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Published: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:22 Updated: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:23

Book: A Gardener in the Wasteland
Author: Natarajan, Srividya and Aparajita Ninan
Publisher: Navayana
Pages: 128
Price: Rs. 220
year: 2011

Book: Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability
Author: Durgabai Vyam, Subhas Vyam, Srividya Natarajan and S Anand
Publisher: Navayana
Pages: 106
Price: Rs.395
Year: 2011

It’s time to recover and restore the untouchable
Sailen Routray Bengaluru 

Both the volumes under review are graphic books. Both have been published by the Delhi-based publishing house, Navayana. Both deal with important historical personalities who have shaped the thinking and practice surrounding caste in colonial and post-colonial India.

A Gardener in the Wasteland (AGITW) is a reworking of the anti-caste, tract Gulamgiri by the Maharashtrian social reformer and anti-caste polemicist, Jotirao Govindrao Phule. Bhimayana is a graphic retelling of some key incidents in the life of the dalit visionary, theorist, independent India’s first law minister, and the chairperson of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  

Bhimayana is perhaps the first such book about the life of Ambedkar. It picks up a few key events in his life, drawn from the piece “Waiting for a Visa” in Volume 12 of the multi-volume Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writingsand Speeches, edited by Vasant Moon. The first section of Bhimayana tells us stories regarding water, and the ways in which the experience of discrimination that Dalits have faced in India has been framed through such stories.

In the first of these stories, young Bhim often goes thirsty in school because, in the multi-caste school that he studies in, the school attendant has to fetch water from the fountain and give it to him as he is an “untouchable” and is not allowed to access water directly.

In the second of these stories, on a family trip to Goregaon in Mumbai where Ambedkar’s father is posted, he, along with other members of his family, find it difficult to get a tonga to travel for a part of the journey as no tonga driver agrees to serve untouchables. They also go without food and water on this trip, no one is willing to give them water so they find it difficult to eat the spicy food that young Bhim’s aunt packs for them. 

Water, and the creatures and discriminations spawned in it, in many ways frames the narratives of Bhimayana.  Fishes frame and animate many of the pages of the book. For example, on page 54, a tank whose water is denied to Dalits takes the shape of a huge fish. This particular picture tells the story of the denial of access for Dalits to a  public tank in Chakwara village in Rajasthan, drawing upon a report in news magazine Tehelka in 2008. The book shuttles between the past and present, the indignities faced by the London School of Economics- and Columbia University-educated Ambedkar, and the continuing violence and discrimination faced by Dalits in India. 

Young Bhim goes thirsty in school because the attendant has to fetch water from the fountain and give it to him as he is an ‘untouchable’

The art work by the wife and husband team of Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam illuminates the narrative in startling ways. They belong to the Pardhan Gond community of Central India. Bhimayana’s art work is located in the broader tradition of Gond art. This book is an act of homage to artist Jangarh Singh Shyam (1960-2001) who can be seen as the “father” of the “Jangarh Kalam” of modern Indian art. 

Page number five of Bhimayana carries the first artwork piece of the book, and it is a full-length portrait of Shyam. Rendered in the Jangarh Kalam style, the portrait has bullocks running on his arms, fishes swimming in his torso, a bird and a deer on his legs. In a neat inversion of “the personality of the artist in his work”, what we have in this portrait is the evocation of the social ecology and art world of an artist. Instead of finding the artist in his art work, in a delightful inversion of the platitudes and debates of western aesthetics, we literally find the artist’s art in him, albeit in this case in his portrait.    

The book is littered with similar irreverent and playful inversions of the western graphic book genre. Instead of the narratives being framed by ‘sidebars’ we have digna patterns from Gond art arriving at some form of panelling. Patterns of rice, mustard seeds, and moa grass are used to fill blank spaces. Chapter number headings morph into rats and snakes, amongst other creatures. 

Reflecting the social ecology of Gondi art, trains become snakes, tanks become fishes, peacocks signify the joy in the hearts of the people of Chalisgaon while welcoming Ambedkar, and elephants and cows join the five lakh-strong human multitudes for perhaps the biggest single event of conversion (from Hinduism to Buddhism) in human history in 1956 led by him.

The book is also an act of recovery and restoration. Although Ambedkar  has perhaps more statues erected to him than other comparable Indians such as Gandhi and Nehru put together, he remains a Dalit icon (and not really a national one!). Although he fought his battles against untouchability and caste discrimination on universal principles, he is basically perceived as a Dalit intellectual. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, it is the supposedly parochial conventions of Gondi art that go a long way in restoring Ambedkar to the universal narrative of human freedom without excising him from the living, and suffering, community to which he belongs.   

It recovers Savitribai’s life from the forgetfulness of Indian history. She played a key role in the anti-caste crusade of Phule

AGITW  is also a beautiful book. In comparison with Bhimayana, however, it pales in lustre. In many ways this book is also an act of restoration. Although the polemic in Gulamgiri is between Jotiba and his friend, Dhondiba, AGITW tries to recover Jotiba’s wife, Savitribai Phule’s life from the forgetfulness of Indian history. Savitribai played a crucial role in the anti-caste crusade of Phule, and was a key influence on his ideas and formulations. The book recovers her life from the margins, and tries to restore her story by framing the book’s narrative through her experiences and not only through Jotiba’s. Like Bhimayana,AGITW is also a pioneering work. As mentioned in the blurb, it is perhaps the first graphic rendering of a historical work of non-fiction in India. 

The wasteland in the title of AGITW refers to the wasteland of caste, and the gardener is Jotiba Phule. He was unique amongst the 19th century social reformers in India; he was resolutely anti-caste and steadfastly opposed the formulations of Hindu scriptures and myths. He foresaw the role that widespread, common school education can play in checking the excesses of caste-based prejudices and discriminations, and in moving towards a more egalitarian society. 

The artwork in the book is spare, yet competently and beautifully done. My chief quibble with this book, in a lighter vein, is the way it treats human body hair. All the “unlikeable” people in this volume have an excess of body hair. Why? 

Navayana must be congratulated for producing these two volumes. Both deserve to be widely read, and promise to set new standards in the execution and production of graphic books in India.  

It’s time to recover and restore the untouchable
Sailen Routray Bengaluru

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