“Self-censorship is like a termite eating society from within”: An Interview with Orijit Sen

26 December, 2015

A graphic artist and designer, Orijit Sen studied at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in the 1980s. His 1994 book, River of Stories, addressed the environmental and socio-political issues surrounding the controversial construction of a dam on the Narmada river, and the subsequent movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan. It is widely considered to be one of the first graphic novels of India. Sen and his wife Gurpreet Sidhu also co-founded People Tree, a collaborative shop, art space and studio, in 1990. He is also a visiting professor at Goa University. Sen’s work is diverse. It includes a mural at the Virasat-e-Khalsa in Punjab, to a t-shirt design currently featured at an exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum and a multimedia project, Mapping Mapusa Market, which seeks to explore and document the complex life of Mapusa, a public space in Goa. Sen is perhaps best known for his controversial political cartoons, which he posts on his Facebook page. One such cartoon, titled Punjaban, an illustration of a half-dressed Punjabi woman, was recently removed by Facebook after it was reported as offensive. The illustration was restored after protests from various social media users.

In this conversation with Samira Bose, an intern at The Caravan, Sen discusses the origins and inspirations for his politically subversive art, social media as an emerging arena for popular politics, and his views on the current dispensation.

Samira Bose: Your work often contains socio-political themes. Did you always want to create such artwork?

Orijit Sen: There are different aspects to my work. Some is more overtly political in that it addresses particular issues that are more cartoon oriented because my work spans from murals to comic books to cartoons to textile design. People Tree is kind of an expression of arts practice, design art and crafts, practice a broader sense, not restricted to a particular medium. There are many different facets to my work but there are certain underlying concerns with community, with context and as well as with the social significance and the place of art in society.

I’m going back to a point in time as a design student, and how design is defined as a practice where you as a designer respond to the expectations of your client and you’re not responding to what’s happening in society, you’re responding to what your client brings to you. I always felt a need to push outwards from that limited context.

At that time perhaps I wasn’t doing it consciously. I didn’t think of myself as being more politically active than my fellow students or anything like that, but I know looking back that I was much more engaged with political ideas. I can’t say where that comes from, it’s not like my family was left leaning or exceptional in any particular way, it was fairly middle class with regular middle class values.

SB: Facebook’s removal and return of your recent artwork Punjabancreated quite a furor on the Internet.

OS: Well, I think, to be honest, the most interesting and important thing about the Punjaban episode is the response that it generated in the public, and I’m pleasantly surprised they [Facebook] restored it. People were broadly supportive of the fact that artwork depicting nudity should not be taken off, they were still a little uncomfortable about the whip [depicted in the image]. Some people said it’s the whip that makes it wrong.

There’s something quite personal about that image also. I’m married to a Punjaban. That image, though completely drawn from the imagination, refers to many emotions, feelings, things, moments, ideas, and images that I have experienced as part of my personal relationship with [my wife] Gurpreet.

People objected to the name “Punjaban” [a term that used to refer to a Punjabi woman], saying that it’s derogatory to a certain community, though I didn’t see that at all. Some people found the whip objectionable. Some objected to the nudity. Some people said you can see pubic hair and under arm hair. These are the things that bothered people, but a lot of feminist groups and individuals were very supportive. The [Indian feminist website] Ladies Finger shared it for example, and their page got pulled off for 24 hours because of that. It had started going viral really fast when I had put it up, and within an hour it was reported. Whoever had reported me didn’t speak up, I still don’t know who it is.

In terms of the protest, I got to see so much artwork in few days; it was like a celebration of nude art. At that moment I could feel the power of social media with all those shares. That attempt at censorship went haywire and had the opposite effect and also questioned this “no nipple” policy that Facebook has been trying to put forward and why female bodies should be censored over male bodies.

SB: Another popular drawing of yours, Man Standing Up For National Anthem, which was a response to the incident where a family was asked to leave a movie theatre because they did not stand up for the national anthem. What do you think of this nationalistic assertion in what is supposed to be a democratic space?

OS: I have heard this from my friends as well that it seems that for a long time there has been a segment (I assume that they are Hindus) who have felt somehow that in this whole secular India project that they are somehow victimised. I’m not talking now of the lumpens or the uneducated who never had a voice anyway, regardless of whether you’re Hindu or Christian or Muslim or whatever. I’m talking now of the educated middle class or the privileged class. A section of them have felt encumbered by the secular democratic project and they have selectively viewed matters such as reservation for Dalits or special privileges for Muslims, whatever few they might have been. They have always felt that this is “our” country, we are the majority, and yet we have not been able to speak about our grievances openly and exercise their privilege that was their due in all these years. And now it’s become legitimate to do so. At last, along has come a whole government and a milieu that goes with it that allows them to speak out and assert all their suppressed desires.

Man Standing Up For National Anthem COURTESY ORIJIT SEN

SB: Do you think the government is providing them the space for such assertions?

OS: Yes, that’s what I’m saying, the government and the current milieu that the government has fostered. It’s not just a shift in government; it’s a build-up that has happened over the years. Previous governments have been equally guilty of pandering to such a milieu as and when necessary to their own requirements. So, it has been a threat that’s been there in the past but was suppressed in the 60s, 70s probably and started asserting itself more in the 80s, and with Babri Masjid it became a big step up for them, and then in the 90s it was quite a developing theme from thereon.

SB: Your most popular cartoons are the ones depicting the prime minister, Narendra Modi, such as Modilini, which reflects a direct association between Modi and the fascist leader Mussolini.

OS: In a sense I did that before Modi was the prime minister. In that vein, the bulk of the work that I’ve been doing has been post that Wendy Doniger episode [author Doniger’s book, Hindus: An Alternate History, was pulled by its publisher, Penguin Random House, after Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Dina Nath Batra called for its ban and brought many lawsuits against it]. That’s when the idea of self-censorship really got me thinking about the dangerous trend. Self-censorship is like a termite eating society from within. Once people have got that fear in their heads, that they cannot speak about certain things, that they’re better off keeping their mouths shut, that they’re afraid to say things—that’s when the battle has been lost.

One day my Muslim carpenter was telling me how, in his community—a small number of Muslims live in that area—these Shakha [the smallest unit of the RSS] guys march past that and they shout slogans and they brandish their lathis and these guys feel quite insecure and threatened but they can’t speak up. The Dalits and the Muslims are the most vulnerable people in the current scenario and they can’t speak up and this is exactly like I said, the termites that are eating society from within.

SB: You said earlier that as someone who enjoys the privilege that comes with being an upper caste Hindu male, you feel a sense of responsibility. Do you think your art is giving a voice to those who are afraid to speak up themselves?

OS: I’m fighting against this culture of self-censorship among people who know better. I’m very contemptuous of Penguin for having done what it did because it is a big publishing house. They are international publishers, they are well known and they are capitulating on the basis of a threat. If people in this privileged position cave in like this, then what’s the hope? Who’s going to stand up? Is my carpenter going to stand up there and speak for democracy? I felt that it’s really important to not succumb to this fear and actually take it out there more.

SB: What do you think about social media as an arena for popular politics?

OS: In a sense, social media is here to say, for better or for worse. The debate is not on whether social media should be or should not be, it’s here and it’s going to be here. I think the point is to embrace it. And to do what you have to. For me, in particular, as a visual artist, I find it to be a very powerful platform. In fact, my body of work on social media is provoked by things I come across on social media, and the response that I have to it goes back up on social media. I don’t think any of my work in the past has been seen as widely as in the present time, so in that sense it’s great. Of course the other aspect of it is that they think this is all I do, and people are unfamiliar with my other work because this is what gets shared and circulated.


SB: You are also involved with the Freedom Jatha, a Palestinian theatre company that is touring India in the coming months. In an article for the media website The Wire, ‘Palestine in my He(art)’ you highlighted how “the official Indian attitude has shifted since the days of India’s stout defence of the struggles and aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Do you describe your stand on Palestine as a political one or as a cultural one?

OS: We can start from [Jawaharlal] Nehru and the Congress party, who, in the post independence years established this idea of a secular socialist republic. India tried to straddle a third space, perhaps leaning slightly towards socialist Russia over capitalist America. In the long run, it didn’t work. Maybe capitalism won out. I grew up in those times so I’m well aware of the priorities of a socialist nation. That whole project started getting dismantled in the 90s, after the Soviet Union itself collapsed. So it’s not the BJP and Modi that initiated the dismantling, it’s the Congress government of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, who was the minister of finance at that point. Societies began moving towards unfettered capitalism across the world.

I think today the support to Palestine, to Cuba came out of that socialist connection to the struggles of the oppressed people of the world and their rights. India was actually pretty anti-Israel, India had very little to do with Israel in all those years. But I think that’s been diluted. I would say that India of the 50s and 60s, however mired in poverty, still had certain kinds of principles, which it attempted to stand for, which over time have been taken apart.

I had briefly befriended a group of Palestinian students. I would get a sense from them about the situation there, and I had empathy that they had to run to India and could not live in their own country. I think there is no separation for me in terms of the political and cultural aspects. My art comes entirely out of a political engagement with things which is why from People Tree to River of Stories, it’s always like that.


SB: Over the past few months, many artists and writers have returned the awards they received as a symbolic gesture of protest. Do you think that that is effective?

OS: It is definitely and obviously effective because it has caused such an impact. Were it not effective, would the government have people like Arun Jaitley [the finance minister] condemning it? For an artist, that kind of recognition is the greatest thing that they can have. It’s not your patron, or your client, at the end of the day what really matters is appreciation for the artist, that’s the most precious thing. So when you return the award, you are returning the greatest symbol of appreciation your country has given you.

These awards were not just returned by a certain elite section of society, they were returned by Dalit writers and people writing in regional languages or those living in dire circumstances. The fact that [some] people are saying that [the artists] are unrecognised; they don’t realise it’s their fault that they never bothered to acknowledge the artist. That’s an indictment of yourself, not of the artist. The artist is sacrificing that which is most important to him for a political cause.

SB: Your first graphic novel, River of Stories, is going to be printed again. How do you think it is relevant in the current political climate?

OS: Apart from these fascistic and intolerant aspects, the thrust of Modi’s economic policies is very dangerous to the future of India. It’s an extremely capitalist and corporate friendly approach. Fortunately, for now, the Land Bill has been stalled, but it’s one example of how his policies are trying to take away resources that are owned by communities or that are basically removing the traditional rights of people and weakening their ownership of things and handing them over to private enterprises. In that sense the Narmada story is an example of an earlier version of it that was led by the government, but followed similar principles. That’s why I even made the River of Stories, to tell the story of the Narmada Valley through the Bhilala creation myth.


The government is supposed to be the representative of the people and is supposed to be taking care of the interests of the people, and it is actually retreating and handing it to the corporates. It’s an even more dangerous approach than the earlier socialist one which said that we as the government of the people will decide what has to be done with these resources. Modi’s emergence has to do as much with the failure of his Congress as his success, and he comes from this business-trader approach even though he might not be one himself. At the same time, he views governance as some kind of corporation where he is the CEO and he is just supposed to deliver profits. He is taking decisions based on profitability and not social justice. It appears as a general problem that we Indians want to worship leaders who will take responsibilities away from us and give us benefits. That kind of mindset is very dangerous to democracy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.