Ambedkar in still life

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Why do Indian graphic novels keep offering us stunning art and sluggish stories, asks Gaurav Jain

Confluence The Mahad satyagraha as depicted in Bhimayana
Confluence The Mahad satyagraha as depicted in Bhimayana

THE GRAPHIC novel is inherently an interpretative form and relies much on swift audacities. In India, where graphic novels still have the shine of a young cult, we tend to ignore this and rely instead on other novelties — such as the surprise of deploying indigenous art for this modern form, as with architect Gautam Bhatia’s recent collaboration with Mughal miniature painters. Now, we have two Gond tribal artists from Bhopal who’ve produced a graphic novel that narrates a few episodes from the life of BR Ambedkar. As with Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s meticulous Delhi Calm or George Mathen’s muscularly silent MoonwardBhimayana is more art, less novel.

Divided into sections of Water, Shelter and Travel, the book presents Ambedkar’s lessons in untouchability as a kid and as a young man — denials of thirst, roof and transport. This historic struggle to realise Dalit selfhood is juxtaposed with news items of caste atrocities in contemporary India.

Madhya Pradesh’s Gond art, which transitioned from village walls to ‘fine art’ on paper about 30 years ago, presents clean-bordered figures filled with intricate patterns of dots or lines. The style derives mostly from traditional murals and tattoos with pastoral motifs like ubiquitous fishes and swaying trees. The artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have innovated mural patterns as page-dividers rather than right-angled boxed images, with the result that the story literally flows along the pages. The Vyams use earth colours, animistic speech bubbles and keep their lines lyrical rather than geometrical. Some tricks nestle particularly well in bookmaking, like depicting forms within forms (eyes protruding from an eye) and forms without forms (hands gesturing without arms). Without the Western technique of boxed framing, these off-scale and often immense figures open up the book’s pages even as their dizzying intricate patterning is set against gratifying amounts of white space, so that Bhimayana doesn’t feel like a rectangular book anymore but rather a slide wavering in your hands.

Purists often crack the chestnut that graphic novels need to be reread, not read, and Gond art’s thick symbolism helps them plenty here: a slow train’s wheels are snails, a thirsty Ambedkar is drawn with a fish inside him, his famous Mahad speech emerges from loudspeakers as a water sprinkle that stuns his audience. However, the piquantly androgynous figures (women without busts, men with rotund, tense bottoms) and their permanently impassive faces do tend to produce a sluggish mood, and the violence and action seem to happen in dreamy slow motion.

A slow train’s wheels are snails. A thirsty Ambedkar is drawn with a fish inside him. His Mahad speech emerges from the loudspeakers as a water sprinkle

BHIMAYANA Art: Durgabai & Subhash Vyam Story: Srividya Natarajan & S Anand Navayana 106 pp; Rs. 395
BHIMAYANA Art: Durgabai & Subhash Vyam Story: Srividya Natarajan & S Anand Navayana 106 pp; Rs. 395

But perhaps we shouldn’t blame the artists here, for the main problem with Bhimayana is once again what ails most Indian graphic novels — a listless text. The NGO-brochure story lulls you with its sweetness, then tries slipping in some harder pellets of lessons in suffering. You feel a sober fury at reading the inserted news items — like the 2007 report of two women who died after childbirth, when they were thrown out of hospital for not paying a bribe — Ambedkar’s story, in contrast, is too fragmented to accumulate any power. The narrative progresses in a childish singsong (“Here comes our station. Let’s get off quick”, “I’m so hungry and thirsty”, “My friends, thank you for your hospitality”); people speak in a bewildering jumble of jolly Americanisms (“my grub”), unctuous Britishisms (“Now sod off”) and hearty patois (“Because you’re untouchable, boy”). These staccato effects make a dandy rhythm, but finally this is a book written for beginners — children or foreigners.

Ambedkar’s chronicle here is simple, simplistic, simplified — where are his political dilemmas? Did Ambedkar appreciate British attempts to uplift Dalits? How did Gandhi’s humanism end up patronising Dalits? Did the half million Dalits actually benefit from following Ambedkar into Buddhism? This book is an excellently whimsical spectacle, powered by an alert imagination, but its bold innovations with the form only serve a tepid story. Bhimayana is a book that moves so much, and yet doesn’t.

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