Pakhi Sen’s flip book is about the pen she drew the book with – a ball-point pen that was once ubiquitous in schools, offices and homes. Priced at Rs 6 per pen, the 045 Reynolds with its slim blue cap, white body is one that most Indians recognise by sight.

Sen’s 14-page miniature graphic-novel, drawn entirely in blue ball-point ink, is about the journey of a 045 Reynolds from its manufacturing facility in Irungattukottai, Tamil Nadu, to desks all over the country.

Titled 045: Scribble Booklet the flip-book was created by the 23-year-old artist as part of a college assignment where every student was asked to choose an object to base their creative work on. “The 045 Reynolds is a common man’s pen and I see it literally everywhere,” said Sen for whom, thanks to her illustrator father Orijit Sen, art has played a huge role in how she perceives the world around her. “The pen as an object has fascinated me and inspired some of my art works. A pen can be a symbol of power, be associated with successful men and achievement.”

A student at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, Sen and her friends recreated some iconic paintings by Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil earlier this year, by posing as the characters of Sher-Gil’s paintings against re-fashioned backdrops.

The series was called Reprinting Amrita Sher-Gil. In another project, titled Body, Sen invited women to send in images of their nude bodies which she then used to create collages (using glitches and discolouration to bypass Instagram’s rules regarding nudity). The project explores a woman’s psyche and how she sees her own body, how she chooses to photograph it, challenging the conventional notions of beauty, sexuality and desire.

“Mostly, I like to draw what I understand or have experienced and has a lot to do with my identity as a young person,” said Sen, who draws a regular comic for the website Pyjama People.

“The series is based on an urban girl, me mainly, and her life,” said Sen. “Some stories are existential, some political, some satirical and some are outright superficial, but these are me staying true to what I know and relate to.”

In the past, the theme of Sen’s works has largely been focussed on gender. With the pen, she is exploring a new field – object history.

Art by Pakhi Sen.
Art by Pakhi Sen.

The flipbook takes the reader to the small neighbourhood in Chennai where the pens are made. “This feeble pen has seen more than it lets on, it turns out,” writes Sen. “The year India got Independence is the year of its birth. Milton Reynolds launched it in America and it found its way here in the 1980s.”

Art by Pakhi Sen.
Art by Pakhi Sen.

The booklet took her around two weeks to research and draw. It begins with the local stationer telling a customer that the 045 Reynolds is so commonly asked for that they sometimes have to restock the shop thrice a week to keep up with the demand.

Instrument of power

The pen as a tool of knowledge has featured in another series by Sen. Titled A Girl Picks Up A Pen, the story follows the moments in which a girl is drawn to a study bathed in a golden light. She wonders about the owner of that study: “There’s a big coat hung by the wall of the room. I wonder what the person looks like, He who leans back on this perfectly carved chair. There are official papers on the desk. What a beautiful signature. I want a signature like that but I don’t think mine would look that good. If my hand could scribble something that beautiful I’d feel complete.”

In these sketches, Sen acknowledges the reality of how the pen, a phallic symbol and a tool of knowledge, was the privilege of men for generations. With the simple act of picking up a pen, the female character in Sen’s illustrations is claiming knowledge and education as her right as well. In one frame, the watchful presence of a man’s black jacket reminds the viewer of the scrutiny faced by women. The girl stands in front of the desk and thinks: “The ink is fresh, so maybe He is around but I’m not afraid now I’m too far in.”

“I’m most often drawn to women and girls when looking for themes to explore in my drawings,” said Sen.