach him Bangla using Tagore’s Sahaj Path, he was more fascinated by Nandalal Bose’s beautiful linocut illustrations in the book instead. “I never did learn to read in the language fluently, but I started drawing because of that book.”
While studying at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Sen discovered a whole new world of art. “Comics were considered childish; even by my teachers. But when I came across Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (which later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992), I felt vindicated.”
After graduating, he became involved with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. His first full-length comic, River of Stories (1994), became the story of those people and their struggle.
Sen and Sidhu founded People Tree in what used to be her grandfather’s diagnostic lab in Connaught Place. “When we opened it in 1991, it was musty with thousands of test tubes and chemicals lying about.” The couple cleared it up, hung T-shirts on a clothesline, and painted to music playing in the background. In no time, it became a trendy hangout for Delhi’s hip crowd. In 2012, the duo opened a branch of the eco-fashion store in Goa.
Idea of ‘Self-Censorship’
Late last year, Sen posted a nude illustration titled Punjaban on Facebook. [The illustration shows a woman wearing high heels, tying the string of her pyjama while looking at herself in the mirror. The rest of her body is bare. A whip lies on the floor.] The artist says, “The social network has a no-female-nipple policy, but nude artworks are supposedly fine. I decided to test them out.”
Within 15 minutes, his post – which had already gone viral – was reported. It was taken off soon after, along with the hundreds of likes, comments and shares. Over the next few days people began posting iconic nudes from art history like Michelangelo’s David. “It was a celebration of expression, nudity, sexuality and art!”
A week later, Punjaban was restored on his page. A minor battle was won. And so, Sen created another nude She Came In Through The Bathroom Window with the sole intention of provoking. It too was removed and hasn’t been restored yet. “I intend to do more such work,” he says.
Sen was rebellious even in school: he was bright and it was assumed that he would be an engineer or a doctor. “I deliberately performed poorly, so that I could become an artist.” Today, he believes we are living in a time when “people are creating an atmosphere of fear so that other people shut up even before they say anything.” It reminds him of school when teachers, prefects or bullies evoked fear to nip a voice of dissent in its bud. “This has made me think of the idea of ‘self-censorship’.” And why he intends to speak up on burning issues of the day:
“I am Hindu, upper caste, educated and a man – I have all possible safeguards a person in India can have. If I don’t speak out, who will?”
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From HT Brunch, March 13, 2016
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