Bhimayana The Experience of Untouchability Questions and Answers
Q. 1. Narrate how the graphic novel Bhimayana: Untouchability is produced.
Ans. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability begins and ends with gratitude. Storytellers S. Anand and Srividya Natarajan collaborated with traditional painters Durgabai and Subhash Vyam in recounting several moments in the life of Indian revolutionary Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The book thus begins with a dedication for the Vyams’ teacher, Jangarh Singh Shyam, and ends with thanks for the chance to shape conversations about minority issues in India. The creators have organized the incidents in Bhimayana around three books in relation to the necessities of life: Water, Shelter, and Travel. Before entering the larger story, though, John Berger, in the introduction, points out Bhimayana’s rejection of unilinear time and recognition of history as a changing, living body. From there, through their engagement with the tradition of Gond painting and the life of Ambedkar, the Vyams, Anand, and Natarajan have crafted a story that gracefully weaves together traditional painting and the sequentiality of the comics medium.
Q. 2. Comment on the title Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability is produced.
Ans. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability is a political graphic novel published by Navayana, self-proclaimed as India’s first and only publishing house to focus on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective. Named after Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s socially and morally concerned interpretation of Buddhism, Navayana translates to ‘new vehicle’. In relation to this, there seems to be a certain significance of ‘Bhimayana’ as a title. A semantic analysis of the word indicates to an obvious reference to “Ramayana. In the words of Durgabai Vyam, the artist responsible for the novel “While doing the book I once told Anand (the publisher), this is like the Ramayana! He said, “No, this is Bhimayana’ – and that’s how we hit upon this title.” Bhimayana translates to Bhim’s journey, which is an accurate description of the plot within the novel, however, its deeper political significance exists in the parallels it draws with Ramayana. Reworked folk songs have acted as key tools for the Bahujan Samaj Party in spreading Ambedkar’s ideology since the 1990s. For instance, in one song, Kaushalya Rani (the eldest wife of King Dashratha in Ramayana) is replaced by Ambedkar’s mother. Ram is a central figure in Hinduism and is revered as ‘maryada purushottama’ or the perfect man. Replacing his image in popular culture with that of Ambedkar’s is a powerful subaltern move which essentially flips the Hindu social order on its head, with an Untouchable man as the ideal.
Q. 3. Comment on the use of symbolism in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability is produced.
a Ans. Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability relies heavily on symbolism and a densely metaphoric visual narrative. Bhimayana is generous with its symbolism. The ecology of Pardhan Gond art is such that even when dealing with urban subjects, we see freefalling animals, birds, and trees. A thirsty young Ambedkar is visualised as a fish and happiness is depicted not through smiling faces but a dancing peacock. The artists introduce poignancy into situations and characters through drawings where words would otherwise be lacking. The novel features the image of pointing fingers throughout the narrative. One may interpret the pointing fingers as being aimed in a discriminatory fashion towards the Untouchables. A more pronounced observation, however, may be supplemented by the fact that most statues of Ambedkar erected in his honour depict him pointing forward. This could be a metaphor for progress, a collective movement towards a better, equalitarian future. Another example of universal equality in the novel is shown in the drawing of people; each person irrespective of caste, class, or gender, is drawn in black and white with similar strokes and textures. It subtly enco ncourages the readers to view every character as fundamentally alike. A more pervasive, though perhaps understated symbolic value is injected in the colour blue. It is featured prominently in the novel, whether as bright blue water, or a more muted blue in the clothes of Ambedkar. This bolsters the use of the popular Ambedkarite greeting ‘neel salam’ or blue salute, which embodies Ambedkarite ideals.
Q. 4. Give an instance of visual metaphor in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability and explain it.
Ans. In Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, towards the very end of the narrative we see one of the most powerful of such visual metaphors. The anticaste and casteist urban youth debate Ambedkar’s role in the making of modern India, with the text inked in blue. The entire visual vocabulary is of a human chain, of people holding hands (Natarajan et al. 2011: 90–91). The human chain is spread across two pages, suggesting community and unity. Set within this ‘network’ of human hands is a face-off between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the question of the ‘untouchables’. The two are also framed by a semicircle of people listening to them and witnessing the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate (90–91). The power of this set of pages lies in the way in which the Ambedkar-blue human chain (blue is traditionally the colour of Ambedkarites) spreads wider than the subset of people listening to the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, symbolically attesting to the concerns of a larger section of humanity.
Q. 5. Comment on the significance of the inclusion of a fourth book, “The Art of Bhimayana,” in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability and explain it.
Ans. The inclusion of a fourth book, “The Art of Bhimayana,” demonstrates that the authors were aware of and even intentionally emphasized this fusion.
The Vyams portray themselves describing the creative process to the reader in this section. They describe their own backgrounds, communities, and the importance of Ambedkar in their own lives. In a following prose piece, S. Anand then contributes his own voice to this narrative of the book’s creation, though he adds a contextualization of the work within the Pardhan Gond art movement. 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. Anand helpfully points out the communal nature of the Vyams’ creative process and describes the importance of recognizing traditional craftspersons as artists in their own right. Anand also describes how, despite not being familiar with Ambedkar beforehand, the Vyams made the story their own by following their own model of sequential narrative as grounded within Gond painting and design. 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 for nature, as well as taking some small liberties with the stories’ source material in the name of the larger narrative. This section concludes with a focus on the need to address caste and its continued presence as discrimination in India today.
Q. 6. Discuss how the Pardhan-Gond art form is used in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability and explain it.
Ans. The graphic novel is a term first coined in English in 1964, thus being a very young form of artistic expression. Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam added their own twist to the art form, by not confining their characters to boxes, creating ‘space for all to breathe’. With customary tribal patronage dwindling over the past century, tribal art has become a dying medium, and in this context, the decision to employ tribal artists to illustrate the story of an Untouchable leader becomes all the more significant.
There are hundreds of such details scattered through Bhimayana: the train in which young Bhimrao Ambedkar travels to his father’s house has carriages with disproportionately large eyes filling the windows, large snails curled up on the outside and wheels that resemble serpents’ heads; a water tank is given the shape of a fish; an animal head protrudes from a man’s trouser legs. Some juxtapositions and artistic flourishes are just as startling in their own way as anything done by the Surrealists. People walking across a green field are represented only by their heads and feet. A group of men threatening Ambedkar are depicted as heads placed atop the sticks they are wielding (as if to suggest that their prejudices have reduced them to symbols of pure violence).
Several artistic choices throughout the novel are quite obviously politically charged. The speech bubbles that contain dialogue are of two types. One is in the shape of a bird, and it contains the dialogues of characters whose speech is soft, the lovable characters, the victims of caste”. The second type takes the shape of a scorpion’s tale, holding the dialogues of ‘characters who love caste, whose words carry a sting and contain poison’. This polarisation of characters is a clear representation of the authors’ perspective, which is unabashedly anticaste. It depicts Ambedkar as the well-meaning protagonist and caste Hindus as the evil antagonists. A third bubble is that of the thought bubble, pictured to be stemming from the mind’s eye to contain words that cannot be heard but can be perceived’. This appears to be a subtle reference to the Third eye in Buddhism, which is the inner eye or eye of wisdom. The artists incredibly infuse deep meaning into features that can be overlooked as simple aesthetic tools.
Q. 7. Discuss how Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability exeplifies of untouchability even outside the border of Hinduism.
the practice Ans. The Vyams’ art offers an extraordinary contrast between cruel humans and the sentimental non-human. I have already cited the crying harvester machine visual metaphor above. The water pump, in the midst of the water debate, expresses distress and annoyance. The train on which Ambedkar and his siblings have their momentous journey is cheerful. Similarly, the bus on which Ambedkar and his colleagues travel is benign-looking.
Cultural and linguistic diversity, with Parsi, Muslim, Christian, Mahar and various Hindu portraits, serves to show how the untouchables are uniformly disenfranchised by all social, religious and linguistic groups in India. There is a clear subtext here, where India’s greatest cliché, ‘unity in diversity’, is reflected irony in the unity of Parsis, Muslims, Christians and Hindus in their ill-treatment of the Dalits. 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. Ambedkar’s thoughts are given to us here: ‘a person who is an untouchable to a Hindu is an untouchable to a Parsi, and also to a Christian’. Multiple registers are also deployed to give us the social and the personal, the collective and individual story. Rhyming poetry is used to describe caste-based oppression, symbolically showing the clash of registers between the poetic and the ruthlessly ‘prosaic’ (banal?) nature of casteism. Official letters from Ambedkar are reproduced. Newspaper accounts of caste atrocities across India are placed in text boxes. with tra a
Q. 8. Discuss the importance of the introductory conversation in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability.
Ans. The tale opens with an urban youth’s immediate identification of ‘Ambedkar’ as somebody who is represented by statues around the country (Natarajan et al. 2011: 14). This reference to already existing and therefore recognizable visual images is crucial, for Bhimayana’s cultural work is to generate what Sumathi Ramaswamy calls the ‘interocular’ field. The interocular is the field wh the sual intersects with other ima from other media, thereby reconfiguring the familiar (Natarajan et al. 2011: xvi). The statues of Ambedkar
and Bhimayana’s visual representation of the early life of Ambedkar, the symbolic representation of massacres and suffering – Ambedkar’s as well as other instances such as Khairlanji – open up a whole new visual field: of caste-based atrocity that impinges upon us. The purpose here is to draw the ‘statues’ into the field of common knowledge. Urban youth do not know anything about either Ambedkar (except his statues) or caste atrocities in India. I am proposing that Bhimayana taps into a visual literacy already generated by an existing interocular field where we are called upon to move beyond the statues to the story behind the statues, even as we are ‘shown’ the contexts of both Ambedkar and our (re)reading of his life in the events unfolding today across India.5 That is, Bhimayana’s interocular field draws existing visual cultures of both Ambedkar and the horrific representations of caste-based massacres into its ambit and our reading practice. Hereafter, we will widen our visual field, as Bhimayana causes Ambedkar and caste-based atrocity to erupt into the present.
Q. 9. Discuss how Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability opens up the cultural realm to human rights discourses.
Ans. Bhimayana opens up the cultural realm to human rights discourses. The cultural is the space where human rights are staged for common consumption. It is the domain where an implicit discursive operation of human rights – equal rights, human dignity, protection against torture can be discerned in narratives of violations, abuse and rights-denial. The culture of human rights strengthens and expands the moral project of human rights when literature and cinema trigger the moral imagination of listeners and viewers about the fate of Dalits, genocide victims, the destitute and the abused. It is in popular representations such as Bhimayana’s that the essential critical literacy about human rights originates.
Bhimayana offers human rights, the problem of casteism, and the inner workings of an oppressive society a significant cultural legibility. If cultural legibility is the narratological – representational – foundation of human rights, it demands and implies a popular acceptance of the norms, values and belief systems about human rights through the consumption of these narratives. In the case of the United States, studies have shown that genres like the graphic novel have empowered teachers by combining “recreational reading’ and ‘advanced themes in literature and visual literacy’. It is this conflation of the popular with the critique (or the critique within the popular) that enables the cultural legibility of contentious social issues, and bestows upon concerns about human rights, which are otherwise debated mainly in the realm of the legal-juridical, a cultural legitimacy. Cultural legitimacy’, as I have defined it, is the popular acceptance of the norms, values and belief systems through the consumption of particular narratives. Bhimayana offers the human rights ethos this essential cultural legitimacy precisely because its register is the popular.
Q. 10. Comment on the tribal art form in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability.
– Ans. The detailed comments on the ‘tribal art of Bhimayana in Anand’s essay and in other media such as the Washington Post article not only highlight an ethnic art form, they also shift it out of the realm of the ethnic – rooted in an ethnos or ethos – and into what can be termed the global-popular, with its own market share. ‘Authentic primitive art, notes anthropologist Sherry Errington, ‘dies’ in one sense because its ‘producers’ (the tribes) are dead or dying, even as the ‘concept of authentic primitive art is alive arid well among collectors, primitive art galleries, and the art markeť (1998: 3–4). In Bhimayana a tribal art form is used to craft Dalit/untouchable, thereby bringing together the Dalits and the tribals in a problematic move because historically the relations between the two have not always been exactly harmonious. It also converts Gond art into a commercially attractive mode of illustrating a subaltern social issue, symbolically investing a pre-modern (Gond art dates back centuries) form with considerable `authenticity’, keeping it alive through a publishing project that targets an elite English-reading public in contemporary India and the world. Anand claims he was looking to provide the artists with a ‘challenge that did justice to their sophisticated visual language’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 100). Thus, Gond art fits the art market of the publisher, even as the tale to be narrated for a social cause fits the art form, each authenticating the other, suiting the other. Ambedkar’s struggles against the tyranny of the caste system could not, if Anand is to be believed, be represented through the ‘tyranny of conventional panels without compromising on the [Gond artists’] credo of not forcing people into boxes’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 102). In other words, Anand suggests that the ‘tyranny of the conventional comic book format (panels) would simply replicate, in art form, the tyranny of a social system. The challenge was to find an art form that was ‘open’ (which is how the artists describe their work, Natarajan et al. (2011: 100)) in order to reflect a move towards openness and caste-less equality in the social domain. A more authentic mode, supposedly, would be an ‘open’ art form, which thus enters the process of cultural production as well as a political medium: the comic book, Bhimayana.
Q. 11. Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability is more than a biography- comment.
Ans. The Ambedkar story in Bhimayana is at once a biography and something more. It ensures that the individual’s story is merged with, or stands for, the story of a collective. The collective is not a group of identifiable individuals, but rather types in Bhimayana’s non-realist mode of representation, akin to Spiegelman’s Maus. Spiegelman’s non-realist and symbolic representation of his characters (Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice) drew attention to the dehumanization of victim and perpetrator in the genocidal state: the Jews were not ‘persons’ in Nazi eyes, they were just types (Orvell 1992: 0-21). Indeed, it is the anti-realism and heavy symbolism that makes us conscious – to reiterate,
critical literacy includes an incessant alertness to form, and the ways in which a text’s formal properties work on the reader – of this condition of de-humanization. Bhimayana does not seek realist presentations of people either. The characters do not necessarily allegorize a reality of their own, but we, as readers, are asked to enter their world, to see ourselves in what is going on.4 In the non-realist mode of Bhimayana we see a type, the oppressed, rather than clearcut individuals. We have identical faces of Dalits listening to Ambedkar and identical faces representing ‘orthodox Brahmins’, for instance.
a There is a factual biography about Ambedkar that, in conjunction with the powerful visual vocabulary of atrocity and suffering, unsettles us. Speeches by Ambedkar constitute yet another register (Natarajan et al. 2011: 48–49, 51). The multiple registers ensure that no voice is dominant, and that all narration is finally linked up with the historical events (Ambedkar’s life) and contemporary reality (represented in the newspaper reportage). This unsettling tone of the work is perhaps its single greatest achievement as it prods us into acknowledging multiple modes of telling the story. It also refuses the comfort of claiming as the young girl (the first-level narratee) does, that all this happened more than a hundred years ago’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 45) when it shifts from Ambedkar’s India to contemporary India. Breaking the spatio-temporal frames with its contemporaneity of the past embodied in these multiple narrative reg. isters, Bhimayana maps a continuum, from late nineteenth-early twentiethcentury India to the present.
Q. 12. Discuss Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability as a graphic novel.
Ans. 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.
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.
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.
Q. 13. Comment on the use of colour in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability.
Ans. 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.
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.
Q. 14. Comment on the use of speech balloons in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability.
Ans. 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, only for characters that are victims of caste. These characters are soft spoken and loveable. They are “men and women who speak like birds”. The Vyam’s draw the thought bubbles 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”. his appears to be a subtle reference to the Third eye in Buddhism, which is the inner eye or eye of wisdom. The artists incredibly infuse deep meaning into features that can be overlooked as simple aesthetic tools. Another type takes the shape of a scorpion’s tale, holding the dialogues of ‘characters who love caste, whose words carry a sting and contain poison’.These are words that “contain poison, whose touch is venomous”. Nevertheless, words cannot do everything. They “lack the immediate emotional charge of pictures, relying instead on a gradual cumulative effect.” 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.
Q. 15. How did Ambedkar observe the second Mahad Satyagraha in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability? Why did they burn a copy of “Manusmriti”?
Ans. In page 53 of the graphic novel Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability we find the mention of the second Mahad Satyagraha. It is said that on 25 Deccember 1927, 10000protesters joined the Mahad Satyagraha.Ambedkar and his followers put a copy of the “Manusmriti’, a Brahminical Hindu text that unheld the ideology of caste, on a pyre and ceremonially set it on fire. Ambedkar said this was like Indian ‘Swadeshi” nationalists burning foreign cloth to challange colonial exploitation.
Ambedkar burned Manusmriti because in that rext, the following verdicts are given: A Shurdra [low-caste) who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste shall be branded on his hip and be banished, or the King shall cause his buttocks to be gushed.
The service of Brahmins alone is declared to be an excellent occupation for a Shudra.A Shudra should not amass wealth, even if he has the Shudra who has amassed wealth annoys Brahmins.
A woman is not fit for independence. Her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards her in youth, her sons in old age. Man must keep their woman dependent day and night and keep undertheir own control those who are attached to sensory objects.
Q.16. What is Mahad Satyagraha? Discuss it with an illustration in Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability.
Ans. Mahad Satyagraha or Chavdar Tale Satyagraha was a satyagraha led by B. R. Ambedkar on 20 March 1927 to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad (currently in Raigad district), Maharashtra, India. The day (20 March) observed as Social Empowerment day in India.
By the Indian caste system, untouchables (Dalits) were segregated from the other Hindu castes. They were banned from using water bodies and roads which were used by other Hindu castes. In August 1923, Bombay Legislative Council passed a resolution that people from the depressed classes should be allowed to use places which were built and maintained by the Government. In January 1924, Mahad which was part of the Bombay Province passed the resolution in its municipal council to enforce the act. But it was failed to implement because of the protest from the savarna Hindus.
In page 48 of the graphic novel Bhimayana: The Experience of Untouchability we find the mention of the Mahad Satyagraha. We find Ambedkar giving a long speech on the context of the Satyagraha and his speech reaches to the audience like numerous spills of water. Ambedkar says,
“This Chavadar Tank in Mahad is public property. The caste Hindus of Mahad are so reasonable they not only draw water fron the tank themselves but freely permit people of any religion, including Muslims, to draw water from it. Nor do the caste Hindus prevent members of species considered lower than the human, such as birds and beasts, from drinking at the tank. They prevent the untouchables from drinking the water not because they suppose that the touchh of the untouchables will pollute the water or that it will evaporate and vanish. The reason it they do not wish to acknowledge by such permission that castes declared inferior by sacred tradition are in fact their equals. It is not as if drinking the water of the Chavadar Tank will make us immortal. We’ve survived well enough all these days without drinking it. We are not going to the Chavadar Tank to merely drink its water. We are going to the tank to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.”