Graphic novelist Orijit Sen tells big stories

Pioneering Indian graphic novelist thinks small, but on a massive scale

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      You could say Orijit Sen thinks small, but on a massive scale.

      When the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum in Punjab, India, commissioned a mural from the New Delhi–based artist, he delivered an epic-size piece depicting both the history of the region and everyday life for its modern-day residents. The detail of the painting, conceived by Sen and executed by him and a team of other artists, is astounding, as Vancouverites will be able to see for themselves when a replica is mounted here as part of the Indian Summer festival.

      Well, we won’t be seeing it in quite the same monumental scale as the one at Virasat-e-Khalsa. “What I’m going to show is a scaled-down print of it,” says Sen, interviewed in person on the Georgia Straight’s fourth-floor patio. “It’s still large enough to view a lot of the detail. It’s the limit in terms of what kind of size we could do. So it’s about seven feet tall by about 35 feet long. The actual one is 20 metres tall and 75 metres long.”

      Stylistically, the mural was inspired by Mughal miniature painting and informed by the artist’s love of comics. Sen, in fact, created what is widely considered one of India’s first graphic novels, River of Stories, which he self-published in 1994. The book is a fictionalized account of the resistance to a huge dam project on the Narmada River in Gujarat, and the struggles of the local tribal people whose homes and livelihoods would be displaced by it.

      Sen says that when he started researching River of Stories by travelling to the affected region and meeting locals, few people understood what he was doing. This was several years before the publication of Joe Sacco’s Palestine planted the first seeds of “graphic journalism”.

      “It was very new for everyone,” Sen notes. “Initially, when I went there the first couple of times saying that I’m drawing and researching, I travelled a lot. I drew, I took photographs. I sketched a lot, and met people, wrote their stories. Sometimes people wouldn’t understand; they’d say, ‘What, comics?’ They’d think I was trying to make some cartoons or poke fun at the movement or something. Sometimes people were a little suspicious of my motives.”

      Like the fictional journalist at the centre of River of Stories, Sen found himself drawn to the antidevelopment side as he learned more about what was at stake. “Although I tried to give a sense of the arguments the movement was trying to put forward in a kind of rational sense,” he says, “in fact the main character goes from being this person who doesn’t know too much about it, who’s going in as a journalist to report, and who becomes a fervent supporter of it. So it’s the same journey that happened to me personally as well.”

      Thanks to some friends involved with an environmental NGO, Sen was the recipient of a grant that allowed him to publish River of Stories. In a delicious bit of poetic justice, the money came from the same government that he was now actively protesting against. “But you know how sometimes the government is: the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he says, clearly relishing the irony. “They were supposedly giving money to this NGO to produce environmental literature for young people—so, basically, stuff about trees, plants—obviously assuming that it’s all politically safe stuff.”

      The Sardar Sarovar Dam was constructed despite the protests, but the resistance to it helped galvanize the environmental movement in India. Likewise, River of Stories established Sen as one of the leaders of a new school of comics in his country. In that regard, he might be considered the Art Spiegelman or Robert Crumb of South Asia, which he would surely take as high praise indeed.

      As a student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in the 1980s, Sen devoured whatever underground comics he could get his hands on. These included Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning story about his parents’ experience of the Holocaust, a work that pushed alternative comics into the mainstream and made a powerful argument in favour of taking the medium seriously as both art and literature.

      “When I read Maus, I was blown away,” Sen remembers. “It was like a validation. I always liked to draw and make comics and read comics, but it was always not quite the right thing to do. And when I saw Maus, I said, ‘Yes, this is what I always knew comics should be,’ and it gave me a big boost personally to pursue my interest in drawing and making comics.”

      As for Crumb, Sen got a chance to meet the dean of the American underground in 2012, when he and his wife, fellow underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, travelled to Mumbai for an event called Comic Con India.

      “I went there and I met them, and it was really fun,” Sen says. “I told them, ‘You know, you guys have been my inspiration for many years, and it’s great to meet you.’ They said, ‘Okay, we’ll come and see your studio and your work.’ They saw River of Stories and said, ‘Oh, this is fantastic.’ So then they came to my studio, and we spent time; they looked at my work. It was very nice. It was a nice epilogue to my discovery of Crumb back in the ’80s.”

      Just as Crumb took after his father—a former combat illustrator for the U.S. Marine Corps—Sen is following in his own dad’s footsteps for his next endeavour. The son of a cartographer, Sen is now working on a map of his own. Following up on his mural project, the artist will be making a map of the Punjab region. Sen’s work will offer more than a bird’s-eye perspective of the landscape, however. His map will be not just about the geographical spaces it depicts, but also about the stories that unfold in them.

      “People in India always ask for directions,” he says. “They don’t really look at maps. Even if they’re lost, they’ll ask somebody, ‘Which is the way?’ And you’ll get complicated directions. But it’s a different way of understanding geography, so I’m trying to work on a map project which uses this sort of visual language, which tries to blend a kind of satellite view with the storytelling view of the landscape.”

      It sounds like another massive project, but, as always, Sen has his eye on the smallest details.

      As part of the Indian Summer festival, Orijit Sen will participate in a panel discussion called Artpolitik at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts next Wednesday (July 9). On the same day, he’ll also give a free talk on the scaled-down version of his Punjab mural in the Woodward’s Atrium, where the piece is on display until July 13. See the Indian Summer Festival website for details.