Let’s start off by saying that this is a graphic novel with three kinds of speech bubbles: a bird speech bubble for victims of discrimination, another that looks like a venomous snake to carry harsh words and a third—drawn evocatively with a mind’s eye—as a thought bubble.
Bhimayana, the graphic biography of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar published by Navayana, which calls itself India’s only anti-caste publishing house, offers many reasons to become a permanent resident on your bookshelf.
First, it is the book’s stunning visual idiom. Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, who live in Bhopal, were brought in to create the 104-page book. Since the Vyams don’t read, the text and the storyboard was narrated to them over a period of two years.
Bhimayana: Navayana, 204 pages,Rs 395.
Traditionally, the Gonds, a tribe from central India, paint on mud walls with organic colours. While Durgabai has illustrated children’s books before this, sequential art was a new thing to attempt, one that horrified her initially. She and her husband came up with the idea of using a digna—earth panels used by the Gonds for their wall art—to separate the different visual elements on a page.
The narrative, peppered with newspaper clippings, fleshes out the story of the man relegated to being “the architect of India’s Constitution”. It takes readers back to Ambedkar’s early experiences with discrimination because he was a Mahar, then considered untouchables. From the protocol he had to follow at his school’s water taps to how no one would give him a place to stay in Vadodara after he returned from his stints at Columbia University and the London School of Economics.
The imagery, seemingly naive, is semiotic at best. An early episode recounts how a young Ambedkar and his three brothers were denied water over a long journey. The Vyams show this with a fish inside his stomach. Later, when Ambedkar accepts an invitation from the villagers of Chalisgaon to spend a night at their village, their happiness is conveyed by a dancing peacock. In another instance, a water tank whose construction Ambedkar is supervising appears like a fish, with its fins making room for narrative text. The art is bound by no sense of perspective or proportion, it follows no rules, and in this it excels.
It is the text (by Anand and Srividya Natarajan) that fails. It is trite and preachy in parts, though the fact that Navayana’s publisher, S. Anand, is hoping Bhimayana will one day be picked up by the government and used as a textbook justifies the book’s tone to an extent.
This is a self-conscious publishing effort, with a foreword by the Booker Prize-winning John Berger, book jacket recommendations by Arundhati Roy, and an entire chapter devoted to its production process. But somehow, all of it seems pertinent, just like the story of Ambedkar itself.