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Orijit Sen: 'I try to confront the idea of fear'

The artist-activist takes on the notion of self-censorship while tackling a range of subjects and perspectives

Orijit Sen and a team of like-minded individuals are bringing out a new comics magazine for the 12-17 age group. Photo: courtesy Orijit Sen
Orijit Sen and a team of like-minded individuals are bringing out a new comics magazine for the 12-17 age group. Photo: courtesy Orijit Sen

Artist-activist Orijit Sen is busy with a new project. When he is not creating scathing visual commentary on politics, censorship and authoritarianism, Sen and a team of like-minded individuals are bringing out a new comics magazine for the 12-17 age group. Titled Comixense, the quarterly, launched in April, touches upon aspects of life that young India encounters today, from technology to history and politics.

The first issue opens with The Plague Doctor’s Apprentice, in which journalist Indrajit Hazra and artist and photographer Mad Paule bring to life 17th century Florence, wracked by the bubonic plague. “Squint your eyes, and the 2021 health worker and doctor giving you a vaccine or conducting research without a break in her or his lab wearing PPE is really the same superhero as Yongle (the protagonist) and her 17th-century plague doctor Jedi master,” writes Hazra as an introduction, while drawing parallels between the situation in the Italian city and the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.

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The issue, broadly themed on “Machine and Masters”, also features an evocative story called City Of Astronomers, in which Lucknow-based speculative fiction writer Mohammad Salman and artist Rai have imagined a place where all the astronomers from history coexist. The story explores the kind of conversations they might have, and the discoveries they would make together.

Each of these stories is set in different times and geographies—one looking at a post-human landscape, another at the world of crash dummies, while others go back into the past, exploring our relationship with the night skies—yet each connects to the issues, emotions and politics of the present, forming a connect with its readers.

The first issue of ‘Comixense’, themed on ‘Machine and Masters’, features stories such as ‘Love For Dummies’ and ‘The Captain
The first issue of ‘Comixense’, themed on ‘Machine and Masters’, features stories such as ‘Love For Dummies’ and ‘The Captain

Sen, 58, who created one of India’s first graphic novels, River Of Stories, in 1994 to examine the implications of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, had been wanting to bring out a comics magazine since he was eight years old. As a student at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in the 1980s, he gained exposure to the world of underground comics by Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman; it strengthened the genre’s hold on him. “This was several years before the publication of Joe Sacco’s Palestine planted the first seeds of journalism through graphic novels. I was drawing and researching, taking photographs. I wrote down people’s stories. People would often exclaim ‘What, comics?’ They’d think I was trying to make cartoons or poke fun at the movement. Some were a little suspicious of my motives,” the artist told Platform magazine in a 2014 interview.

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He never doubted, however, that graphic novels and comic books were powerful tools in the way that allowed art to speak to people. This helped make the visual narrative form an integral part of movements across the world.

“I had been putting out comics for a long time but not regularly. Starting a comics magazine was a dream but it involved a team of people, logistics and funding support,” says Sen. Last year, he was approached by Sanjiv Kumar of the Takshila Educational Society and Ektara Trust, who has been involved in children’s education for a long time. “Sanjiv was concerned that young people were hooked on to gadgets and that the reading habit was lost. They only associated reading with textbooks. He felt that good material was needed to bring them back to the printed page,” says Sen.

Finding their perspectives in sync, they decided to start a quarterly that would tackle a range of subjects, discussing, in equal parts, contemporary life, history and politics. Thus Comixense was born, with Ektara Trust as the publisher and Sen leading the editorial team.

The idea is to give play to as diverse a set of voices as possible, and not necessarily those who have done comics before. “For instance, Indrajit Hazra has not done comics before. Mad Paule has done amazing artwork earlier but not comics. We are convinced that if you provide the right kind of support, you will help artists and writers step into each other’s spaces,” explains Sen. “Writers and artists are used to doing solo work. For them to create works which will be complete only through collaboration is new. And that’s where we are there to help.”

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With the next issue of Comixense due in end-July, Sen is bringing in newer voices. For instance, the second issue will feature a story by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, a Jharkhand-based doctor and writer. “He has worked with some very accomplished young Adivasi women—architects, designers, doctoral candidates, and more. It is important to bring in these perspectives,” says Sen. “We agreed early on that we will be open to all kinds of politics and not shut them down. That’s how you get the sense of ‘nowness’. It is not achieved by setting stories in India or in the present but telling stories of the world from our perspective. That is Indianness.”

Sen has always avoided being boxed into genres. He creates graphic novels with as much ease as large-scale murals, such as the one at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Punjab. But he is most popular for political memes and cartoons, almost all of which go viral on social media. Recently, when cartoonist Manjul got a law enforcement notice from Twitter, Sen put out a post: “Cartoonists’ Ink: The only known cure for chronic Fascisitis.”

In an interview to The Indian Express in May, Sen noted: “A lot of my work combines images and words, because that is also what the comics medium is about.... 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.”

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In Sen’s opinion, the worst form of censorship is self-censorship, a tool that all authoritarian regimes rely on. “It is about creating fear in the mind so that people shut themselves down. It is quite insidious. And when you take a few people and make an example of them, it sends a message to a larger public that you too can land up here. I try to confront this idea of fearfulness,” he says.

Not that he never feels a twinge of fear—he says this is something all creative people who stand up for human rights today have to face. “Sometimes, just before I hit the post button, I stop and think of the consequences. But I confront that feeling. I get threats and abuses, but I have been doing this since 2013 and I am still here,” he smiles.

Those who follow Sen’s art would have noticed a small 3D stamp at the bottom of his memes and cartoons of late. This is his new artist stamp, which resembles a dice and plays with his initials. Earlier, he would rarely sign his graphic work but now he feels the need to take responsibility for what he creates. “There are artists who use pseudonyms for safety but I never wanted to do that. One thing you always want as an artist is a dialogue. I value that response—be it good or bad. Hence I thought of creating a stamp which looked like a dice. The symbol felt appropriate since putting out a post is like a gamble, like throwing a piece of dice,” says Sen.

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