The cover of Comixense (Image courtesy: Orijit Sen)
In the last few years, not many would have missed Orijit Sen’s scathing visual satires. The Goa-based artist, known primarily for his work with graphic novels and comics, is a prolific satirist, commenting on Indian politics, politicians and policies. If you observe closely enough, Sen would probably be the name behind many viral cartoons and memes, including a recent one that reworked the famous 19th century Kalighat painting Woman Striking Man with Broom to indicate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in West Bengal in the recent Assembly elections.
The artist has defied easy categories, though. If his satirical images get shared on social media, Sen, 58, has also been part of notable art festivals, such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. It took him five years to make a permanent mural, detailed in its execution, at Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Sri Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. His influences are as varied as his art, drawing from Indian miniature painting, Robert Crumb’s cartoons, Moebius’ landscapes and Caravaggio’s chiaroscuros.
Sen is credited with creating India’s first graphic novel, River of Stories (1994), which looked at the fallouts of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. His lifelong interest in the genre has led to the inception of a new quarterly comics magazine called Comixense (available at comixense.com). Helmed by an editorial team consisting of Sen, Annie Sen Gupta and Francesca Cotta, Comixense brings together nine artists and writers, who populate its pages with curious characters — plague doctors, art-loving crash-test dummies and a seafarer in the whimsical Indian Ocean. Sen talks about what it means to bring out an Indian comics magazine, the role of satirical visuals and self-censorship.
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Agent Provocateur: Artist Orijit Sen (Image courtesy: Orijit Sen)
How did the idea of starting an Indian comics magazine come about?
The idea of a comics magazine has been a dream from when I was eight. My generation grew up steeped in comics culture. Prior to the existence of cable TV and the internet, comics were the only access to visual culture for young people. We exchanged comics, traded a Phantom for an Amar Chitra Katha. MAD magazine was a part of this milieu and we all really liked it for its humour and irreverence.
Comixense happened because of an educational foundation called Ektara Trust, which is the support and funding body of this magazine. I was approached by Sanjiv Kumar, the founder of Ektara Trust. He is an educationist and brings out a series of children’s magazines [in Hindi] already, such as Cycle and Pluto, which are distributed to a lot of schools. His work has a lot to do with building education beyond the school curricula. He approached me early last year and said he has been concerned about high school kids in the 13-18 age group. He noticed that they have completely gone off reading printed material and did all their reading on phone screens, have short attention spans, don’t go deeper into any subject. He said he would like to start a comics magazine because the medium can draw kids away from excessive addiction to the phone and spark a love for the printed page again.
Some stories in Comixense, such as “The Plague Doctor’s Apprentice”, are not set in India and are devoid of overt references to India. How do you define an ‘Indian’ comics magazine?
I have always asserted that Indian comics will not be defined by a certain style to be Indian. Even folk art isn’t Indian. They represent sub-cultures.
I don’t believe the form of the comic should self-consciously try to project an ‘Indianness’. The whole idea of Indianness is a complex one. I am more interested in looking for an idea of Indianness which is inclusive of diversity and a mix of tradition and modernity, tribal, urban, eastern and western (influences). In terms of content, I do want to see, from an editorial perspective, a mix of stories. It so happens that, in the next issue, all stories are set in India. But we, in India, need to understand that being narrow or parochial or inward looking doesn’t protect the idea of India. We should be fascinated and inspired by ideas across the world. We should be interested in stories from Florence as much as stories from India.
Sen’s cartoon captioned as ‘My Motto’ on his social-media accounts (Image courtesy: Orijit Sen)
Over the last couple of years and especially In the last month, your satirical critiques of the central government, including its handling of the pandemic and the BJP’s defeat in West Bengal, have gone viral. How do you react to this?
I usually create these works as a result of this sense of helpless frustration regarding the government or the right wing’s dismembering of democratic ideals. You speak up and protest but it seems like a juggernaut, unstoppable at times. A lot of my work combines images and words, because that is also what the comics medium is about. I am very attuned to the multiple meanings that emerge from the interplay of text and image. In language, you state ideas in linear progression; in image, you can say it at one go. When people are at a loss for words, they find my images as a way to express what they have been wanting to say. I feel vindicated when that happens, that I am able to give people a device through which they are able to communicate their point of view more powerfully to their friends and networks.
For a long time, you never signed the images that you posted on social media. In March, however, you wrote about an artist stamp that you designed, which could mean a lack of anonymity, too. What has brought about this change?
Whatever I create can go viral and need not always be credited to me. In some ways, that’s safety for me because, after a point, it’s not connected with my name anymore. A masked Modi and Shah became such a part of the anti-CAA protests that everybody was printing it and using it at protest sites. By then, it had gone beyond the fact that it was my work. It was just a collectively owned graphic.
But I thought that, at least for those who want to know, I created an artist stamp that identifies me as a creator. It’s not my name or my signature. I came across this 3D idea of ‘O’ and ‘S’ and then started thinking how every time I post my works, it’s like a throw of the dice for me. It’s hard for me to judge whether I have crossed a line or not. Sometimes I can feel my heart thumping a bit — what’s going to happen after I click this button? So it struck me that every time I post a work, there’s a bit of a gamble. Am I going to pay a price for it?
There are other artists, who are doing good work, who work under pseudonyms. But I feel that, as far as putting the work out there first is concerned, I want to stand by what I do. I don’t want to be an anonymous person. I do take responsibility for what I create. I admire artists who don’t flinch, don’t sugarcoat or stay at the level of suggestion, who are unequivocal about what they are saying. I remember (Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco) Goya and his works. They come from a place of deep anger and sorrow and it oozes out of every brushstroke. At the same time, he has made these beautiful paintings, such as the naked Maja. If you have the capacity for great love and great positiveness, you can only exist if you have the capacity for the opposite — great anger.
The current political climate in India has been punishing of dissenters, satirists and critics of the government. How do you continue making your art, negotiating self-censorship?
The question of self-censorship is important for me. It is the most dangerous and insidious kind of censorship and it’s what I see around me all the time. Some people, who don’t necessarily don’t know me well, are afraid of what I am doing but try to keep it light by saying, ‘I’ll see you in jail’ or ‘You’re still out of jail?’, as if it’s a funny comment. It’s not funny because it’s a very real possibility. The pressure to censor oneself is all around, even from the ones who care for you. My confidence can be undermined then. Every comment like this makes me think twice because that’s something you are always fighting with in yourself.
Is the only relevant art today the one that is political or satirical?
I don’t think that we can divide art in that way. Art needs to be relevant to people, to the society it is coming out of. I don’t think one should expect that all art should be overtly political but a lot of art is irrelevant to the larger public of its place and time.
I don’t really subscribe to this gallery model of art anymore — it’s a safe, walled-off environment, literally and metaphorically. So I don’t often show work at galleries and galleries have been returning the favour. Most galleries are scared to show what I make. I was once invited to show at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, for an exhibition on satire. They were happy with a piece on (former US President Donald) Trump but they wouldn’t show another on (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi. When I asked them why, they said it’s because he is our Prime Minister. I said, ‘So, you are okay making fun of somebody else’s leader but your own leader, you won’t make fun of.’ Then we are not celebrating satire at all. I took my work off.