Between 1991 and 1994, Orijit Sen – inspired by Art Spiegelman’s Maus and other hard-hitting comics like Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen – created India’s first graphic novel titled River of Stories. This work, as timeless as the ones that inspired it, is a piercing critique of the imagination of development and practice of politics in India. It tells the story of the Rewa Andolan – a fictional people’s movement closely-based on the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Over the course of a decades-long struggle, the NBA sought to prevent the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam as it would displace thousands of tribal Adivasis and other communities from the Narmada Valley. Though the dam was ultimately built, the questions – for example, “development for whom?” – raised by the movement remain as relevant today as when it began in the 1980s.

For example, the cruelty of top-down policy-making was recently thrust into the limelight two years ago, when farmers from across the country were forced to protest the Farm Laws at Delhi’s borders for a year. Although the Sardar Sarovar Dam was conceived shortly after Independence, every successive regime has thrown their weight behind it – culminating with Prime Minister Modi inaugurating it on his birthday in 2017.

But the story of the NBA is not over – for example, some Adivasi farmers have started a movement to protest the use of their land to build the Statue of Unity (Ballabhbhai Patel’s giant statue); they are demanding that the land be returned as a statue is not the purpose for which they gave up the land. These renewed struggles tell of deepening gaps between people’s voice and the state’s policies in India.

By foregrounding the communities affected by this dam – some of whom are the most vulnerable in the country – River of Stories raises the pertinent question of who this country is really for.

I met Orijit Sen for the first time in 2008 to interview him about River of Stories, as I was working on a thesis on comics journalism for my Bachelor’s degree. The conversation with him and other creators – captured on a tape recorder which no longer works – led to an enduring interest in non-fiction comics work in India. In December 2022, I sat down once again with Sen to discuss the making of River of Stories, his experiences travelling the Narmada Valley for research, the political vision of the book, as well as the urgency of the recently released 25 year anniversary edition which was published by Blaft Publications. Excerpts from the conversation:

How did you come to be involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and how did you come to realise that you want to participate as an artist – in a contribution in the form of a comic? What was the reason you chose to create River of Stories as your articulation of solidarity?
After I left National Institute of Design (NID), my partner Gurpreet and I set up a space in Delhi called People Tree. In a short period of time it attracted students, activists, journalists – it grew into a hang-out place. It also happened to be close to Jantar Mantar, which was a designated protest spot. So, a lot of activists coming from different parts of the country to protest would end up coming to People Tree.

Similarly, some of the people from the Narmada Andolan would also come and we would speak with them. Both Gurpreet and I had begun to develop an interest in ecological issues at that time. I remember making a trip along with some friends to Tehri, where there was a big protest meeting called by Sundarlal Bahunguna against the building of the Tehri dam.

That’s where I met Ashish Kothari. He ran – and still runs – an environmental NGO called Kalpavriksh. They spoke of a very big and successful rally in Harsud, a town on the banks of the Narmada. So, just like we’d gone to Tehri, we decided to go to Narmada. The trip was to meet people on the ground because so far, we had mostly met urban-based activists. We attended some meetings, travelled around a little bit on foot as well, and we went to meet Baba Amte.

At that point, I’d always wanted to make a long form comic. I also realised – from past experiences – that the subject of my long-form comic needed to be a story that I feel deeply committed to or I would run out of steam. On that visit, I started to strongly feel like this may be the story I want to tell.

One day I was walking along near Baba Amte’s ashram on the riverbank. The Narmada is quite wide over there. There’s a weed that grows along the riverbank. Somebody told me that they call it “besharam.” Why besharam? Because it has no shame and just lands up wherever, and grows wherever.

So, that day I was actually walking around looking at these besharam plants – they have these lovely pink flowers. Across the river, the sun was going down, and there was a man driving a motorbike on the other bank. He was quite a distance away but his bike was kicking up this cloud of dust, and he had white snowy hair, which was glowing in the evening light. Somehow that image struck me.

I suppose it was not just him, but that moment. There were one or two boats on the river, which are these typical boats you find on the Narmada. Many parts of the Narmada River have rocks just under the surface – so you can’t use boats which have curved hulls. They have a particular boat which is long and the base is flat. There was somebody sitting on one of these boats, but there was nobody else around. And that’s the scene I put on the title page of the comic.

The 25th anniversary edition of 'River of Stories' published by Blaft Publications.

Environmental concerns as well as people’s movements have been a consistent and central part of your practice, through your comics work as well as your work with People Tree. How did this begin for you?
During my time at NID, I started to read writers like Paulo Friere and Frantz Fanon whose books were available in the library. Why did I start reading those? I’m not sure. I was brought up in a middle class family, who were not regressive by any standard, but they were not political at all. Nobody in my family was political. Maybe listening to musicians like Dylan and Lennon gave me this idea that that art should be political, and that it should address questions around us in society. I wasn’t attracted to the idea of an artist who practices in isolation. In my fourth, fifth and sixth year at NID, I was also exposed to a number of processes – somehow by choice or by accident – that made me get more interested in the politics behind them.

For example, ISRO, the space research organisation, had a big centre in Ahmedabad. They were creating TV programming for villages. It was pretty interesting, because it was a government-backed exercise, but they had filmmakers and others on contract who were quite radical, political people who would go to the villages, and create these programmes. I went with one of those teams to Panchmahals while I was still a student.

That was my first visit to an isolated Adivasi village. I’d never been to such places in my life before. I realised that people live in a very different way and how their values are different. Wherever we went, we were always welcomed. We could see that people had very little, but they were always very generous with it. At the same time, I become aware of their exploitation by lower level functionaries of the government departments, the police, the forest department as well as non-tribal traders who were hand in glove with the local authorities. It was quite naked; and very disturbing.

So, these were not projects that were intended to politicise, but because of what you saw that awakening did take place for you. On the subject of observation, as part of the practice of drawing, your sketchbook from your travels is a wonderful insight into what it would have been like to travel through the Narmada Valley. You have documented material, clothing, houses, trees, activities…We are currently living in a time when it is possible to source videos and images of any space. But that was not the case when you were working on River of Stories. In fact, these notes must have been very precious. Could you tell us something about what you were observing or looking for, and how it fit into the process of making the comic?
Once I was sure that I was going to make this comic, I started to sketch much more systematically. I had developed categories of things. I wasn’t looking for one thing over another – I was really trying to look at everything and understand it through a visual language. I had to categorise types of trees, plants, agricultural landscapes, water bodies, architecture, layouts of villages and houses, placements of things, objects, everyday life, etcetera.

With people that meant drawing body language, social interactions. festivals and gatherings…I’m usually obsessed with capturing the visual details of a place. For me, I think that tells half the story. The characters in the foreground and what they’re saying is important, but what’s happening in the background is equally important. I remember, even as a kid, I used to find it irritating how in Amar Chitra Katha, for example, the trees were just like the generic wavy trees. The clothing details were just sort of minimal – just a kapda over the shoulder. I felt that it was not real.

And I think what used to fascinate me about Tintin was how everything is so correct, so real. When I read it, I feel like I’m there in that street, or in that desert with Tintin. I used to be fascinated by cars, like most boys, and to be able to identify real cars in the comic was amazing. I was obsessed with these things perhaps because of comics like Tintin and Satyajit Ray’s films.

And so my sketchbooks have lots of categories of drawings. Of course, I didn’t encounter things in categories. I’d encounter a human being and a tree at the same time. We had no scanning then – so, I would come back and photocopy my sketches, and then cut them out and then place them in categories. And I would refer to these while I was drawing River of Stories.

So, what goes into making a comic feel like it fits into the real world? Is this part of the process for you?
When I read comics, I feel like I am entering that world. And I can inhabit that world in a way I can’t in other mediums – not even movies. A comic is an experience that you can re-enter, you can keep on re-entering it and disappear into this other world. So when I was making River of Stories, I deeply wanted to convey that same sense to my readers. I wanted them to feel like they were entering the Narmada Valley when they read that book. Like you said, today we live with a flood of imagery. It reduces our wonder at the new kind of space – where the quality of light is different, the air feels different…I want to convey those feelings.

Also, when you draw, you internalise things, like even now, when I look at the sketchbooks, I remember so many details – those memories are embedded. To the reader it may just be a sketch of a man sitting under a tree. But I remember both the tree and the man, I remember whether I had a conversation with him, or the way he looked. The sketching was for me to get a deeper essence of the scene or a thing and internalise it. Even though today we have access to any number of images and videos, you can’t replace what you experience by going somewhere and drawing.

From Orijit Sen's sketchbooks. | Picture credits: Orijit Sen.

Unlike other graphic reportage works, River of Stories does not locate itself in a specific time or around an event the plot is fictional, and the details of the movement have been changed. What were your reasons for doing this? Did you consider a purely non-fiction narrative at any point in the creative process?
We got some funds from the Ministry of Environment, so I knew that I would have to fictionalise the things somewhat. In any case, I was not very interested in telling whatever you might consider the “unembroidered truth.” I wanted to convey that it’s not just about the facts of the oppression or the way the people are fighting that or the circumstances of that historical time. Instead, I wanted to convey a lot of emotion in the story.

My friend Amita (Baviskar) had just done an English translation of the Guyana, which is the creation myth of the Bhilala Adivasis. Their myth actually explains the source of the river – how it originates. I was immediately attracted to it, I wanted to use it in my storytelling. So, I was clear that my story is going to be like a movement between real things and mythology and fictional elements. Actually, my original script had more than what is there currently, but we just didn’t have enough money to make a 100 page book. So I had to throw out some stories – which is why I included the fold-out page.

I wanted to build a character called Somario, who appears in the beginning with Relku – her brother. The Narmada Andolan itself was always very Gandhian and inspired by non-violence. They did get beaten up, attacked and put into jail, but they remain nonviolent throughout as a movement. But I know that there were some people, younger Adivasis, who wouldn’t mind being more proactive in their opposition.

So, I wanted to build Somariyo, being part of this group of young Adivasis, who were much more militant than the others. Somebody once asked me, why are some of the figures associated with the movement missing? Like Medha Patkar, for example. But the media does that all the time anyway, right? I mean, they’ll find one figure who comes to represent the entire movement for them, and then keep quoting her. I wanted to avoid that.

You’ve devoted a whole section in the comic to the coming of the road to the Rewa valley, as a precursor to the dam – there are strong parallels to the experience of other indigenous communities, for example the Jarawa of the Andamans. The section also talks about the nefarious ways in which the state tries to break the resistance of communities. As readers, this is our introduction to the Rewa Valley, through Vishnu’s conversation with Relku. Why did you select that entry point for Vishnu?
Because I think that is really the beginning of the exploitative relationship between the state and the local community. There’s a town the railhead at the foot of the Garhwal Himalayas called Katgodam. What does Katgodam mean? Literally, “The Wood Store.” So that’s the base of the hills.

The British were building the railways – and all over the country, they needed wooden sleepers (the supports on which the train tracks rest). A part of the reason that the Himalayan forest started getting chopped down in a major way was to build railways. And they built the railway right up to Katgodam, then they extended roads into the mountains to bring down the wood from the mountains.

Wherever you see the building of roads, railways – they’re not done in order to make life better for local people. The local people never asked for it. It is done in order to take the resources from that place. So, it seemed natural for me to begin this story with the meaning of the road and the coming on the road. And Relku, the character, talks about how that changed everything for them. Once that road was built, because not only did it facilitate the taking away of resources, it also facilitated the coming in of the exploiters into that region.

So, I think that is the real beginning of the story in so many ways, at least as experienced by the local people. In the comic when the government official tells Relku’s family and others that the road is being built and “you people” have to change He’s an example of a different kind of patriarchy, which is an arrogant patriarchy that assumes it is doing good for the people. Outsiders become a network of vested interests. And they can cheat the Adivasi because they have no power in relation to that kind of system.

The young Somariya in 'River of Stories.' | Picture credits: Orijit Sen.

Could you tell us a little bit about your thinking behind the structure of River of Stories? It is divided into three parts titled “The Spring”, “The River”, and “The Sea” – it is a deep metaphor that functions at many levels across the narrative…
To begin with, I didn’t have the entire story scripted clearly, in a sequential way. I knew that it was going to be an interweaving of stories. I had Relku’s story, I had Somariyo’s story, I had Vishnu’s story, I had Anand the activist’s story and I had Malgu Gayan’s story. I had these various streams.

In the beginning of my travels in the Narmada Valley, I went up to the hills in the forest. Some of my friends took me to a spring – something I had never seen before. The water was literally coming out of the rock. There was a pool at the bottom, and you could see the water bubbling up inside that pool – crystal clear water. It is understood that Amarkantak is the place in Madhya Pradesh where the original spring is, from which the river Narmada flows.

However, that one spring is not going to create that kind of water which is going to form a thousand kilometre long river which is incredibly wide. There are actually thousands of streams – coming from other springs and adding to it and making it a big river. I wanted my story to also be like that. It should be a story that springs from nature. The spring became a metaphor for the Adivasi way of life or philosophy. It is the story of the resistance, obviously. It arises from essentially another worldview, which is what I’m trying to posit throughout the book.

Our contemporary modern world view looks at nature as a resource to be exploited for our use, and the Adivasi way of looking at nature as something which they are part of which sustains them, rather than the other way around. And therefore there is this deep sense of respect for that nature, and for the river. And so to me, it became obvious that the Adivasis story is the spring. The farmers in the plains have joined the Adivasis – the same people who once upon a time, many generations ago, they exploited...But today they have joined hands in the Narmada Bachao Andolan together. So that’s what becomes the river – people from elsewhere who also become part of that resistance.

And then to me the sea was what was happening with people like me, or what I hoped my comic would contribute to – where it would join this much larger sort of body of resistance outside of the Valley. I was not looking for a causal kind of connection between one thing and the other, but more like a conceptual link that would bring all these different things together. And that is also why, along the way, I thought the book should be called River of Stories.

In terms of scale, the Narmada Bachao Andolan was huge. I wanted to make the comic for urban audiences because I could sense the scale and power of what was happening. But there was no social media, there was no Internet, there was very limited reporting and televisions never carried any news about that. It’s almost as if a huge thing was happening in the Narmada Valley. But in the cities, nobody was aware of this at all.

One of the most engaging images in the book is a fold-out map of the Rewa Valley, in which we see the logic of this metaphor play out across time and space – the personal journey of Vishnu, the creation myths of the indigenous people of the valley, the struggle against the dam, histories of resistance…
I couldn’t include everything I had thought of in the book. So, I found this fold out as a way to condense all those other ideas that I had into one sort of overarching view. It’s up to readers to decipher how much they want out of it. But the map does more or less follow the course of the Narmada River, in terms of it starts from Amarkantak – or, rather, its traditional name Ambarkant, which is what the local people call it. So it also geographically explains the whole story.

It maps down other things as well – which animals are found there, which kind of trees and plants, which kind of medicinal herbs…This is all part of what the Andolan was documenting, they were trying to say that all of this will get lost. And there is not just the human costs, but there’s a huge environmental cost. It shows the Narmada valley as an ecosphere, and not just a river.

It also documents stories of resistance, as well, not just related to the movement...
Yes. For example, during that time, I also went to Mandu, which is just off the Narmada. And I was struck by the fact that these very beautiful monuments, all destroyed and in ruins. But obviously, built with great craftsmanship, pride and, obviously, with a lot of money. But surrounding Mandu and the ruins are these Adivasi huts, which are the same as what they’ve always been out there in other parts of the valley.

So it struck me that these simple parts which are made from materials which will decompose and degenerate in a few years or decades, they have continued to thrive over the centuries. But in between this the grand palaces of Mandu, with these amazing stone structures and constructions there are falling into ruin. But those very simple basic things made by people who know how to live with nature continue. I wanted that thought to come in – so, I’ve drawn that bit into the map. One day the Sardar Sarovar Dam will also crumble. But the adivasi way of life will continue. And that’s what I want to say.

Picture credits: Orijit Sen.

In movements, visual evidence and documentations of this kind develop organically. A simple example is maps of protest sites. As you are saying, in the Narmada Bachao Andolan it would have been more complex, because it’s not just about the dam, but it’s about a whole way of life that’s being lost. The map you made captures that.

It is also echoed in some dialogues and the chants in River of Stories, which sound like what people in the movement could have actually said. For example, one striking dialogue is, “Can the sarkar ever give us another like her” It is a very powerful and relevant critique of the state that one often hears against “development projects.” The state can’t just replace what it takes, no matter what the compensation.
Yes, such dialogues are based on what people actually said to me. The critique of compensation was an important one in the movement. Its accuracy came across very strongly recently when I met a few of the activists from Narmada Bachao Andolan two weeks ago in Bangalore at an event.

I met Rahmat bhai, who I knew from when I was working on River of Stories. He comes from a village called Chikalda. It went under the water. He talked about how he buried his father and his mother over there – all his memories are there. He stood and watched everything disappear under the water one-by-one. He said “barh aate hain” – things go underwater but in any of these natural disasters, there’s always the hope that the waters will recede...that however damaged things are that you will pick up life again.

But with this, he stood and watched the water come up and his everything – all his memories – just disappearing forever. It quite powerful the way he spoke, but it was very sorrowing and it brought home again how much as urban people we rarely have that kind of identity connected with a place, right? Even if the government gives you compensation, gives you land somewhere else, it’s not going to mean anything close to what you lost.

And what about chants like “What started as a trickle has become a stream. What was once a lonely stream has been joined by her many sisters! What was once a rushing torrent has become a broad river! And we know that today’s river will tomorrow join the limitless sea.”
During the marches, you would march for the day, stop somewhere, make a big camp and people would settle down, cook food, generally chat and sleep out in the open. And then they’d be singing at such times. Sometimes, they would improvise and come up with their own songs. And then if that kind of caught the imagination – then next day, they will be singing that song.

It has been 25 years since River of Stories was published, and even more since you began to make the work. Many of the themes in the comic – the apathy of the upper class, police brutality and several others – continue to be a political reality in India. More specifically in the beginning when Vishnu is speaking to the politician, we hear familiar words like “anti-national” and majoritarian hyperbole about “traditions harking back to the Vedas” – such ideas have become entrenched, institutionalised, and are being further weaponised against minorities and dissidents today. At several points, River of Stories feels startlingly current. Can you reflect on this? And could you also take us back to the specific political context in which you began working on River Of Stories? What did you see as the role of an artist in society? Has this understanding changed or evolved since then, in any way?
In some ways, the political scenario is much the same. The actors are different, names are different. But as you pointed out, I mean, even this language, this attempt at criminalising those who stand against government policies, all of this is much the same, except that the goalpost has moved further now.

When I go to the Narmada valley now or I see pictures from there – there’s quite a change, it was a lot wilder and undeveloped at that time. Those small towns I was going to have become big cities. Indore is full of shopping malls whereas it had open spaces, smaller streets, and scattered habitation at that time. This is part of that continuing process. It’s not only because of the dam, but it’s a larger process of “development” of which the dam is a part.

The Nimadi – farmers in the plains of the Valley – would grow some cash crops. For example, Nimadi bananas are quite famous. But that was still probably for the local market in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat. Now, I’m sure they’re growing bananas or whatever else for international consumption or for factories which produce juice, or some other product. I’m sure the chemical fertiliser and pesticide production of crops has intensified all along the Narmada – it must be a lot more polluted. This is what they were trying to warn against and it has happened.

I think today, it’s become so much more urgent to fight. I think that’s the reason I decided I should bring this book out again because there’ll be a large population of people who will just like it because it’s India’s first graphic novel. But in the process of reading it, they will understand something wider. It will tell people who are born probably even after the book was made, that there is a history of resistance and protesting. To me, it’s very important that people realise that. You are now at a point where literally much water has flowed under the bridge, but that this has to be kept alive, that this and that things like we will talk about today, like the farmer’s protest, or the anti-CAA movement, are a part this longer tradition of protesting the state.

Picture credits: Orijit Sen.