Photographs by Arindam Thokder
Photographs by Arindam Thokder

Photo essay | Picturing Ambedkar

Four years ago, an amateur photographer began capturing images of the Dalit leader

“On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality…. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment…," said B.R. Ambedkar while presenting the Constitution before the constituent assembly. His words remain as pertinent today as they were almost seven decades ago.

“Incidents as recent as the Rohith Vemula case (a Hyderabad university Dalit student who committed suicide) and college students’ protests highlight how social inequality has affected our country. The caste system, as he (Ambedkar) always said, is indeed pernicious," says Arindam Thokder, a software engineer and an amateur photographer.

Four years ago, Thokder’s knowledge of the Dalit leader was limited to the information in his school textbooks—of him being the “principal architect of the Constitution", and independent India’s first law minister. It was during a conversation with his housekeeper in 2012 that Thokder learnt how luminous a guide Ambedkar still is for the Dalit and other marginalized communities. “She asked me if I would like to click pictures of the Ambedkar statue that had been mounted recently in their society. When I went there, I was surprised to see the way they revered the gold-coloured statue. He was god for them," says the Bengaluru-based photographer.

From that day on, Thokder started noticing the paintings and statues of Ambedkar that he came across. And that’s how the idea of creating a project that captures the significance of Ambedkar and his beliefs in people’s lives came into being.

“I started hunting for his pictures in Bengaluru, Tamil Nadu, Mumbai and Kolkata. On street walls, house walls, shops; Ambedkar was a symbol of identity for the Dalit people. They said it gave them more strength to fight inequality," says Thokder.

Thokder didn’t want just any image. “I wanted to capture different subjects as well as different moods. Sometimes, I had to wait for an hour to get the right shot. That’s why I could manage just 100 pictures in four years."

Take, for instance, the 2014 image of a cobbler’s shop in Mumbai. “I was photographing people working there and, a few minutes later, I had this frame in which one of the men had put his hands on Ambedkar’s painting in such a way that it looked like his hands," says Thokder.

He started the informal project with the idea of marking Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, coming up on 14 April. “But now I want to expand it to include other cities as well," he says. Thokder has also started reading up on Ambedkar. “He was so frustrated about the caste system in Hinduism that he later embraced Buddhism," says Thokder. “Dr Ambedkar always wanted Dalits and other suppressed castes to strive against bias. He even fought for the rights of women and children."

S. Anand, co-founder of Navayana, a publishing house whose books focus on the issue of caste, believes it is tragic that non-Dalits “have taken such a long time to see Ambedkar as someone who battled for their rights as well".

“Well before independence, working as a labour member of the viceroy’s executive council (1942-46), he was instrumental in overseeing laws such as the Women Labour Welfare Fund, Women and Child Labour Protection Act.... It was Ambedkar who argued for the right to divorce and right to property for all women," he says. Anand hopes that one day the country will realize Ambedkar’s vision of an egalitarian India.

Thokder agrees. “He was never in favour of reservations, as many think; he had reluctantly agreed to the idea of reservation with a notion that the system would be scrapped within 10 years from the adoption of the Constitution. But that day is yet to come," he says.

A cobbler shop in Mumbai.
A cobbler shop in Mumbai.
A statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Bengaluru.
A statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Bengaluru.
Ambedkar’s face partially hidden by a banana tree at a market in north Kolkata.
Ambedkar’s face partially hidden by a banana tree at a market in north Kolkata.
In Mamallapuram, a beach town in Tamil Nadu, Ambedkar’s poster shares space with a film poster.
In Mamallapuram, a beach town in Tamil Nadu, Ambedkar’s poster shares space with a film poster.
In Kolar, a small town in Karnataka famous for its gold mines.
In Kolar, a small town in Karnataka famous for its gold mines.
At a shop in Bengaluru.
At a shop in Bengaluru.
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