Indian graphic artist and designer Orijit Sen is re-working his 1994 fiction River of Stories, considered one of India’s first graphic novels. In a candid interview at his Delhi studio People Tree, he tells about how his visual imagery took the social media by storm.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Q. What do you want to say about attacks that artists are being subjected to?
A. Every time artists are prevented from doing what they would like, it is an attack on freedom of expression. And nobody should have the right to block someone from posting what they like, as an artwork is not a gun which is killing somebody. Through my art, I work hard to communicate some message. Always, in a broader sense, whether offline or online, I try to be the voice of humanity. It is not new as I do nude and erotic works also along with the other works. We were not always so moralistic about things as we are now.
How did you turn into a graphic artist?
When I was growing up in the little town of Mount Abu, Rajasthan, we used to read and share comics in school. During that time, there was no television or social media. My father was a mapmaker in a transferable job, so we brothers experienced the joy of living in different places. The only exciting thing I had were my comics that had imagery and mock-ups. Comics were the most precious possessions amongst all of us: we brothers could fight over them, steal and barter them. Unlike other children who stop drawing as they grow up, I could never stop drawing. In fact, I used to draw all the time.
That way, you could say I started drawing my own comics when I was in school. In the 1980s, in the library of National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, I came across a very story in a graphic novel: Art Spiegelman’s Maus. [Published in the 1980s, it was the story of the artist’s father, a Polish Jew]. This method of storytelling indicated the way I should go. And as I was associated with Narmada Bachao Andolan when I was working in Delhi, protests surrounding the construction of a dam over the Narmada river triggered the idea of my own book River of Stories.
I am considering that, as there have been people, friends and followers who are suggesting I move my work onto other social media platforms as well. Whenever I put my work online, I get responses from people. I do like to keep in touch with them. The only thing I am scared of and concerned about is that if I move to so many platforms, I may not be able to revert back on all of them.
Creative expression is one of the core aspects of human society, without which we would never find new meanings to life.
If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, how do you connect your art with audiences?
Art is a very basic human response, as basic as love, joy or beauty. Every child grows up with a natural affinity to imagery, paintings, music…We are a very textually oriented society so, slowly, society encourages us to move away from these kinds of expressions. I feel creative expression is one of the core aspects of human society, without which we would never be able to make the society progress and find new meanings to life. Through my artworks, I try to reach out to people and connect with them, as art speaks a kind of universal language. The sense of communication that happens through art is more comprehensive and emotional than intellectual, even before you are able to formulate in your mind the meaning you understood and absorbed. In my work, I try to develop multiple layers in such a way that there is a kind of instantaneous recognition or connection with my work, while at the same time there are layers which you can then unearth and reflect upon by finding richer meanings. Before language came, we had imagery, and it is quite sad when people tend to lose it.
Why is there a voice of dissent in most of your artworks?
I think that is a very important aspect of art. An artist is supposed to be that person who speaks on behalf of humanity; he or she has no vested interest and is not representing any company or corporation. Nowadays, I feel, there is a lot of oppression in our society, a tendency to stifle free voices and expressions. Hence it is becoming important for artists to speak for humanity and for those who do not have voices in some or other ways. I believe people have a very narrow outlook.
Let’s speculate. How would people react if you announce an open exhibition of your nude artworks?
I think people will mostly love it but I’m sure there could be a moral brigade which will come in to create a fuss on behalf of Bharatiya sanskriti (Indian culture). There is much rumour mongering
and overhyped controversies. I feel lucky to have friendss who will support me if I get into trouble. But this country hounded our greatest living artist MF Hussain to the point that he was no longer able to live in the land of his birth and ultimately died in another country. Those self-righteous people who thought they were proud Indians, did they ever think about how an artist feels? India has also been that sort of a nation. There have been tragic and terrible incidents where artists’ freedom gets curbed.