Interview with Graphic Novelist & Artist Orijit Sen

Orijit Sen is widely regarded as one of the most influential names in the comics scene in India. The author of India’s first graphic novel, River Of Stories, a graduate from NID and the co-founder of People’s Tree, Orijit Sen is involved with several exhibition and museum design projects in India, the United Kingdom and Russia.

Archita: As a child, did you always want to be an artist?

Orijit: Yes…I have always been drawing as far as I remember. I would collect and read comics..And I started drawing my own comics at the age of twelve. So yes, I loved art and was very much involved with drawing and telling stories. But you know how it is growing up in a middle class family…The option of being a artist wasn’t something really open to me as a kid..And I always believed I would be a doctor or engineer as my parents wanted me to be but at some point I started to think. I didn’t want to be a doctor or engineer and I wanted to pursue something in art but at the same time I was told by everyone including my teachers and parents and others that there is no future being an artist, etc so I went through a certain amount of stress and rebellion and all that. But it was probably when I was in high school that I decided that come what may I’m going to be an artist.

A: So how did you convince your parents and teachers?

O: (laughs) Well to be honest..I used to be good in academics and come second or third in class etc so I realized that as long as I keep being good at that the expectation would be that I would pursue something along those lines and it would be difficult to convince anyone otherwise I started hanging out with the so-called bad boys of my class and I stopped studying very hard..even ended up failing in a couple of exams… Eventually my teachers and parents started to say “Okay this fellow doesn’t have a future in academics so perhaps what else can we consider?”
And I had a really good art teacher. He was a great source of inspiration and he always had faith in me and said “You can be an artist, you have it in you, and you’re really good.” So I got a lot of support and confidence from my art teacher.

A: What sort of art do you most identify with? Like, resonates with you or inspires you in some way?

O: All kinds. As an artist, I’m open to inspiration from all sources. Like when I first started drawing my comics I was very inspired by Tintin and Mandrake and Phantom and Amar Chitra Katha,even Nonte Phonte. I started drawing basically because my older brother used to draw and I would imitate whatever he did. But then as I grew I went onto design school and in their library I came across a lot of great artwork..At that time…I’m talking of the mid 1980s Art Spiegelman’s Maus had just been published and the library had a copy of it and I came across that and was very inspired by that at that point of time. And for the first time I realized wow that my interest in comics wasn’t something that is only for kids Even in design school, my teachers thought that my obsession comics was childish. But then, Maus had won the Pulitzer Prize and was being talked about in serious circles a lot and so that gave me a lot of inspiration. And then further on from Maus I discovered other underground artists like Robert Crumb.
Also in my high school years my aunt from the US who used to pursue painting as a hobby had left behind a box of oil paints and a set of books about the old masters, the European Renaissance masters and from there I tried to imitate the quality of light and shadow and all that which I saw in their paintings. So my influences are very diverse, across media, across forms. From the European masters to the Woodcuts of Nandalal Bose. You know, when I was very young my mother would try to teach me Bengali by reading this book called Shahoj Path and I was very inspired by those illustrations.
And then later I came across filmmakers, photographers whose work was very inspiring. In my 30s or 40s I was looking at the work of contemporary artists from R.B Kitaj to David Hockney. More recently I’m enjoying the work of contemporary Indian artists.

A: So could you talk about your creative process in making a graphic novel?

O: Tirst book I did was River Of Stories that was published in 1994. That happened because I got involved in the environment movement when I was living in Delhi in the 90s. I was just out of design school. I got involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan through some friends who were part of the an organization called the Kalpavriksha..and I travelled to the Narmada Valley and when I went there I was very inspired by the people, their struggles against the building of the dam, the landscapes of the place, their lifestyles of the tribal people and I started thinking of a story around that.I travelled a lot ,sketched a lot. I did hundreds of sketches and a lot of photographs. It was before the days of digital photography so I took reels of pictures. I met people, I made notes, I talked to them.
So in a sense I’d say the process first begins with a thought that this is the kind of story I want to tell and then I start researching that story. I don’t have any fixed ideas about what the final form will be but I start collecting information and note down things that interest me. I’m very interested in collecting stories of people. When I came back to Delhi I started shaping all of that to kind of form different types of narrative style merging into each other. I was also very interested in the creation myth of the Narmada river. The Bhilala tribals have a beautiful creation myth about how the river was formed and an entire world shaped around it and I wanted to kind of bring that out. That when we as modern planners or nation builders think of rivers and forests as resources to be exploited for our purposes we lose that kind of connection. We don’t explain the existence of a world through the existence of a river and then we talk about “damming”a river and displacing thousands of people living along the river. For them the world is their river. You can’t just say, let’s move them somewhere else because their world is the river and without it their world collapses and they forget the meaning of their lives and they lose their history and mythology. So anyway I tried to wove in all the different stories and that’s how River Of stories took shape.

A: What is the best artist advice you’ve ever received?

O: Well, the one that made the most difference to me was the one from my art teacher. His advice was that I should have faith in myself and pursue my passion. Of course, everybody would like my drawings but he was the one who said, yes you can do it seriously, it ‘s not a hobby, it’s something you can devote your life to .And I probably needed someone to tell me that, to say to have faith in my passion instead of doing it as a side.

A: What is your dream project?

O: I’m lucky to be in a position to choose to do projects I like and not the ones I don’t get excited by. I’m able to make a living doing what I really love. So the dream projects are the ones I’m doing right now.

A: Could you talk about what you’re currently working on?
O: Well I’m a visiting professor at the Goa University where I can plan my own program and take courses with the students.  Both students and members of the public are welcome to join my program. I’ve been doing this project called Mapping Mapusa Market. Mapusa Market is an old market in Goa which has an amazing mix of contemporary and traditional crafts and food products. So while mapping the market, I started looking at different producers and the people and I took my students around and we documented through sketches, artwork, photography, videos and so currently this project is proving to be very fascinating. We’ve been collecting a variety of interesting materials which are all art-based outcomes of a particular way of looking at the market. And when we’ve done a segment we have a small exhibition in the market itself. So it’s been in a way in a very exciting public-art project and I’m hoping to build it up as an online resource of the Mapusa Market.
On the other hand I’m also working on a graphic novel based on the story of the last Dodo. I am creating a narrative around extinction and also trying to point to the fact that we, human beings as a species are working in a way that’s going to lead us to our extinction but we’re not really aware of it, much like the dodos. My story is about this one dodo who realizes that his species is going to become extinct and starts trying to save them.

A: What according to you is the most challenging part about creating a graphic novel?

O: For a lot of people, drawing in an effective and powerful way can be a very big challenge but for me drawing is the simpler part. It’s constructing the narrative in the initial stages and finding and structuring a story that I’m passionate about that’s challenging because making a graphic novel requires a lot of time and labour and we have to give in that amount of energy to sustain us throughout. I love telling stories that are complex and have layers of meaning but also at the same time simple and easy to read. And constructing a story with layers that interact with each other, as you’re working with layers of text and images …that’s quite challenging. But drawing is the part that I enjoy the most.

A: So drawing is your favourite part?

O: Yes it’s a different kind of satisfaction after I have the story sorted out and the drawing starts to flow naturally. By the time, I’m doing the final images I know it’s going to get better and better.

A: In terms of a reader’s experience, what do you think a graphic novel offers that other forms do not?

O: Well let’s say comics are a medium. And for me, graphic novels are a genre of comics. In India we tend to interchange the words a lot but I don’t like to obliterate the word “comics” as that’s where the history of the medium comes in. And the most exciting thing about comics is that it blends elements from literature, cinema, visual arts and then it’s a whole different medium of its own. And the two simultaneous dimensions in which graphic narratives unfold are time and space. In a screen, one image replaces the other and the next and it’s the director and not the viewer who has complete control. But in comics, all the moments in time exist at the same time. They don’t replace each other. All the moments in a graphic novel exist together in your hands and you may decide to spend one hour looking at a particular drawing or page. And as the reader you have complete control in structuring the pace. You experience it in your own time and own space. It can be an extended engagement. I make use of all these aspects. I might talk about something on page say 55 that has a reference to page 3 so the reader can flip back and see what it’s about and you can’t do that when you’re watching a movie in a hall.
As someone said the most important part about comics is not the frames themselves but the spaces in between the frames. In a comic, I show you one moment in a frame and in the next frame, another moment and in the space between the two frames, you fill it up with your imagination and surmise  what happened and you complete it in your mind. So I feel it’s a very dynamic and interactive medium.
The other important thing is that it combines text and image as linking and interpreting text activates a different part of your brain and looking at images activates another part so reading comics activates both which is why I guess some people get addicted to comics and others don’t like it at all.

A: So how important is text in a comic? I mean, it’s possible to tell a story without words, right?

O: Yes. That’s the versatility about comics. Some people rely on text alot, some people use it as a functional device. I tend to be very visual with my approach but text is an important element, and it is the interplay between text and image that interests me-how they complement, magnify or even contradict each other. Like in the Kabir’s story in PAO Anthology, if we read Kabir’s poetry on its own, it’s meaningful in a different way but when we see it in the context of the visual action in the story it brings new layers of meaning to it.

A: What is your opinion of the graphic novel scene in India?

O: When I first started out there was no such thing as graphic novels. I had to convince people to look at my work.

A: But now?

O: Things have changed a lot. There’s so much of publishing and new work coming up, some of which is exciting, some of which is mediocre. It isn’t that highly developed, but it’s moving that way.

A: So what steps can be taken to ensure that the public takes an interest in graphic novels by Indian artists?

O:I think more high quality work needs to come out,for the public to take a sufficient interest. There is some good work, but it’s also so scattered.

A: Do you think young artists interested in the medium, should receive proper training?

O: Yes, it would help if there was a good institute with good faculty and good course designs.

A: How have the places you travelled influenced your work?

O: My work has always been about my own life and experiences and what I see around me. I have a great interest in researching about the reality around me, be it the Narmada Valley or Mapusa Market. I love for my work to be seen by international audiences but I don’t aim for international audiences. My work remains around India and my life in a part of it. I’m not a patriotic or India-centric fellow. It’s just that this is my reality and this is what interests me. Travelling and having my work seen in other countries, has helped me in turn to see my work from other, newer perspectives

A: I read online you have a shop called the “People Tree”. Could you talk about that?

O: It’s something that my wife runs. She’s the main force behind it. We were students together at NID and we started it in1990 as an independent initiative. As designers we often design things for clients, but we also wanted to create arts and crafts that set its own agenda instead of simply responding to a client’s specifications. It’s been over 25 years and now in Delhi, it’s almost like an iconic space.

A: What is your message for aspiring young artists?
O:My message is well…what my teacher told me years before “Have faith. Go for it. As long as you are passionate about art, nothing can come your way.” You shouldn’t worry about your bread and butter. It’ll come, but yiur main concern is to be an artist, regardless of how much money you make. Of course I had to struggle in my early years and do odd jobs to make ends meet. Yes there will be challenges and setbacks, and you have to be prepared to make certain sacrifices. For me it was a personal decision. I was happy doing my art, and the fact that my friends who went on to become doctors are making more money doesn’t bother me.

A: What sort of a legacy would you like to leave behind?

O:(laughs)I don’t know. I’m not interested in my legacy. I’m happy that my work is known and seen and loved and enjoyed. I’m happy that River Of Stories helped to create the a graphic novel culture in India, indirectly or directly. I’m not consciously building a legacy. It’s for others to decide after I’m dead or retired or whatever. Right now, I’m happy with the path I chose to follow.

This interview was taken early 2015.
Picture Credit


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