Quick on the draw: A Wknd interview with graphic novelist Orijit Sen - Hindustan Times
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Quick on the draw: A Wknd interview with graphic novelist Orijit Sen

ByNatasha Rego
Oct 07, 2022 03:55 PM IST

The system is designed to tame you, he says, and his job is to use words and imagery to foster resistance. One such effort, on the Narmada protestors, is now out in a special edition. It’s vital for artists to unite, but not always easy, Sen says.

Graphic artist Orijit Sen, 59, says he’s always harboured a deep distrust of authority. It started in high school. He recalls a story involving a close friend with whom he’d get into all kinds of trouble. One day, after catching them doing some mischief (“I can’t remember what it was exactly”), a teacher told them that they’d led each other astray. Their punishment? To slap each other as a way of apologising. Both refused, leaving the teacher to finally deliver those slaps.

 (Daniel Dsouza / HT Photo) PREMIUM
(Daniel Dsouza / HT Photo)

“It was a strategy to humiliate us, to break our bond, commit an act of violence on a friend and ally,” says Sen. “This is typically how governments around the world suppress people. The techniques that authorities use to exercise power over people come all the way from here.”

Rebellion and nonconformity have been a way of life for Sen. His debut graphic novel, River of Stories, came out in 1994 and was among India’s first non-fiction comic. The 74-page book captured the protestor’s side of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a massive movement in which central India’s tribal and farming communities joined activists to oppose the construction of dams on the Narmada. The protestors put everything they had into the resistance. Sen’s novel captured the local culture, the characters and the impact of displacement. In his story, superheroes don’t wear capes. Happy endings are rare.

River of Stories had an initial print run of 800 copies, but it has gone on to enjoy legendary status. It is now being re-released in a 25th anniversary edition by Blaft Publications, with forewords by Arundhati Roy and historian of comic books, Paul Gravett.

“It represents an important milestone in Indian comics, but it’s been out of print for years,” says Rakesh Khanna, editor of Blaft Publications. “Orijit had reservations at first about publishing the book in the same form; he wanted to make some touch-ups, maybe add something about the aftermath of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the evolution of the protest movement. Finally, as he writes in his introduction to the new edition, his daughter [the artist Pakhi Sen] convinced him, saying ‘This is history... Don’t meddle with it. Bring it out as it is!’”

A lot has changed in 25 years. Agitations against environmentally and socially destructive projects have risen in Odisha, Rajasthan, Karnataka, the North-East and in Goa, where Sen now lives with his wife, Gurpreet Sidhu. The nature of resistance has changed too. “Internet and social media platforms have allowed people to raise their voices, create ground support,” says Sen. “The same tools are being used to shut them down, to spread half-truths, lies and propaganda. Ironically private television channels are more easily controlled now than government programming back in the day.”

Watch: Orijit Sen - Wknd Video 1

Back in the day, it was a lonely time for comic artists, Sen says. There was no community for them yet. As young graphic design graduates, fresh out of Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, Sen and Sidhu set up People Tree in 1990. The store and crafts studio stood at the edge of Connaught Place in Delhi, and was a hub for artists and environmentalists, students and “people who fall into that general category of Left-leaning liberals,” says Sen.

It’s how he and Sidhu learnt about the Andolan and got involved with the NGO Kalpavriksh, which secured a government grant to print River of Stories. “I am proud of the fact that we secured an environment ministry grant to print this basically anti-government book,” says Sen.

Since River of Stories, he has published a number of short-form comics. Among them is Imung(1996), a comics-based community healthcare manual for caregivers in Manipur. Trash(1998) is a children’s book on ragpicking and recycling in India. The Night of the Muhnochwa (2003) is a fictional take on a spate of alien sightings reported from rural Uttar Pradesh in 2003. Portrait of the Artist as Old Dog is a story about ageing and appears in Dogs! An Anthology (2014).

With Vidhyun Sabhney, he also curated First Hand (2016), an anthology of graphic non-fiction from India. His own work, The Girl Not from Madras, appears in the book. It’s a true story about human trafficking, which he wrote with journalist Neha Dixit. More recently, he’s been working on the Graphic Series on Indian Agriculture and Food Security, for the non-profit Focus on the Global South.

“Whatever the assignment, I try to create comic-like things,” Sen says. The medium spreads the message well, he finds. Especially on Instagram, where he shares politically charged memes and comics to his 30,000 followers. No one is spared, not even the Prime Minister. “Before I push that post button, I think about whether I should do this or not,” says Sen. “But of course, I always do it.”

Now, finally, there’s a community of artists to work with. In 20008, Sen, along with comic artists Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Parismita Singh and Amitabh Kumar formed The Pao Collective, to meet and share ideas, review each other’s works, and bring out Pao: The Anthology of Comics published by Penguin in 2012. Last year, Sen started work on a dream project, Comixense, a quarterly comics magazine designed to divert children’s eyes away from screens and towards print.

“The scene is changing and growing,” he says. “There are other gatherings, of new ideas and ideals, new bonds between young creators, and everyone who has a story to tell can tell it.” There’s the Indie Comix Fest, a sort of anti-Comic-Con, a one-day fest held in five cities, where self-published comics artists can sell their work. “That democratic aspect is powering this new wave of comics in India.”

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