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Inequality and Adversity, in Content and Form: The Indian Graphic Novel Bhimayana by E. Dawson Varughese

15 Jun

The Indian graphic novel Bhimayana: experiences of untouchability was published in 2012 by a New Delhi-based company called Navayana. The book charts the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891 – 1956) who campaigned for equal rights and an end to social discrimination in particular towards ‘untouchables’ or ‘casteless people’ in India. He was the principal architect of the Indian Constitution. The graphic novel blends biography, Indian legislation, letters penned by Gandhi and primary source material in the form of newspaper clippings of the post-millennial period; the clippings sadly underscoring how important issues of untouchabilty remain in today’s India. Untouchability in contemporary India, like earlier eras, ostracises groups of people by depriving them of their legal mandate and excluding them from social customs and cultures. Ambedkar, one of India’s ‘foremost revolutionaries’ (Bhimayana 2012 – back cover) grew up as an untouchable and faced discrimination throughout his life; this graphic novel explores such instances as he is refused water, accommodation and his right to education.

My most recent work [1] is interested in visuality and ‘new ways of seeing’ in post-millennial India and for me Bhimayana (2012) is part of a larger body of work which invokes new ways of seeing in New India. These new ways of seeing correspond to post-millennial trends in visual cultures and creativity which in turn, often depict India in challenging and inauspicious ways. Much of life in New India today involves new forms of cultural consumption and much of that cultural consumption has to do with ‘seeing’. Lutgendorf (2006) tells us that ‘…‘‘seeing’’ was (and continues to be) understood as a tangible encounter in which sight reaches out to ‘‘touch’’ objects and ‘‘take’’ them back into the seer’ (2006: 231). It has been argued that the role of visuality in Indian culture is defining, given the concepts of darshan and drishti which are usually translated as ideas of ‘seeing’ or ‘gazing’ and are at the heart of Hindu modes of visuality (see Ramaswamy, 2003: xxv). Freitag (2003) argues that the visual realm is a critical component in South Asian modernity because: ‘[A]cts of seeing become acts of knowing as viewers/consumers impute new meanings to familiar images. Such agency enables a civil society to grapple with change through indigenous sociologies of knowledge so that it can be naturalised and accommodated.’ (2003: 366) Lutgendorf (2006) reminds us of the power of darshan/darśan when he writes that ‘darśan is a ‘‘gaze’’ that is returned’ (2006: 233, original emphasis) and in his work, he has translated darśan as both ‘visual dialog’ and ‘visual intercourse’ (2006: 233) in order to emphasise the idea of communication between the gazer and the gazed upon.

Post-millennial India’s immense socio-cultural change has to date involved learning new ways of ‘seeing’, which in turn have been linked with consumption and markets (Asendorf, 1993: 47). Media, advertising, domestic book cover design, television and satellite are all sites of the new ways India is involved in ‘seeing’. The importance of the pictorial within Indian cultures that Pinto (2004: 28) writes of is evidently as significant today as in older Indias; the use of pictorial communications, in particular in advertisements, warnings, social activism, and matters of public health are all commonplace elements of Indian public life. Appadurai and Breckenridge (1998) write of this interaction between people and their ocular experiences saying: ‘The interweaving of ocular experiences, which also subsumes the substantive transfer of meanings, scripts, and symbols from one site to another (in surprising ways), is a critical feature of public culture in contemporary India.’ (1998: 12)

This idea of new ways of looking, seeing and consumerism certainly speaks to the post-millennial body of graphic fiction within the literary scene in English as this ‘new’ form of literary expression which evidently involves ‘seeing’ is becoming ever more popular. In her review of Ghosh’s graphic novel Delhi Calm (2010) Nandini Chandra (2010) writes: ‘Graphic novels typically characterised as cool and edgy, have emerged as niche pop culture in the youth market.’ (2010: 12) This youth market that Chandra speaks of has been particularly evident in activity such as the Comic Con which took place in India for the first time in 2011, or the launch events around newly established comic/graphic novel publishers in urban centres around the country. Such graphic novel publishers are often engaged in narrating challenging and inauspicious Indias; themes of rape, abuse and terrorism often contest a more ‘dignified’ history of Indian comic culture. This history is notably the series which celebrated Indian culture through its depictions of India’s brave hearts, revolutionaries and Hindu epics. Despite the recent growth in the graphic novel publishing scene, the reception of graphic novels within India remains fractured and uneven. For some, this nascent strand of literary expression is seen as lacking in mastery. For others though, the idea of a visual narrative speaks to much more established notions of Indian storytelling. Pinto (2004) reminds us of the deep connection India has with the pictorial when he writes that ‘[S]equential art is not a cutting-edge medium; it’s been with us since the first patachitras [2] were drawn and then explained in villages.’ (2004: 28)

Bhimayana (2012) talks to this idea of a ‘deep connection’ with the pictorial as its artwork is in the Pardhan Gond style and this type of artwork and painting is referred to as being adivasi or ‘tribal’ art. The Gond style of artwork can be traced back to Bharat Bhawan, a state-sponsored institution of art and culture (see Chatterji, 2012: 15). This artwork is therefore relatively recent in its inception and yet is deeply connected to the land through its adivasi (tribal) roots. It was through the institution of Bharat Bhawan that the founder of the Gond art tradition, Jangarh Singh Shyam became established. Jangarh is a Pardhan Gond and his work is strongly influenced by the religious and narrative traditions of the Pardhan Gonds, notably cosmology and the ‘mythic universe’. On this artwork Chatterji (2012) writes: ‘It was the exposure to new media – brush, paint and paper – that gave the Pardhan-Gonds a new vision. It gave faces to their gods and allowed an iconography to emerge, an iconography that was flexible and unhampered by rigid codification.’ (2012: 41)

What is particularly interesting, if not curious about the production of Bhimayana (2012) is the choice to use Gond art to visualise and narrate the story of Ambedkar, an untouchable. In one respect, the choice is a precarious one as it might suggest to those new to Gond art that the artists are, like Ambedkar, belonging to an untouchable caste or more worryingly, that all ‘tribal’ or adivasi peoples are ‘untouchable’. In another respect, the choice to tell Ambedkar’s story through tribal art makes sense, it carries impact as a unique piece of collaboration and moreover, rides of the back of the Gond art wave of the post-millennial years. Bhimayana (2012) began in 2008 when Navayana’s S. Anand first approached two Pardhan Gond artists; Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. The narrative of Ambedkar – his move from marginal and peripheral socio-cultural positions to empowered and central positions of power and influence – is captured in the artwork of the graphic novel and in turn, this transition echoes the struggle of Gond artists in their move from tribal lifestyles to urban, even international ways of living. Jangarh, the founder of Pardhan Gond art exhibited in cities in India, in Paris at the Pompidou Centre and most latterly Japan. Treated unfairly in Japan whilst on a residency – his paintings fetched a handsome price of which he saw little – with his passport kept by the authorities, Jangarh became depressed. He committed suicide in 2001; he was not even 40 years old.

© Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd. p.48

© Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd. p.48

© Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd. p.49

© Navayana Publishing Pvt Ltd. p.49

In this extract from the graphic novel (a double page spread), Ambedkar is lobbying for the untouchables to take water from a public body of water in a place called Mahad. The colours used here are natural and earth-inspired colours. These colours are taken from clay or matti which is traditionally gathered by the Gond people at different seasons as each season yields a different coloured clay from areas around the Narmada river. At this point the high caste Hindus were preventing the untouchables from having access to the water and the situation was very tense. The artwork on this page also shows the Gond’s association of peace with the fish motif. Ambedkar is shown on the right hand-side reaching into a body of water which is kept safe by a fish. No matter how difficult situations became, Ambedkar always looked to resolve the situation peacefully.

Curiously, Navayana’s graphic novel Bhimayana (2012) does not only speak of the struggles that Ambedkar faced as an untouchable in Indian society, it also narrates the struggle for equality that Gond artists and adivasi artists more generally have faced in recent times. In the afterword of Bhimayana (2012), we are told by one of the artists – Durgabai – that on her arrival at Navayana’s office in New Delhi, the landlady of the building would not allow her and her husband in; the landlady could not believe that they were artists and called the couple ‘yokels’. Durgabai states in the afterword – visually and narratively – that this incident was abusive and hurtful, and that it reminded the couple of Ambedkar’s plight.

Navayana’s Bhimayana (2012) interrogates new ways of seeing and telling contemporary Indian history. It foregrounds an India of inequality whilst simultaneously celebrating the artwork of the Pardhan Gonds who, like Ambedkar have faced discrimination and maltreatment. This work plays to New India’s markets and consumer cultures whilst simultaneously narrating the challenging but maybe more significantly, Bhimayana (2012) allows certain ‘acts of seeing’ that subsequently translate into ‘acts of knowing’ as the consumers of Bhimayana (2012) are involved in producing new (more relevant) meanings for the life narratives of one of India’s most famous figures: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

References

Appadurai, A. and Breckenridge, C.A. (1998) ‘Public Modernity in India’ in C.A. Breckenridge (ed) Consuming Modernity: public culture in a South Asian World Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press

Asendorf, C. (1993) Batteries of Life: On the history of things and the perception in modernity (Tr. Don Reneau), Berkeley: University of California

Chandra, N. (2010) ‘Powerpolis’ Biblio September-October http://www.biblio-india.org [accessed April 2013]

Chatterji, R. (2012) Speaking with Pictures: folk art and the narrative tradition in India New Delhi: Routledge India

Dawson Varughese, E. and Lau, L. (2015) Indian Writing in English and Issues of Representation: Judging More than a Book by its Cover Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan UK

Dawson Varughese (2014) ‘New ways of seeing in New India’: interview with Studio Kokaachi South Asian Popular Culture Routledge July 2014; 12(2)

Freitag, S.B. (2003) ‘The Realm of the Visual: Agency and modern civil society’ in S. Ramaswamy, (ed) Beyond Appearances?: Visual practices and ideologies in Modern India New Delhi: SAGE

Lutgendorf, P. (2006) ‘Is There an Indian Way of Filmmaking?’ in International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 10, No. 3 (Dec), pp. 227-256

Pinto, J. (2004) ‘Thinking Out of the Box’ Biblio July/August http://www.biblio-india.org [accessed 11/04/13]

Ramaswamy, S. (ed) (2003) Beyond Appearances?: Visual practices and ideologies in Modern India New Delhi: SAGE

Vyam, D., Vyam, S., Natarajan, S. and Anand, S. Bhimayana: experiences of untouchablity (2012) New Delhi: Navayana

[1] See Dawson Varughese (2015) Indian Writing in English and Issues of Representation: Judging More than a Book by its Cover (co-authored with Lisa Lau).

[2] Cloth-based scroll paintings.

Elements of this blog were shared at Lancaster University’s (UK) Writing for Liberty conference in April 2015. The author E. Dawson Varughese is a global cultural studies scholar whose specialism is India. See her work at http://www.beyondthepostcolonial.com

 
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