Bhimayana Summary Experiences of Untouchability
An Introduction to Bhimayana:
Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability begins in “the recent past”. A young man waiting at a bus stop complains about his unsatisfactory job and blames his lack of advancement on the system of reservations that ensures job quotas for people from the backward and scheduled castes. As a young woman waiting at the bus stop responds and engages in the debate, this man trots out series of arguments that will be familiar to those of us who have had this debate before. That caste has been abolished; that his own merit has been unfairly overlooked; that in arguing with him the woman is talking “like one of them”. It’s almost a parody of the ignorant and privileged, and it works only because we have all met people like this. It is at this point that the unnamed woman sets out to educate him about the continuing violence perpetuated against Dalits, and she does this with reference to B.R. Ambedkar.
This framing narrative provides us with a context in which to read the main body of the text. First, it is explicitly, openly didactic. This is not a criticism of the text; simply a statement of its form. Secondly, Ambedkar’s story here is told specifically in terms of how it is relevant to present day caste discrimination.
With art by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, Bhimayana is physically gorgeous. The artists here have chosen to eschew the traditional panel style of the graphic novel (in S. Anand’s afterword they describe this as “forc[ing] characters into boxes”), and the pages are open and free-flowing, divided in places by traditional dignas. Durgabai and Subhash Vyam are working from the Pardhan Gond tradition, and each page is filled with details that act as clever signifiers.
There are the animals, for one thing. Nature is all over this book – fortresses are fierce beasts; trains are snakes; the road is a peacock’s long neck. The handle of a water pump turns into an elephant’s trunk. The first section of the book, which deals with the right to water, is full of water-based imagery – when the young Ambedkar is thirsty his torso turns into a fish, and when he urges crowd to stand up for their rights the speakers morph into showers sprinkling water into the audience. A section on shelter has the recurring imagery of the banyan tree and its many twisted roots. Even the speech bubbles have significance – harsh or prejudiced words are given a tail like a scorpion’s to evoke their
sting. Gentle words are encased in bubbles shaped like birds, and unspoken thoughts are given an icon to denote the mind’s eye. Trying to work out what each of these symbols mean is part of the joy of the book. With this in mind it’s rather a pity that the afterword should explain everything this assumption that we need a translation makes me feel rather as if a layer of separation has been placed between the reader and the book.
are The text itself, by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, is workmanlike, serving mostly as a background for the art. Bhimayana doesn’t attempt a comprehensive biography of Ambedkar; what we get instead is a selection of important scenes from his life. At no point does Bhimayana attempt (or claim) objectivity. We are allowed to see the justifiable bitterness against the Hindu religion – at one point the text even makes a flippant comment about the priests’ attempt to “purify” water touched by Dalits by using cow urine. The scorpion speech bubbles occasionally applied to comments that are well-meaning, if ignorant and harmful, Yet none of this is evidence of any kind of simplistic reading of caste. It’s clear
throughout that caste oppression is a complex, many-tentacled beast – Bhimrao faces discrimination from Muslims, Parsis and Christians as well as Hindus. If it’s possible to draw from this book a child’s narrative of good versus evil, this is because the simplest narratives are the most politically expedient. Bhimayana is always conscious of that, and of the sort of book it aspires to be.
“An extraordinary book… No more rectangular framing or unilinear time. No more profiled individuals. Instead, a conference of corporeal experience across generations, full of pain and empathy.”
“The artists have dropped most of the West’s and manga’s typical comics conventions and boldly use of their own artistic heritage.”
Background History of Bhimayana:
Bhimayana is based on incidents narrated in B.R. Ambedkar’s autobiographical notes. These notes were written in 1935 with the objective of disseminating information about the practice of untouchability to foreigners. He documented events from his own life and others’ to provide an idea of the caste discrimination against dalits that is sanctioned under Hinduism. Navayana published them as Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes in 2003.
The book is dedicated to Jangarh Singh Shyam, a pioneer in contemporary Pardhan Gond art. He is credited by Udayan Vajpeyi to be the creator of a new school of art called Jangarh Kalam. He encouraged and guided Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, along with many other members of the Pardhan Gond com
munity, to become artists. He was also Subhash Vyam’s brother-in-law.
In the foreword, art critic John Berger, most famous for his 1972 essay “Ways of Seeing”, commends the refreshing form of story-telling that the book uses. Of it, he says, ‘No more proscenium arch. No more rectangular framing or unilinear time. No more profiled individuals. Instead, a conference of corporeal experiences across generations, full of pain and empathy, and nurtured by a complicity and endurance that can outlive the Market. He believes that such texts will make readers more vested in the story and its message.
The graphic account begins with a frame story of an unnamed character complaining about the ‘these damn job quotas for Backward and Scheduled Castes!’ who is immediately challenged by another character leading to a conversation about the history of caste atrocities in India. He is advised to read about Ambedkar to understand what happened at Khairlanji.
The book then moves on to the narrative of Ambedkar’s life in Books I, II and III.
The Story of Bhimayana:
Bhimayana unfolds in the context of a conversation at a bus stop, apparently between a Dalit woman and a caste Hindu man. The man complains about his dead-end job and blames his situation on job quotas for Backward and Scheduled Castes. This serves as a catalyst for the woman to begin narrating what is essentially the plot of the novel – various instances from the life of Ambedkar and their parallels in the modern scenario.
The novel is divided into four small chapters or ‘books’. Book 1, Water, highlights the pervasive presence of caste in Ambedkar’s daily life. A young Bhim could not drink from the same tap as his upper-caste classmates; furthermore, on a trip with his family, not a single person along the way gave him water for fear of being polluted. This would turn out to be the most unforgettable lesson about untouchability that he would learn. Throughout the chapter, we see excerpts from various modern news articles that show how untouchability is certainly not just a concern of the past. Book 2, Shelter, is premised around Ambedkar’s experiences in Baroda as an adult. He was driven out of a hotel run by a Parsi man for being a non-Parsi, and was further denied accommodation in his Hindu and Christian friends’ houses as well. These moments of transparency show us that untouchability was present even outside the Hindu social order. Book 3, Travel, takes place in Chalisgaon, Nasik where Ambedkar was looking into the social boycott by caste Hindus of the Untouchables in Dhulia. On the insistence of the people, Ambedkar agreed to stay the night with them, but the journey to their neighbourhood was a rather unsteady one. The tongawallas (vehicle drivers) refused to drive Ambedkar and so his tonga had to be driven by a complete novice, leading to an accident. This taught Ambedkar that a Hindu tongawalla, menial in the eyes of caste Hindus, can look upon himself as superior to all Untouchables. It is at the end of this chapter that the initial conversation wraps up. The Hindu man admits
to having a new-found respect for Ambedkar and sees why he is such an icon for Dalits today, despite still disagreeing with his ideology. Book 4, The Art of Bhimayana, introduces the artists and writers and gives us a sneak peek into the making of the graphic novel. We learn about the creative processes that went into the novel as well as the rationale behind them.
A Summary of Bhimayana:
Book I’Water’ sets the scene in 1901, on an ordinary day in Ambedkar’s life as a 10-year-old Mahar schoolboy. He is humiliated at the hands of the Brahmin teacher and the peon who, paranoid about the possibility of contamination, refuse him water. Young Bhim goes back home where he asks his aunt why he I cannot drink from the tap like other boys, despite being cleaner than uppercaste students. The text also juxtaposes Ambedkar’s own lack of access to water at school with his father’s work in Goregaon, which entails ‘helping build a water tank for famine stricken people who would die if it weren’t for his work, Young Bhim along with his siblings is invited to stay with his father in Masur. They get off the train to find that no one has come to receive them and
seek the station master’s help. As soon as they reveal that they are Mahars, the stationmaster turns hostile. He finds them a cart-ride on the condition that they pay double. Eventually they find their father’s house. It turns out that his
secretary had forgotten to inform him of their arrival. The narrative voice moves back to the frame story here, and the unnamed
seek the station master’s help. As soon as they reveal that they are Mahars, the stationmaster turns hostile. He finds them a cart-ride on the condition that they pay double. Eventually they find their father’s house. It turns out that his secretary had forgotten to inform him of their arrival.
The narrative voice moves back to the frame story here, and the unnamed storyteller concludes that Ambedkar said it was because of the secretary’s mistake that he had learnt ‘the most unforgettable lesson about untouchability’. The section ends with an account of Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha against lack of access to water from the Chavadar Tank.
Book II Shelter 1
This section is set in 1917, after Ambedkar returns from Columbia University to work for the Maharaja of Baroda who had sponsored his education. It starts with him boarding a train to Baroda and engaging in a conversation with a Brahmin. Soon Ambedkar realizes that his status as an untouchable, although forgotten by him during his stay abroad, is still an enormous issue in India.
In Baroda, he is subsequently denied entry into a Hindu hotel due to his caste status. Unable to find proper accommodation, he shifts into a decrepit Parsi inn but is thrown out after a few days. As he attempts to find shelter, his friends evade helping him citing problems at home, forcing him to wait in the Kamathi Baug public garden and subsequently, leave for Bombay.
The section ends with the narrative voice of the frame story re-emerging and highlighting caste based discrimination practiced by ‘liberal’ city dwellers. An article from The Hindu titled “Dalit Siblings Thrashed by Landlord” is also put forward to illustrate the difficulties faced by dalits while trying to find shelter in urban areas as well.
Book III Travel –
This section is set in Aurangabad, 1934, wherein Ambedkar travels to Daulatabad with a group of political workers of Mahar and other untouchable castes. Ambedkar reminisces about his experience during his trip to Bombay in 1929, when the untouchables of Chalisgaon sent their nephew to drive Ambedkar to their house on a Tonga because all the Tonga-drivers refused to give Ambedkar, a Mahar, a ride. The driver was unskilled and they meet with an accident, but receive prompt medical aid. Ambedkar then confronts the harsh truth that in a graded Indian society, a highly educated and renowned dalit will continue to be oppressed and deprived of dignity. The section mentions cases of dalits being denied medical care by hospitals. The narrative then shifts to the present, where Ambedkar and his colleagues are prevented from drinking from the water-tank at the Daulatabad fort by a mob of Muslims.
The section ends with the characters from the frame story discussing Ambedkar’s contribution to social equality and justice in India as both an agitator and an architect of the Constitution. The polemic of Gandhi versus Ambedkar towards the end brings to the reader’s attention that, unlike Gandhi,
Ambedkar’s was a far more universal struggle against injustice perpetrated by home-grown casteist oppressors.
Bhimayana This section focuses on the makers of Bhimayana through the same image. text language that has been used throughout the previous sections. This chapter is narrated through the voices of Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. They describe their own background, community, and the importance of Ambedkar in their own lives.
Book IV – The Art
This is followed by an afterword by S. Anand, which explores the process of making Bhimayana and the sources that were used to write the story. In the process, he points out the role of Pardhan Gond bards as the tradition-bearers of their communities in central India, arguing for their continued relevance through the cross-mediation of their performance narratives. He points out the communal nature of the Vyams’ creative process and describes the importance of recognizing traditional crafts-persons as artists in their own right. The title, Anand suggests, is a pun on Ramayana, the Hindu epic tale of Lord Rama.
Anand concludes by describing the collaborative process and how he and the Vyams constantly renegotiated the story itself, incorporating new characters and a greater presence of nature, as well as taking some small liberties with the stories’ source material for the sake of the larger narrative. This section concludes with a focus on the need to address caste and its continued presence as discrimination in India..
A Critical Analysis of Bhimayana:
They have brushes for the buffalo and shears for the goat. They won’t trim a Mahar’s [untouchable’s] hair-
they’d rather cut his throat. Early in Bhimayana, a boy named Bhim experiences the world through violence. Bhim is a Mahar, an untouchable. He knows it’s no fun being one. His gentle face and Bambi eyes in the comic’s version are nobody’s idea of a kickass superhero, but when he grows up Bhim will become exactly that.
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was a leading champion of affirmative action, his labours anchored to the colossus of caste, though often he is only blandly credited with designing India’s constitution. Beginning in the 1920s, he became the country’s most vociferous conscience, criticising Hindu society’s oppression of women and dalits (formerly u touchables) as being inherently anti-democratic. Armed with the liberal crux of reformers such as J.S. Mill, John Dewey, and Booker T. Washington, Ambedkar developed a model of social justice that was widely vilified by nationalists and even by Gandhi, whose own esteemed mandate of freedom comes away looking like the political charter of a posh boy fraternity. Bhimayana (2011) is a graphic account of Ambedkar’s crusade to eradicate untouchability.
Frankly written and drawn in the mnemonic idiom of modern Gond art (as practiced by the central Indian tribal politic called Gond), the book ends up
beautiful, punchy, and always readable. Bhimayana brings together writers Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Along with dalits, the Gond and other tribal civics are India’s protected peoples called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs). Bhimayana was published by Navayana Publishing, a niche press founded in 2006 that focuses on the history and politics of caste in India. S. Anand, one of the book’s writers, is Navayana’s founder-editor.
Mainly two-dimensional and rich in natural motif, Gond drawing tells stories through visual aide-mémoires that artists once applied exclusively to domestic architecture. It’s vibrant in imagery but only tentatively narrative. Yet, recent exponents, like Bhimayana’s artists, owe their ken to artist Jangarh Singh Shyam (represented on the dedication page), who in the 1990s, urged to go professional, substituted multi-coloured clays with paints and ink used on canvas and single-sheet paper.
Beyond this graphic pedigree, the book is also unusually germane for being grounded in present-day journalism. Its two interlocking strands join Ambedkar’s biography with a string of thumbnails about present day caste prejudice, violently pervasive in villages, though all but invisible to most urban Indians. The barbed but seductive quality of this double narrative, the fact that yuppie ignorance is sometimes too easily mocked, makes it that much more impossible to resist second and third readings. This robust exposé about caste is not afraid to tell it like it is that if you think caste is dead, think again.
Former untouchables were outcasts flushed outside the four-level Hindu caste structure topped by brahmins (priests) that was codified about 1500 years ago. They were described as impure and relegated to the rank of those who should not be touched. In reaction, Jotirao Phule, a 19th century anti-caste theorist and reformer, was first to refer to untouchables as ‘dalit,’ which means ‘broken people.’ Ambedkar typically used ‘Depressed Classes’. Meanwhile, Gandhi popularised ‘harijan’ or ‘children of Hari,’ Hari being is the name of a central Hindu god.
But after 1974, when a militant anti-caste movement led by the Dalit Panthers (inspired by the Black Panthers) was crushed by right-wing Hindu political parties working for the state, dalits ditched Gandhi’s benevolent jargon. For being linked to Hindu god meant only more Hindu bondage. They went with ‘dalit’ to oppositely assert reconstitution and, presumably, also give the finger to its real meaning.
Historically, dalits were reduced to performing jobs caste Hindus found polluting. They handled dead people and animals, soil, and waste respectively as cremators, cobblers, potters, gardeners, sweepers, and scavengers. Those who farmed were landless and indentured.
Penury was common, though Ambedkar’s family, like some others from western India drafted into the British army, managed to feint utter poverty. Yet, all untouchables were denied basic civic necessities. Grocery shops were open to limited access. Primary schooling became available only because of British law. Using wells and temples and building imperishable houses was entirely off-limits. Verbal humiliations, thrashings, and fatal threats were givens.
In seeking to reclaim what he called “human personality,” Ambedkar’s call to “educate, organize, and agitate” became a rallying point in his movement for social justice. The first big push came after 1924, when the Bombay Legislative Council’s decree requiring untouchables to be granted access to all public utilities was universally disobeyed.
Collaborating with various progressives, Ambedkar became a leading voice in slowly organising dalits until finally, in 1927, a protest march of 3000 walked peacefully to a town called Mahad where they drank from a tank so far reserved for caste Hindus. This event is known as the First Mahad Satyagraha of 1927. Symbolic but momentous, Ambedkar compared its potential to that of 1789 French National Assembly that abolished aristocracy and liberated the poor. Later that year, he led 10,000 dalits in the Second Mahad Satyagraha. There he burned a copy of the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), a Hindu text that apparently records the words of the universe’s founder Manu who advises torturing untouchables, forcing them into poverty, and subjugating women.
Almost instantaneously, Ambedkar’s decisive segue to dalit political representation put him out of favor with the nationalist elite who called his demands for equality divisive and thus detrimental to India’s struggle for selfrule. In 1932, Gandhi, the holy cow of the Indian freedom movement, went on an indefinite hunger strike, forcing the British to reconsider granting untouchables separate electorates. For Ambedkar, the schism exposed the nationalist Congress party’s doublespeak on caste. Gandhi, who was the Congress’s spokesperson, sought Indian freedom at the cost of silencing minorities; Ambedkar envisioned India first freed from itself, or from Brahminism, which he classed with “the negation of liberty, equality, and fraternity,” a doctrine that became a crucial punching bag in his best-selling Annihilation of Caste (1936).
Over the next fifteen years, Ambedkar spoke and published widely on various issues impacting dalits, such as water policy, agriculture, military reform, labour rights, and Buddhism. Meanwhile, his unabated resistance to the skewed politics of the freedom movement ended in a book released on the eve of India’s independence. His damning critique in What Gandhi and the Congress have done to the Untouchables (1946) leaps off the title page with a quote by Thucydides: “It may be in your interest to be our master, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?”
Despite this, Ambedkar’s polymathic abilities were sought after for the highest privilege. In 1947, the Congress party heading the new government invited him to serve as independent India’s first Law Minister. He became Chairman of the Drafting Committee of India’s constitution and later drafted the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to confer property and divorce rights on women, legalise monogamy, and introduce gender equity. For Ambedkar, it was the country’s most crucial reform, but after a long wait, the Constituent Assembly rejected the bill in a majority vote.
Ambedkar snapped. In 1951, he resigned from the Cabinet with strong words for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, and his peers’ perceived betrayal of comprehensive democracy. His parting speech called inequality the
very soul of Hindu society that if left untouched was “to make a farce of the Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
Within five years, Ambedkar lived up to his old promise to reject Hinduism for an ethically sound religion. In October 1956, about six weeks before he died, he converted to Buddhism along with an approximate 500,000 followers. Considered to be the largest single conversion in human history, it inspired many dalits to voluntarily seek monotheistic faiths. They became Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, though conversion did little to dissolve the stigma of untouchability.
Aptly, Bhimayana’s central character is not Ambedkar alone but also the degrading grind of dalit life among the 60 million in Ambedkar’s time. Both are selectively based on his speeches and the little-known Waiting for a Visa (c.193536), a brief autobiographical text in which Ambedkar charts his political education through a litany of life-altering episodes. Hence, the title Bhimayana, which could be a cheeky send-up on the Ramayana, a pivotal Hindu text that recounts the high-caste mythical god prince Ram’s exile from everyday royal luxuries. Bhimayana’s account of everyday expulsions from ordinary civic dignities water, shelter, and travel presents an alternative epic of heroism. –
The narrative begins with a socially-literate woman and a blinkered man discussing affirmative action in education and jobs, the most common peeve against dalits. The man finds setting quotas aside for dalits unfair. “Oh yeah?” says the woman, and instead refers him to the September 29, 2006 massacre of dalits in Khairlanji, a small village in Ambedkar’s native state of Maharashtra, an alleged bastion of contemporary dalit activism.
For two hours before being dumped into a canal, four members of a dalit family called Bhotmange were variously mutilated, raped, and bludgeoned to an audience of forty village residents. The events were suppressed for over a month. Dalits, mainly lead by women, did not break out into mass protests until a month after the event when a popular blog described the event, suggested state complicity in a cover-up, and encouraged agitation. Predictably, the government suppressed the protests under the charge of waging war against the Indian state.
In using the word Brahminism for such vicious conventions during his time Ambedkar was of course defining more than Brahmins discriminating against untouchables. For him, Brahminism was the very pathology of Indian bigotry ingrained even in non-Hindus, including Muslims, Christians, and Parsis that he foresaw migrating poisonously in low-caste Hindus who history allowing would assume the role of Brahmins. He was right. At Khairlanji, it was low-caste Hindus, not Brahmins, who lynched the dalit Bhotmanges. Note especially why the Bhotmanges were lynched: They were being punished for educating their only daughter, protecting their land from encroachers, and living with the maximum poise their finances would allow, basically exactly what Manu forbids untouchables to covet in the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu).
Bhimayana uses Khairlanji (not exceptional, but emblematic of caste in India) to set off a domino-like chain of news items about dalit lynchings that thematically intercut the three main events of the Ambedkar story and his vari
ous political feats, including the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar’s differences with Gandhi, the Constitution, and the Hindu Code Bill.
Book 1: Water is set in 1901, a landmark year in Indian education as Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, is initiating educational reforms to help Indian students find better jobs. This is fantastic news for the rich, who can afford higher education.
But back in Satara, Bhim is set apart at play and in the classroom. He’s also having a tough time just getting a glass of water. From the school water pump to the village trough, untouchables are denied access at every turn. At one point, a teacher farcically blames Bhim’s thirst on his long hair. The child himself would love a trim, but from whom exactly? Barbers won’t touch untouchables. Through such gentle ironies Bhim’s confusion at caste inequality ex
presses the wrench in simply being dalit: “Animals enjoy more freedom”.
Book 2: Shelter jumps to Ambedkar’s thwarted efforts to put a roof over his head. It’s 1918. He is en route to work for the Maharaja of Baroda who had sponsored his education at Columbia University, New York. In Baroda, unable to lodge at a Hindu hotel (because he might be found out and killed), Ambedkar suffers a dungeon-like room at a Parsi inn, though even this ends in threats to his life. For almost a fortnight he is compelled to hide in public spaces after work. Broken and disillusioned, Ambedkar quits his job and returns to Bombay.
Book 3: Travel is set in 1934. Ambedkar is 43 and a recognized dalit leader with various agitations behind him. Now he is on bus tour with a contingent of political workers. Initially thrilling, the journey ends disastrously when the bullock cart transporting him to his destination in the dalit village meets with a serious accident. The man driving the cart is an unskilled man because no regular driver would risk being polluted by the untouchable Ambedkar.
Here and there in the time-travelling narrative, we confront the Khairlanji syndrome. In May 2008, a dalit man was hacked to death for daring to dig a well on his own small property. Earlier in Jan 2008, after decades of fighting for water, dalits earned the right to use a village pond. But caste Hindus in a uniquely Indian way of saying eat shit – fouled the same pond by channelling the village sewer to it. In November 2007, two dalit women, new mothers, were physically assaulted before eviction from a government hospital. They died soon after.
Horrific regardless, these stories also outdo Ambedkar’s humiliations, not least because they date within the last five years, or 60 years into free India’s alleged ban on untouchability. Led by Ambedkar’s force, the ban along with the enactment of protection of dalits and tribals (India’s indigenous people) under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) was enacted by the Indian Constitution in 1947.
Since Ambedkar is more or less a messiah among dalits, today totaling between 165 to 170 million, or about 17% of India’s population, Bhimayana fawning over him would have been more than okay. Instead, the revival of the hero, who is typically under-acknowledged in mainstream textbooks and popular media, takes place through factual reference and energetic prose. The litany of humiliations is compelling because the writing is talky, the pitch even. Little
Bhim’s acumen for unwitting irony mixes nicely with Ambedkar’s calm eye, cut with the man and woman’s dialogue. Include the steady tide of harsh news clippings flowing through the narrative and you have an all too necessary social history boot-camp.
If sections of the text keep your heart pumping, the graphic patois slows the looking, giving reason to sort out why a stick that beats is sighted like a panopticon, or why a water pump’ seems to want to burst into tears. We can guess that the stick with eyes, a striking theme, is the social CCTV monitoring untouchable life, and the personified water pump is unhappy at Bhim left thirsty at school.
Overall, the drawing is formally busy. Dots, speckles, and mesh-like lines power the images, mainly done in ack with the occasional color spread. But the images are always focused, tweaking the plot, making a comment, or leading the eye to wander into intended asides. Some pages insistently evoke Ambedkar’s mental convolutions when confronted by social prejudice, like where he’s on a train headed to Baroda. His groomed person, well-spoken manner, and general sophistication disguise his untouchability.
The entire journey, rendered as a live, swirling thing, becomes a game of hide and seek wherein Ambedkar must keep up with the false assumptions of his train companions to ensure the journey goes smoothly.
Many images are set within quasi-panels distinct from the traditional sequence of the sequential panel frame. You might say they have a mind of their own, perhaps even hinting at Ambedkar’s own brand of nous, but the styling is collaborative. Where the tempo and method of the telling the story is largely novelistic, the artistic approach is typically Gond, which is a graphic shorthand for legends and genealogies produced in solo illustrations.
Now, Bhimayana is neither a compilation of single-sheet pictures nor a straight out linear narrative. There’s oodles of plot and loads of elaborate scenes, but there’s also heaps of asides, iconic freezes, and historical digressions to warrant chucking the sequential panel frame for something fresher. Like the Gond digna perhaps, a double-edged frame containing allusions to grass and grain, running and whirling water, and paling reeds.
In the book, digna take the shape of broken circles, fan-like insets, and natural forms like fish and hilltops. They let you savour images in bits and pieces and only sometimes link in clear sequence. When they appear to push against one another it’s signal. The story is on the move again, as in the opening spread of Water.
Pintsize Bhim knows all about the dos and don’ts of his station. A split perspective page quickly prospers into multiple digna. The bumpy pace of Bhim’s questions about caste inequality shines through half-arc digna roughly intersecting. Over time, the digna trail sinuously, run jaggedly, or press symmetry on a page. But all over, the reading order, mildly headachy, maps the trespass of an untouchable’s life. His life was no walk in the park. Neither is reading about it.
The blackboard spelling out Bhim’s thirst and the fish strapped on his side. A personified blackboard spells out Bhim’s thirst and the fish shape on his
side turns dehydration into tangible cargo. The fish motif, as both desire and injustice, repeats wherever untouchables are shown struggling to access to water. Mingled everywhere are polarised speech balloons.
Bird shaped ones are for reason and good people. That would be Ambedkar and his social set. The scorpion stinger shaped ones are reserved for irrational. ity and bad folks. These are people who subject untouchables to humiliations, Everywhere they appear, the scorpion stinger inflects the atmosphere with con
tempt. This we might understand was the very air untouchables breathed.
Still, Bhim is not without some ecstasies. The first explicit visualisation of this inner landscape is the image of a train with sprightly whiskers straddling two forest-filled digna. This marks the beginning of episodes in which four children, including Bhim, are on their very first outing abroad’ to the city. No wonder the train evokes the spring and coil of a fantastical feline-reptile. Quaint lines, possibly the text’s only moment of poetic weakness, headline this page. Black ink sings the fresh green of trees. Yet nowhere is the implicit assumption that we all share a common sea of feeling. One is given an image to contemplate and the writing overlaps Bhim’s feeling but does not reveal what he feels. It
does not dilute the status quo of an untouchable’s exile from ordinary dignity. Though vivid and engaging in its details, the drawing is equally standoffish about pouring out its heart. It’s got none of the routine sensuality that one might expect from a story filled with pathos. Figures and faces especially are marionette-like, or at any rate generic. Some wear functional insignia. Ambedkar is marked with glasses. Muslims have little beards. Brahmins have puny tufts of hair poking out from shaved heads. Characters neither smile nor frown. Shiftless pupils pin bovinely sedate faces. And everyone looks like they’ve had a ball with the eyeliner, so every face is equally striking, or nondescript.
Instead, the main prompt for mood and feeling is gesture, icon, and (oddly) chin contour. For instance, Ambedkar’s speech at the Mahad satyagraha bursts out as fresh blue water through loudspeakers in the shape of spouts. The murder of a dalit farmer for digging his own well magnifies in the menace of a giant floating hand plough. Elsewhere, the sadness of Bhim’s aunt, who waves goodbye to him and his cousins, graduates across her mercurial chin. It goes from plump to soft, then drawn in and pointed, all this on an otherwise impassive face.
To hint at and not elaborate is typical in Gond art. In Bhimayana, it translates as art that doesn’t give a toss. The book doesn’t coddle the expectation that awful narratives should make you ‘feel’. It seems more interested in stunning reality checks. That might explain why the preface’s dialogue is dourly upfront about a basic equation: Stating that affirmative action isn’t fair is claiming that Khairlanji and its innumerable cousins are. It might also explain why this is the narrative’s one and only reference to affirmative action.
Reservation or affirmative action for dalits in public education and jobs has been around since 1943, though the semblance of proper implementation didn’t happen until the mid-1960s. Since then, many upgrades to strengthen the resolution tacitly confess the state’s failure in proper application. To this, some would say, serves the dalits right. Anti-reservationists, ho number in
rabid hordes and behave accordingly, claim that quotas lower the quality of education and government service. Their argument is predictably racist: “Dalits genetically lack merit.”
Elsewhere, Anand Teltumbde, dalit activist and author of Khairlanji (2008), while absolutely in favour of the quota system describes it as “a graveyard of dalit aspirations.” This is why urban dalits, aching for a leg-up into mainstream society, have been teaming with right-wing Hindu groups, the old foes of dalit emancipation. This new alliance is bad news for the 89% of dalits who are rural, half of whom are landless, only some of whom farm, the rest of whom are unemployed artisans. Most dalits are looking for better primary, not higher, education, sanitation, vocational training for non-farm work, and improved land distribution. Instead, the state has displaced dalits and forced migrations to appropriate their land for mega-projects and global investors, making rural dalits among the country’s poorest, who Human Rights Watch slot with most pervasively degraded people in the world.
This might explain Bhimayana’s eagerness to bed, not the reservation issue, but the Khairlanji syndrome, which forces one to consider Ambedkar’s utopian oomph in light of atrocities against dalits, such as being coerced to eat each other’s excreta (in the southern state of Kerala in 2003), as if the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) simply doesn’t exist. Indeed, Ambedkar was a radical, a believer in socialist reforms like better land distribution, which few dalit leaders now broach for fear of being labelled communists, unquestionably the dirtiest word in India’s mad race towards privatisation. To its credit, the book repeatedly underscores his radicalism and its potential to change dalit life without watering down dalit desperation.
It tells us that dalits are perhaps as, and sometimes more, vulnerable than in Ambedkar’s time. Its biographical encomium, however ridden with human corruption and social depravity, doubles not so much as an elegy but as a serious wake-up call. Like the voice of reason, the dialogue between the socially-conscious woman and the blinkered man, another homage to Ambedkar’s fight against patriarchy, refreshes the alarm at regular intervals-that one person’s givens are another’s death-wish.
Bhimayanaas a Graphic Novel:
In Bhimayana: Experience of Untouchability, a graphic novel by Srividya Natarajan, Lions and crocodiles, represents the anger of the oppressive Brahmin. Fish and elephants represent the thirst of the Dalits. We an illustration in the book, we see Ten-year-old Bhim Ambedkar, the famous Dalit revolutionist, stands in front of his teacher with a fish in his stomach asking for a drink of water. The teacher calls him a nuisance because he cannot wait till the bell rings, but when the bell rings the peon, the man at the well gives, all the other students water and the peon goes home. Ambedkar has to leave for home still thirsty. As an untouchable, the South Asia society forbids Ambedkar to make bodily contact with the tap. He might infect the water. The pictures deliver information to the reader the quickest, most effective, way possible. It’s this type of image that makes this graphic novel, Bhimayana: Experience of Untouchablility by Srividya
Natarajan and all political graphic novels, so powerful. In this paper, I will talk about how the graphic novelists use both visual devices and literary devices to tell their stories. This gives the reader an emotional charge other forms do not have. They connect to the story on a personal level.
It is becoming more common for authors to use the graphic novel to tell their stories. Literary and visual artists are beginning to combine their media’s to discuss social and political issues and share the cultural experiences seen in the societies in which they live. Authors choose to exercise this form not just because it is fun, creative, and new but because the combination of picture and text gives them something that other forms of writing do not have. They do not just incorporate words; they combine text and images to discuss social and political issues and deliver this information to the reader in the quickest most descriptive way possible. Graphic novels allow authors to provide their readers with a multi-sensory slap in the face. The combination of picture and text forces the reader to come face to face with the social issues these authors are portraying. This visual confrontation is something literary novels, which just feature text, cannot provide.
When people hear the term graphic novel they think of comic books, but comic books and graphic novels are not the same. Comic books are usually selfinterest stories, such as a superhero stories, and typically consist of a serialized, never ending series of books. However, scholars are still using the two terms interchangeably. Graphic novels have characteristics that are much different from comic books. They usually consist of sequential art, “a multilayered narrative; black and with drawings; animal symbolism and anthropomorphization; and biographical elements” (Martin, “Graphic Novels or Novels Graphics”, 171). They feature a beginning, middle, and end. This consists of rising action, the climax or turning point, falling action, and the resolution or denouncement. This is something many comic books do not have. Graphic Novels incorporate both literary devices and visual devices to help them tell their story. They generally discuss more serious subject matter and are commonly “described as a ‘sophisticated, rich, visionary storytelling’.” (Martin, “Graphic Novels or Novels Graphics”, 171) While there are many kinds of graphic novels, the most famous address serious often tragic moments in history and engage in social critique. Art Spieglman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine are two well know examples. Art Spiegelman wrote Maus in the graphic novel style to tell the story of his father’s experience as a Jew during the holocaust. Palestine is a book about the time Sacco spent in Palestine and deprivation he witnessed while he was there.
With the rise in popularity of this form, authors and artists are starting to expand the boundaries and incorporate their own creative visual styles. Some authors have chosen to feature photography in their books giving an exact image to a scene, while others choose to include abstract art leaving the meaning of the picture hidden and open for interpretation. In 2011, the new graphic novel Bhimayana: Experience of Untouchability by Natarajan broke many of
these conventions. This book changes the characteristics that are typically associated with the graphic novel. In Bhimayana the artists, Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam eliminate sequential art, which is one of the most common elements in a traditional graphic novel and what most people think tells the story. Srividya, the writer and Durgabai, and Subhash unravel Ambedkar’s life story and teachings through a traditional India art form called pardhan gond art. The story and pictures flow through the pages. When asked to be the illustrators, artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam said, “We’d like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We shall not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe.” (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 102)Durgabai and Subhash draw on digna art as a guideline for how to create structure without boxing in the characters. Pardhan Gond art originates from the digna. “The ecology of Pardhan Gond art is such that even when dealing with urban subjects we see freefalling animals, birds and trees in landscapes without a horizon. The train becomes a snake, the intimidating fort a lion. The happiness of the people of Chalisgaon who receive Bhim Ambedkar is not conveyed through smiling faces but a dancing peacock. An earthmover used by a dalit, who is killed for digging a well, sheds tears as two cows bear witness.” (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 102)Gond art does not represent what is actually going on, it applies images to signify
emotions and events.
Marjane Satrapi, writer and illustrator of Persepolis, believes that “In graphic novels, the images help tell the story. ‘Images are a way of writing, says Satrapi. ‘When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw it seems a shame to choose one. I think it’s better to do both.”” (Campbell, “Picture This: Inside the Graphic Novel”, 20) Alissa Torres, author of American Widow, writes in the graphic novel form because she believes writing about her husband’s death during 9/11 was not enough. She needed to be able to show the images that bombarded her every day. “Both Spiegelman and Torres use the graphic novel format to help shape narratives giving them linearality) separate various narrative strands (both begin in medias res) and use flashbacks, and untangle emotions. These traits are characteristic of many other graphic novels as well.” (Martin, “Graphic Novels or Novels Graphics”, 171)
Many authors believe the graphic novel form is a more effective way of discussing the oppression, genocide, and war than just writing a prose novel. They capture the reader’s attention and allow them to see what the author wants them to see and pay attention to what they believe is important. The images seen in Joe Sacco’s Palestine are a perfect example of this. “Graphic novels can emphasize certain aspects of reality that conventional prose sometimes cannot. In Palestine, the background drawings – the immediate setting in which Sacco finds himself – convey much information…As Sacco stated at a talk he gave in 2007, the author of conventional prose can occasionally write that ‘there is mud everywhere’ but cannot do so in every paragraph. Seeing its overwhelming presence throughout the novel’s pages, however, can powerfully convey to
readers the crumbling infrastructure, economic underdevelopment, and general desperation characterizing life in the West Bank and Gaza.” (Juneau, “Narratives in Pencil”, 174) You can see this in Figure 2. Through his pictures, Sacco is able to show the reader how bad Palestine really is, forcing the reader to take notice. The text in graphic novels requires the reader to put forth certain amount of attention, while the images add the sensory aspect and suba the reader in a visual world. merge
Bhimayana: Experience of Untouchability is one of the newest graphic novels, first published in January 2011. This book features art by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. After Natarajan asked them to be the illustrators for the book, they refused to confine their art into boxes. They believed art should flow and not be restricted to small-boxed spaces. This eliminated the sequential art that is commonly seen in this form and when they made this decision, they created something new. The artists have also added color to their drawings, which is unusual for this form. They do employ some of the common characteristics within this genre, such as animal symbolism, multilayered narrative, and biographical elements. Most importantly, they added more of India’s culture into the novel. Instead of conforming to the usually graphic novel characteristics, the Vyam’s made their book stand out from the rest. The Gond artists believe that when you look at a good image it brings good luck, so they decorate their houses and the floors with these images. By utilizing this style to illustrate Bhimayana, the artists surround the book with their cultural beliefs and motifs. This gives the reader some insight into the lives of the people living in India and their values.
Graphic novels feature not only textual modes but also visual modes. Textual modes also called “verbal art” unfolds with time as the reader reads the words on the page, while the visual mode (pictorial art) unfolds “through its use of space” (Kukkonen, “Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology”, 3637). The audience takes in everything at once with one image. This mode consists of novels and prose, while visual modes would include films, photography, paintings, etc. Graphic novels combine these two modes. Comic theory suggests that one mode does more for the text than the other does, but in actuality, the text needs both to form an accurate, fully comprehensible, story. The pictures concentrate on displaying a wide variety of information in one moment, but can only portray visible actions; the accompanying text shows elements that the pictures cannot portray, such as thoughts and speech. Karin Kukkonen says, “As a multimodal medium, comics make use of all their modes dynamically when unfolding a story to us” (Kukkonen, “Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology”, 35). This is what makes the graphic novel so appealing to the reader. With the combination of the visual and textual modes, the reader connects to the story on a more personal level and the story come to life.
Many people believe that graphic novels are easy to read and are for people who cannot focus on prose novels. This is completely wrong. Graphic novels may be able to hold the attention of those who usually cannot become en
grossed in prose novels, but this is probably do to the fact that graphic novels are visual and the images guide the reader through the story as opposed to reading left to right and following the words. Images have the ability to present more information than just words can, and in a smaller space. Graphic novels are actually more complex because they force our brains to move in the space between images and word. In Bhimayana, on page 54, seen in figure 3, there is a picture of the Dalits and the Hindus standing around a pool of water shaped as a fish. It looks as though they are having a tug-o-war with each other over the fish. We know that this fish represents water for the community, but because they are untouchables, the Dalits cannot use this water source. So just from looking at the picture you can see that the Dalits are fighting to obtain access to the water source, with Ambedkar’s guidance. Dugabai and Subhash create a figure representing Ambedkar with glasses at the head of the fish. On the opposing page, page 55, there is an entire page backing up this assumption. It is a news article describing the events on March 19, 1927 when the Dalits fought for the right to make contact with the Chavadar Tank. The information the picture gives us in one image takes an entire page of writing. This allows graphic novels to speak to visual learners and auditory learners as well as literate and illiterate.
The graphic novel includes text to narrate the story the novelists are telling by describing the pictures presented and incorporate conversations. Authors do this by using literary devices. The audience reads the rest of the story though the images. The artists apply the image to create feelings, emotions, while delivering information about the story to the reader. The artists do this by exercising different artistic devices, such as color theory, line theory, and backgrounds. As the reader turns from page to page, they experience visually striking graphics. Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics is the authority on this subject.
To critics it may seem as though the graphic novel leaves little to the imagination, but different people can interpret all art in a different way. The art in Bhimayana allows this more than other texts in the past. Durgabai and Subhash base their illustrations in Bhimayana on a cultural art form, the digna, rather than the sequential art seen in most graphic novels. Bhimayana features the image of pointing fingers throughout the narrative. For some readers these pointing fingers could be pointing at the people who are participating in the discrimination of Ambedkar, pointing them out and showing them what they are doing, while to another reader the pointing fingers are discriminating fingers pointing at the untouchables. There are things in pictures that some people pick up while other people do not. Many people are not going to notice all the layers of symbolism featured in Bhimayana, such as the peacock featured on page 79, shown in figure 4. Some people may just see it as a peacock, while others will understand it symbolizes the happiness of the Chalisgaon when they meet Ambedkar. (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 102)
Bhimayana employs both color and black and white. Every image of a
person featured in this novel is in black and white. This is because regardless of the caste, race, or profession society should view all people as the same. Every color, background, shape, and line holds meaning in a graphic novel. These cues allow the reader to draw in information about the subject the authors and artists are trying to discuss. Without these minor differences the reader would not be able to understand the full meaning of the novel.
The effect color has on a reader is profound. An artist decision to incorporate color in his or her graphic novel can be due to many things. Commerce could affect this, or it could be because color adds or takes away something from the story being. Artists have always seen color as something powerful and major in fine art. Some artists spent their lives studying color and believed that it had physical and emotional effects on people. The application of color in graphic novels and comic books has not had so much luck. In superhero comics, artists used the four-color scale along with black ink for line work. The colors where flat and color intensity was restricted to 100%, 50%, and 20%., With colors, artists objectified their subjects and readers became more aware of the subjects physical form than the figures drawn in black and white. Colors are something that graphic novels could start using more effectively. Colors express mood, while tones and modeling could add depth. Color is a sensation. However, when put with the old shape-sensitive line drawings in comics, these colors seem out of place. Black and white and color comics can have completely different effects on the reading experience of a comic. In black and white, pictures communicate the subjects behind the art more openly; the meaning of the novel goes beyond the form, and “art approaches language”. In comics with flat colors, like superhero comics, the” forms themselves take on more significance”. (McCloud, Understanding Comics, 192)Graphic novelists can transform their books into a more invigorating environment of sensations (ambiance) with more expressive colors. (McCloud, Understanding Comics, 192) Color does the same thing for images that the application of line and background and text does. It adds to the story as a whole. It gives the reader more information to take in from a picture and portrays emotion, mood, and feelings that would otherwise not be there if it the writers wrote it in a different form.
Durgabai and Subhash Vyam incorporate color dramatically in their drawings. They draw the people in black and white, while artists highlight much of the background with vibrant colors. This draws the eye towards the background, forcing the reader to focus on what they are displaying in color in some images. The artists usually draw animals in this type of image. They include these animals to signify the emotions of the human characters, such as peacock in figure 4. Another example of this is on page 66, seen in figure 5. Ambedkar is describing his first week of work. He compares himself to “an ox in the oil-press, walking in circles and going nowhere” (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 66). The illustrators draw Ambedkar and the oxen in black and white, showing their connection to one another, while highlighting the circle they are all walking in and their footprints in color. In other images, the background is
one flat color with a black and white figure featured in the middle, this frames the figure and the reader focuses on the actions of this figure. The flat color works as a background for the text; this highlights important news clippings and stories about a caste system still in practice.
Most graphic novels employ black and white drawings as opposed to color. This could simply be because it cost less money to print in black and white, but it could also be the preference of the author. Bhimayana uses color because the art stems from the Gond art tradition. Maus would not be the same story if it were published in vibrant colors. The story is about a dark subject, the holocaust, so it is only fitting that it features dark pictures. Artists that choose to draw the images in their books in black and white depend on line theory.
There are many different graphic artists and they all have their own drawing style, each of which fits the novels they are drawing for. The drawings seen in Dick Tracy by Chester Gould, the audience sees the images as grim and deadly because of the bold line, obtuse angles and the heavy black, while Carl Barks’ images of Uncle Scrooge reveal the opposite. He depicts a whimsical feeling of childhood and innocence by using gentle curves and open lines. By using different lines and styles, the artists are portraying a feeling they wish to invoke in the reader. The emotion they are creating is imperative when it comes to stories about social issues. Joe Sacco’s thick dark lines in Palestine, observed in figure 6, carry a feeling of discomfort for the reader. This discomfort is felt everywhere in Palestine because of the war. The illustrations are the only ways autho can express these feelings to the reader and have the reader keep that feeling though out the novel. Every line has the potential to hold meaning in a graphic novel, depending on its direction, the shape it forms, or the characteristics of the line. Scholars consider a straight horizontal line passive and timeless, while a perpendicular line is proud and strong, and the slanted line can mean dynamic and changing. A shape with sharp jagged lines is unwelcoming and severe; a rounded curved shape is warm and gentle, while a straight-boxed shape becomes rational and conservative. A scratchy line is savage and deadly, viewers see a blotted, splotchy line as weak and unstable, and a straight line with no gaps represents honest and direct. (McCloud, Understanding Comics, 125)
The line work seen in Bhimayana comes from digna patterns. Nearly every line seen in this novel comes from India’s Gond art culture. Everything is connected and represented with nature and animals. Durgabai and Subhash apply the Digna patterns to their images to decorate the background and connect the images to one another. The Digna is an art form created by villagers in India to decorate their houses. Digna tribes believe that looking at these images bring luck into their homes and the people who live in them.
The background of an image conveys emotion within a graphic novel. Even if there is little or no way of telling the internal state of the character by looking at the them, a certain background will usually affect the way the reader experiences their state of mind. These feelings will not be associated with the reader, but rather with the character, they are identifying. If artist chooses to
use the background, it is usually associated with the characters inner thoughts, emotions, and not something the viewer can see on his face. (McCloud, Understanding Comics, 132) too much McCloud, introduce him as the leading au. thority and then see if you can include all his quotes but pepper the essay with other authorities. In Bhimayana, the artist draw images of animals to convey characters emotions, a lion represents something intimidating, while the dancing peacock is a sign of happiness.
One of the easiest and next most effective ways of conveying emotion is with words. Both cartoonist and comic writers struggle with the ability to create sound in a strictly visual medium. To help overcome this obstacle they employ words, whether it is in a word bubble or written in a narrative box. With text, they incorporate literary devices. To add sound to the word “crash” the artist will typically add some of the line techniques I pointed out earlier. They might, for instance, write it with a jagged line in all caps with an exclamation point and the shape of the letters may be sharp and jagged. Authors bring words into play for thoughts and speech. Words have the ability to describe the invisible and to add feeling to an image that is otherwise completely neutral. The Vyam’s include word bubbles in Bhimayana to represent different things. Durgabai and Subhash employ the word bubbles that are in the shape of birds, seen in figure 7, only for characters that are victims of caste. These characters are soft spoken and loveable. They are “men and women who speak like birds” (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 100). The Vyam’s draw the thought bubbles, shown in figure 8, with eyes leading to the bubble and surrounded by a digna pattern. The eyes represent the mind’s eye, they carry words “that cannot be heard but can be perceived” (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 100). The bubbles that represent characters who the Hindu religion benefits with the caste system and love it are made up of circles that overlap each other and slowly get bigger leading up to a clouded bubble, observed in figure 9. These are words that “contain poison, whose touch is venomous”. (Natarajan, Bhimayana, 101) Nevertheless, words cannot do everything. They “lack the immediate emotional charge of pictures, relying instead on a gradual cumulative effect.” (McCloud, Understanding Comics, 135) The application of these images gives meaning that the text lacks. It characterizes the people in the book. These word bubbles and thought bubbles resemble that literary novelist call stream of consciousness. Authors of graphic novels incorporate many of the literary devices seen in literary novels into their novels.
Authors incorporate literary devices in their text to create an interesting and sophisticated story line. They feature the sequencing of events that authors incorporate in their literary novels. This includes rising action, the climax or turning point, falling action, and the resolution or denouncement. Natarajan introduces Bhim Ambedkar in the beginning of her book and tells the story of how badly his peers treated as a child, which directly contributed to his becoming an untouchable revolutionist later in life. The climax is the turning point of the novel; Ambedkar begins the revolution and build up a
group of untouchable to help fight those who are oppressing the lower castes. Because of this first demonstration, Ambedkar begins a fight for the lower casts against the upper caste system. The denouncement is not a resolution; the untouchables are still experiencing oppression today. The end of the book points out that the caste system they are fighting against is not a system set up by society, but is justified by their legal system making this graphic novel a story about “India’s hidden apartheid” (Manivannan, “Book Review”, 1). The news clipping and articles that Durgabai and Subhash collected and included in the book show the reader that this system of oppression is still in practice today.
Hindu religion, a primary religion in India, believes untouchables to be diseased or polluted. Higher Castes consider and treat them as the lowest form of life; they are subordinate to animals. They do not allow them to drink public water or bath in public baths. If someone from the upper castes catches them doing this, they usually suffer a beating sometimes resulting in death. The images and text in the book Bhimayana tell the story of Ambedkar, an untouchable and a revolutionist. The book takes us through the problems he faced in childhood and still in adulthood, after he graduated from Columbia University and having Sayaji Rao (raja of Baroda State) sponsors his education. Graphic novels are not only stories they incorporate literary and visual devices that allow for a wide variety of artistic expression. This combination connects the reader to the subject on a personal level by making them come face to face with the social and political issues still suffocating the people around us. Many of the graphic novels in the past have stuck to the basic graphic novel structure, while some added photography and other minor changes. Bhimayana changes this structure almost completely. By adding space and color, this book gives the untouchables something that they never had. The Vyam’s give their characters room to breathe, they flow through the pages of this book, and their story is told. By breaking down the traditional form of the graphic novel, the artists have drawn more attention to their book and the subjects within it. The readers of this book do not look at it as a graphic novel; it’s a series of drawings that reveal a story. It draws in a more artistic viewer.
Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, the graphic novel is a text which recombines oblivion and memories to churn out a story that is reflective of an angst long suppressed. This graphic novels presents past present and future juxtaposed spatially on the page, expanding on the historical and personal modes, and all the while positing itself on a genre that has never been known as a high brow literature.
The combination of a verbal visual text that weaves the journey of Dr. Ambedkar in a detailed discourse about the combined struggle of the Dalits, the downtrodden and the outcastes including women is a frank testimony to which children can relate to and comprehend. Among children a text which comprises of sequential art gives a practice in the form of meaning, and an imagination which gets concretised by the vivid imagery in the form of pictures. The journey of Dr. Ambedkar was never a matter of words alone, but of
a struggle that is now relegated to the boring history books of records, and which eventually defeats the purpose of a holistic education.
History lessons in contemporary India have always portrayed the Dalits and lower caste communities as downtrodden and oppressed, but their demands for separate electorates in the First and Second Round Table Conferences with the Britishhave been portrayed as selfish and divisive rather than a means of empowerment; and Ambedkar is mentioned as a person who disagreed with Gandhi?s idea of „Harijans? and his vision of a united India during these conferences and subsequently who capitulates to the superior? Gandhian visions of a ,,united? nation in the Poona Pact. He is then completely ignored until the constituent assembly debates and formation procedures, where his appointment is seen as a result of him being a representative of the Dalit communities rather than as a product of his role as a leader or his academic and scholarly qualifications. After the constitution was drafted, he disappears into the oblivion, sometimes mentioned only inside aninsignificant “Did you Know” box and his further contributions and political opinions are disregarded altogether.
This depiction of Ambedkar is perfectly in tune with Carl Jung?s idea of the collective conscious; wherein certain primordial and everlasting images and ideas are transmitted across generations of a society. Contextually speaking, the classical depiction of Lower Castes is them being bothvictims of past injustices and in need for additional safeguards and affirmative action; a fact that exists even today. The consequence of this idea that lower castes need protection is that leaders from these communities are expected to cater to the needs and demands of their own community, and are therefore relatively unrelatable to the other communities. Thus Ambedkar has been restricted in his universality in comparison to Gandhi or Nehru, and is in fact remembered as a figurehead for emancipation of the lower castes, not for his skills as a jurist, his capacity as the first Law Minister of Independent India, or his contributions to the freedom movement, or even as a sound critic of the PostIndependence Nehruvian policies.
of Affect in Learning Methodology Language in the novels are personal and brief (Starr), and so are the books meantfor children to understand the history of India. Relating to a lovable figure of a ,,Chacha? or a pious ,,Mahatma? becomes easier to comprehend compared to a towering figure who headed the Constitution Assembly of the nation. This becomes the first step in creating a formidable distance in the young impressionable minds.
Bhimayana – The Negotiations
Ontologist Bickard made a point, that situation and conventions constitute a kind of „common understanding? of what the social situation is, and this common understanding constitutes a higher level of ontology. Language develops as a system of operators on such social realities thereby greatly complexifying those realities: he went on to explain that once language has emerged, much of social reality is constituted in potentialities for further lan
guage interactions. If the language interaction is skewered in the initial years, it only leads to further distance and degeneration and further oblivion and forgetfulness in the adult years. Under such circumstances, the emergence of the graphic novel Bhimayana: Experiences in Untouchability comes across as an agent of change, a wakeup call for people accepting history of the nation with complacency and blindly being indoctrinated in the traditional depictions of Ambedkar.
The tables are turned by the graphic novel Bhimayana: Experiences in Untouchability, Incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, published by the Navayana Publishing in January 2011, subsequently reprinted in 2012 and 2014. The initiative was taken by Navayana in 2003 with Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes, a brief thirty six paged book priced at forty rupees. Further on, this book finds a mention in the multi volume text based on Ambedkar titled Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, edited by Vasant Moon. The editorial notes mention that some of the original reminiscences were written and drawn by Ambedkar in his own handwriting. The script writer of the graphic novel Srividya Natarajan and S Anand refer to the Ambedkar versions in the episodes and also creates new characters and scenarios. The graphic artists Durgabai and Subhas Vyamwereunschooled people from the Gond Pradhan community of rural Madhya Pradesh. The stories of Ambedkar were recounted by the writer in Hindi to their fourteen year old daughter Roshni, who in turn explained to her parents which finally led to the production of the book.
The aesthetics and narration of this graphic novel challenges the domains of devastating national histories of India, blurring the difference between a contorted image building process and a real life journey of an impressive figure in the history of the nation. Not only has the visuality made the processes of comprehension easier for the readers, the art which draws on the pathos from the present day world, incidents which take place degrading Dalits interweave to bring out succinct contextual issues relevant for the readers.
For instance, the opening chapters of the book highlight the plight faced by the Dalits still now, which is denied or deemed as a forgotten past by the upper castes in concentric overlapping circles in black and white. The newspaper clippings are used to remind about the incident at Khairlanji, where a caste mob brutally paraded and raped a mother and daughter in 2006, the case of honour killing at Swarop Nagar in New Delhi in June 2010, the incidents of practices of untouchability in 2010 at Kolhapur where Dalits were not allowed to draw water from wells, and the fine imposed on a Dalit woman at Morena in 2010 only because she had fed a hungry dog bring a stinging reminder of all those atrocities against which Ambedkar had rallied against. This process appeals to the emotions or the affect of the readers, to those sections who have not been exposed to this side of the society. An empathetic understanding of such issues which are missing in the text books of history in schools or are conveniently overlooked as a lapse of the memory needs to be reviewed once more with the introduction of Bhimayana.
Bhimayana- The Interface of Memory, Orality and Art in the History of India. The Gond art was brought to the forefront by Jangarh Singh Shyam in the mid-nineties who belonged to the Gond tribal community in central India. Their traditional work consisted of maintaining family genealogies, transmitting legends and myths through paintings all which was transmitted to them through the oral culture within the community. The process of internalising of the Ambedkar journeycame easy to Durgabai and Subhas Vyam as they heard the stories orally from their daughter. Even though they were made acquainted to the genres of graphic novels by the writer Srividya Natarajan, of Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Shaun Tan and Osamu Tezuka, the artists counter posed their own ideologies to the visual imagery of the texts. They could relate to the trauma of seclusion and exploitation better than the most. They however did not adhere to the western method of restraining the journey of Ambedkar in panels and gutters, they rather preferred to make it with a lot of open spaces, with air to breath. They felt that their art applied to a system which was “khulla” and felt that they could not cage an expansive person like Ambedkar in boxes.
The open spaces provides the readers to make cognitive constructs of real and imagined events, creating meaning, interpreting symbols and an ability to predict and create cognitive mind maps, opening their visual fields. Bhimayana is neither a compilation of single-sheet picture nor is straight out linear narrative. The use of the Gond digna is like a double-edged frame containing allusions to grass and grain, running and whirling water, and paling reeds.In the book, digna take the shape of broken circles, fan-like insets, and natural forms like fish and hilltops.Edmunds (2006) suggested that with the sequential art children do not need to decode texts to learn and practice comprehension skills. With an art inspired by the earth and its myriad wonderments, the process of a text book reading becomes easy and approachable.
Bhim is the pint size super hero of the novel, with doe like eyes who speaks in speech bubbles drawn in the shape of birds. Interestingly the novel has made a demarcation in the form of speech bubbles as a mark of protest, and subtly introduced the boy Bhim in the text. All the characters who are oppressed, differentiated against or denied speak in the form of bird like speech bubbles, whereas the oppressor?s speech bubbles are markedly different in the form of a scorpion?s sting. The same pattern follows in the story wherein the graphic patois gives reasons to sort out why a stick that beats has eyes similar to a panopticon, or why a water pump seems to want to burst into tears. As Foucault argues in his book Discipline and Punish that prison did not become the principal form of punishment just because of the humanitarian concerns of the reformists, but it is about the cultural shifts that led to the predominance of prison via the body and power. The casteist society that deniesuniform access to water to young boys from a water pump by the help of sticks is also about a society that enforces its biases through misuse of power and politics of numbers.
The politics of numbers has been following a trajectory which Anand Teltumbde, Dalit activist and author of Khairlanji (2008), while absolutely in
favour of the quota system describes it as “a graveyard of dalit aspirations.” The numbers of Dalits are dwindling in places where there has to be a show of strength in numbers, the state also plays the role of a panopticon displacing rural Dalits to appropriate lands for mega projects and global investors leaving behind a trail of helplessness and inadequacy. The game of number is always pitched in the same fashion, a few against the majority. Interspersed between the chapters divisions are the current newsarticles in never ending circles about the atrocities heaped on the Dalits even today, which is one of the most striking feature of the graphic novel.
The symbolisms in the Bhimayana isthe next important feature of the graphic text. It is divided into three segments primarily, Water, Shelter and Travel. If one lo into the Dalit history, these are the main areas in the day to day living of a dalit, in which he/she has been a victim to continual harassment and torture. The oral culture of the tribal paintings amply bearsout the fact, by the characters and story line of the book. Ambedkar is marked with glasses, perhaps to emphasize his erudition. Muslims have little beards. Brahmins have puny tufts of hair poking out from shaved heads. Characters neither smile nor frown. And eyeliner has been applied artfully to bring about the intentions behind the apparently impassive faces. The contouring of the faces are marked by the gestures borne out by jutting chins, for example the sadness of Bhim?s aunt, who waves goodbye to him and his cousins, graduates across her mercurial chin. Furthermore, Ambedkar?s speech at the Mahadsatyagraha bursts out as fresh blue water through loudspeakers in the shape of spouts. The murder of a Dalit farmer for digging his own well magnifies in the menace of a giant floating hand plough. This harks back to the time when art was used to interpret day to day life, till the time verbosity took over.
The Importance of Bhimayana for Children of India.
The irony of a history text book of school is that the major emphasis is on key words and major events mentioned and reiterated by a classroom teaching methodology. The children grow up learning that untouchability, injustices and discrimination have been eradicated by the implementation of fundamental rights and directive principles of the state policy. However with little or no exposure to ground realities, a holistic comprehension of the real scenario is impossible. They grow up to be citizens who are apathetic about cases against atrocities of the depressed classes, with a half-baked sense of justice. The over dependence on the power of written history as an undeniable, incontestable domain also gives fillip to such a sentiment.
Texts like the Bhimayana bring about a revolutionary change in the thinking processes. The verbal visual texts are remarkable in the narration as they stem from histories from below. India being predominantly an oral society, the tales are unfurled anew at every performance, the telling is different, and it liberates the reader from a rigid storyline and accelerates cognition from various angles of a discourse. The discourse itself becomes fluid in such cases, which gets reflected in the language and the imagery used by the artists. The graphic
novel has a huge ramification on the political consciousness of the readers, encourages diverse thinking and makes them question the issues of equality, discrimination, and imbalances in the society. It is explorative, non-judgmental and open to new ideas and forms.
To sum up, it makes Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar very approachable and relatable, his ideas and causes succinct and justified. The use of animal imagery, earthen colours and traditional fonts give a wholesomeness to a story which has still now remained caged in blurry boxes of the history text books. The interjections by the newspaper clippings reinforces the existence of a parallel system which thrives on casteist power and murky politics, inhumane, nasty and brutish. The exposure through a tribal art and an interesting narrative style would be instrumental in triggering off basic human goodness in the future citizens of India, and make it a better place to live in. This is what the great man Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar must have dreamt of eventually for his nation.