Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability: Incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

By Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam (art); Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand (story). 2011. New Delhi: Navayana. ISBN: 9788189059354 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Jeremy Stoll, Columbus College of Art & Design

[Review length: 1025 words • Review posted on November 28, 2012]

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.

The three chapters that comprise the main narrative are framed and supported by a conversation between a woman and a man who is complaining about the unfairness of job quotas for Backward and Scheduled Castes while both wait for a bus. In explaining the reason behind those quotas, the woman introduces Ambedkar and the narratives to follow. Book One, Water, describes Ambedkar’s experiences as a Dalit child in a West Indian village, on his first journey outside that community, and how those experiences influenced him during later activism on behalf of Dalit communities. Meanwhile, the second book, Shelter, shows his return to India after attending Columbia University in America and his subsequent confrontation with discrimination. Book Three, Travel, then finds Ambedkar traveling around India and sharing the stories from the previous section with his Dalit colleagues. The final section concludes with the female narrator-character describing the importance of understanding the history and continuing influence of the concept of caste on people’s treatment of one another in India. In the process, the authors highlight Ambedkar’s work as a revolutionary, particularly his being ahead of his time in arguing for women’s and minority rights in the formation of the national constitution.

In terms of form, the Vyams, Anand, and Natarajan have crafted truly innovative and compelling image-text combinations, with the incorporation of recent newspaper articles and quotations from Ambedkar’s writings and lectures. The composition of each page is intricately bound to the flow of the narrative, such that the form easily guides readers through the work. However, the authors have also crafted a strong sense of the larger context that surrounded both Ambedkar and the authors as they created this story: from the embodiment of trees and trains as living animals, to intricately drawn patterns that provide a sense of character and vital energy, and the dynamic design of panel-like structures that pull the eye across the page. Although color and black-and-white vary throughout, they are well-balanced in general, such that every color page includes some black-and-white while simultaneously causing readers to recognize the importance of particular story elements, such as climactic moments where Ambedkar’s words build upon the narrative. Furthermore, the authors show a clear skill in crafting visual narratives in their layering of image upon image, as when they show Ambedkar as the personification of a public park in a moment when he becomes more aware of the world around him. Overall, Bhimayana shows the development of a strong collaboration and a unique narrative sensibility that fuses contemporary comics and traditional art.

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.

The combination of political narrative and Gond painting in Bhimayana is innovative and striking, but, as a graphic novel published in New Delhi in 2011, this work fits within the current context of graphic narratives that push the boundaries between folk art, the comics medium, and politically active narratives. Although comics in India are widely recognized as developing from the Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories) series that began in the late 1960s, which includes mainly educational comics, this work represents one instance of a larger shift. In particular, Bhimayana demonstrates a move toward more complex storytelling, specifically in drawing on traditional Indian art forms and the comics-journalism of internationally renowned comics creators like Joe Sacco. Among other works like Orijit Sen’s The River of Stories (1994) and Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004), Bhimayana is remarkable for the authors’ immersion of the story within a folk-art tradition and their crafting of a politically-engaged narrative that remains open to a diversity of audiences. Scholars will appreciate the exploration of creative and collaborative processes in Book Four, as well as the creators’ insightful commentary. Overall, though, Bhimayana is most remarkable for demonstrating the strength of Indian comics culture and providing a strong example of where folk and popular culture overlap.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.