Orijit Sen - "Comics Allow the Audience to Identify with the Characters – It Lets Them Enter Their World"




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Feb 10, 2017
by Andrea Abellan
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Orijit Sen - "Comics Allow the Audience to Identify with the Characters – It Lets Them Enter Their World"

Indian graphic artist and designer on how comics can tell difficult, complex and compelling stories Orijit Sen at Session 573 The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal

Comics have traditionally been used to tell fictional stories, but the medium can also be an interesting format to portray reality. In fact, in recent years well-established media outlets have increasingly used this storytelling method, publishing cartoons to inform about current affairs. Indian graphic artist and designer Orijit Sen, a participant of the Salzburg Global Seminar session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal, shares his thoughts on the medium and how he has used illustrations to tell difficult and compelling stories.

AA: You say that Art Spiegelmann’s graphic novel Maus had a strong influence on you. In this work the artist talks about his own challenges of being in a Jewish family during the holocaust. Do you also find motivation from your own experiences to create your drawings?

OS: I am a visual artist and my main goal is to tell stories through my drawings. It is the reason why I prefer to define myself as a “storyteller”. I grew up in India during the 70s – in that time TV was not as common as it is nowadays. I have been drawing since I was a child as comics were the easiest way we had to create our own visual culture. Every time I build a story I fully immerse myself in it first. My work is all about my personal experience so I would never make a piece of a place where I have never been or someone I have never met.

I came across Art Spiegelmann’s Maus while I was at college studying graphic design and as soon as I found this piece I realized that serious comics were the thing I wanted to do for my whole life.

AA: Your piece, River of Stories, considered to be India’s first graphic novel, talks about environmental, social and political issues surrounding the construction of the controversial dam on the Narmada River. Why do you think comics are suitable medium to raise public awareness?

OS: Comics as a medium of storytelling allow the audience to identify with the characters – it lets them enter their world. In my illustrations, I try to be very detailed. I like painting people’s faces, their eyes and gestures, trying to be as accurate as possible.

When I finished university, I got involved in an environmental group. We travelled together to Jhabua area, in central India. We met a lot of people there fighting against the dam project. However, the story of all these protests did not make it to the city. People would only see one side of the story: how great it was to have electricity and other facilities thanks to the dam construction. They did not reflect on how much did that the electricity cost and how many people had been displaced to pay for it.

Stories like this one are usually told by figures and numbers so it is hard for individuals to relate to them. You can of course understand what it means when 1,000 people have lost their homes if you read about it, but it is not the same as when you can see it. Comics help us to engage with a topic and become immersed in it.

You are one of the founders of the Pao Collective, which seeks to supports comics as a medium in India. How would you describe the state of comics industry in the country?

The status of comics has evolved a lot since I first published River of Stories in 1994. Mainstream publishers are relying on Indian cartoonists more and more. But even today, comic artists in India cannot make of it a full-time job and still must dedicate their time to something else for their living. We have many good, young, talented artists with amazing ideas but we unfortunately are still lacking funding.

From 2009 to 2011 you collaborated in the creation of A Place in Punjab, one of the world’s largest hand-painted mural installed at Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum. What message did you want to convey with it?

The government asked me to make a mural for the museum to represent the cultural heritage and landscape of Punjab area. Again, my main goal was to tell the real stories of the people living there and properly describe their hopes and tragedies. I realized how many different perspectives Punjab’s inhabitants have about the same place.

People used to talk a lot about how different the area was before the green business arrived. For instance, they repeatedly mentioned the ponds, where they used to spend lot of their time swimming with the buffalos and mingling with other people. However, when I was there I found all these ponds to be very dirty and only full of trash. I decided to create the Landscape of Memories where I portrayed both perspectives, past and present, so it was easy for visitors to compare them. The mural acts as a “storytelling mirror”.

In your presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal, you have showed some pieces of your project Mapping Mapusa Market. What inspired you to start it?

In the past I used to live in Goa and go to Mapusa market with my family quite frequently. It was always fascinating as it was full of amazing products and people. Later, when I was invited as a visiting professor at Goa University, I thought it would be a good idea to involve students from very different fields such as arts or history to work together. What we are doing at the moment is tracking and mapping different aspects of the market. This work is resulting in a visual map where people, products, and techniques are depicted.

What are you expecting from this session?

This is a very special opportunity. Here we are, 50 people from all over the world sharing so many different perspectives. It is a unique situation. More than specific expectations I am looking forward to be “surprised”. And so far, I think this is what will happen.

The Salzburg Global program The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is being supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.