January 21, 2014

Story Boxes: Orijit Sen

By Payal Khandelwal

When River of Stories was first published in 1994, most bookshops refused to stock it as it didn’t fit into any of the categories that they displayed. “Perhaps they weren’t sure of what to make of the contents either,” says Orijit Sen, the book’s author who is now often referred to as the first graphic novelist of India. Sen, in his early thirties, spent about three years of his life on his “magnum opus”. The book was created and produced with the help of a small grant that Kalpavriksh — a Delhi based group of environmentalists that Sen was active with — secured from the Ministry of Environment. Initially, the book was only stocked in the design and crafts shop People Tree in Delhi, which Sen had started with his wife.

River-Double-spread

While the initial days were disheartening, today Sen is happy that his book has inspired many people. He says, “I think the work of people like Sarnath, Parismita, Amruta, Vishwajyoti, Appupen and many others has really opened up the possibilities of the kind of subjects and styles that the genre can encompass today. Publishers, the media, and some arts funding organisations have been receptive enough to support the trend.” He, however, is “cautiously optimistic” about the state of the art these days. Even though Indian comics have come a long way since 1994, a genuine, diverse and thriving graphic novel or comics culture is not exactly round the corner and the genre definitely needs more passionate publishers and promoters, he feels.

While the market has undoubtedly matured a bit now, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for graphic novelists had always been the perception that anything with pictures and text is a comic book targeted at children. Sen’s comics universe is much larger than that. “Comics (or ‘Comix’) is the name the medium acquired in its early existence as a contemporary form of popular, graphic storytelling, with its own visual language and conventions. Eventually, great practitioners of the medium expanded its universe — creating wonderful characters, stories and artworks in the process. When we discard the term ‘Comics’, we also discard the incredibly rich history that goes with it.” He puts ‘Graphic Novel’ as a genre under comics that usually features a long narrative authored by one or two collaborators, which is often political, or ‘adult’ oriented and smaller in format than traditional comics.

Talking about the themes in his work, Sen says that he is very inspired by the many histories and diverse geographies of the Indian subcontinent. “I’m interested in depicting contemporary, closely observed realities (in both narration and art), and their confl icting interplay with alternative, historic and imagined realities.” He is also fascinated by the way people’s notions of the external world are shaped by the inner emotional and intellectual worlds they inhabit and graphic narration, he feels, is a particularly conducive medium for the exploration of such parallel realities. “It’s the way, for example, that Bill Watterson’s character Hobbes switches so effortlessly between being a stuffed doll and a walking talking tiger in the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ strips,” he says.

Emerald-Double-spread

Sen feels extremely moved and angered by the unjust and destructive nature of our society, and as an artist, feels compelled to engage with the social and ecological problems of our times. River of Stories is a thinly fictionalized version of the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ which critiqued the development model of that time. Sen actually spent time and worked with the Adivasi community which was being dislocated due to the dam project. He’s also worked on ‘‘Telling Tales”, a column for India Magazine, over a period of almost two years. His brief for the column was to collect real life stories from people around him — stories that revealed something interesting about contemporary Indian life — and turn them into comics. “The column presented a set of slice-of-life stories dealing with, among other things, the wit of a high class Hijra on the Rajdhani Express; the trials of adopting a new Buddhist name; the guilt of a teenage encounter with prostitutes etc.” He has also worked with local Manipuri artists to create comic books for HIV/AIDS related issues in Manipur.

River-p22

On the drawing board, Sen fills his story with deeper, sometimes very detailed research on one hand, and allows his imagination to run wild on the other. Talking about his creation process, he says, “My stories often emerge from small everyday observations or encounters and I like to build up narratives around these ‘seeds’ in my head over time. On paper, I usually begin by making a series of thumbnail sketches. I move these around, edit and make notes around them and I might simultaneously make larger sketches of a few individual frames to get a feel of the characters and visual styles.” For him, words come in well after the visual. “I approach them cautiously as words, dialogues and texts, if used carelessly, can flatten out the nuanced shades and multiplicities of meanings that images hold,” he says. The final stage is the making of the page layouts and artworks, now-a-days on his computer. “I draw the whole story as a series of double-spreads as I think of the double spread as the most important constituent unit of a comics narrative. As for the text, I type everything in but once it’s finalised, I handwrite on top of the typed layer as I prefer the final manual engagement, and the resultant personalized irregularity of it.”

Sen is currently working on Hair Burns Like Grass — a project inspired by Kabir’s poetry. Two chapters of this work-in-progress appeared in the Pao Anthology of Comics last year. He has also contributed a short piece of work in This Side That Side, an anthology on partition related graphic stories from various South Asian countries, curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.

Hair-Burns-Double-spread

 

 

 

This piece was first published in Kyoorius Magazine 16.

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