Sunday, May 1, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Evocative masterpiece


Evocative masterpiece


If the book succeeds in making the reader ask what independent India's
worst affliction is, it would go down in history as a document as
important as the story of Ambedkar it tells.

Bhimayana: Experiences Of Untouchability; Srividya Natarajan, S.
Anand, Navayana Publishing, Rs. 395 (Paperback)

When I took Bhimayana out from the cover in which it arrived, its
beauty stunned me into silence, while my not-yet-three-year-old
daughter went into raptures. Losing no time, we settled in a corner,
as she sat through 45 pages without budging, getting up only because I
had to. Bursting with comments and questions, she was visibly moved
when I read out how Ambedkar, as a 10-year-old school boy, was denied
water from the handpump because of his 'mahar' status. By the end of
the book she had made her connection. She half-asked, half-stated,
"Amma, dalits are 'bonded labourers'? (a term she had learnt last
month due to my repeated visits to Baran district in Rajasthan where
many tribal labourers spoke out about their bondage and indignity at
the hands of local zamindars.)

Such is the power of Bhimayana, as I experienced first-hand. And if
Bhimayana succeeds in making every child — and adult — ask, reflect
and engage in what is 'independent' India's worst affliction, it would
go down in history as a document as important as the story of Ambedkar
it tells.

To call Bhimayana a 'book' would amount to a trivialisation — it is a
magnificent work of breathtaking art that symbolises the soul-stirring
biography of an exceptional leader. What makes this even more
incredible is that traditional Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and
Subhash Vyam who created this masterpiece, were unaware of Ambedkar
until Navayana publisher S. Anand approached them. Unlettered, the
artists were read out his story over several sessions, based on
Ambedkar's own autobiographic illustrations titled Waiting for a Visa
— accounts that inspired, moved and transformed into free-flowing,
magical drawings in a sequential form as we see them.

Leafing through Bhimayana, one cannot cease to wonder at and discover
the layers of meaning that Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have lent to
Ambedkar's story. The art, literally "out of the box" on each page,
compels one to go back to it again and again, to discover another
nuance here, another message there, lest it was missed.

Every single detail — the three speech bubbles as explained towards
the end of the book, the constant flashing of "the mind's eye", the
humour (horse laughing on page 82), the symbolic representations of
Ambedkar (sometimes a thirsty fish, sometimes a buffalo or a park),
loudspeakers as sprinklers, the earthmover, the pond, the handpump,
the train, the fort ,all as having a mind and feelings of their own —
lends a richness to Ambedkar's life experiences, evocatively bringing
out what it is to be born as an "untouchable", and what it means to be
a dalit even today.

The use of colour and black and white pages in alternation, and the
easy-to-read Bhim font developed by young Aparajita gives a sense of
relief in what would otherwise have been a bit too densely packed

Although it is said the book has won acclaim "more frequently for its
art than for its narrative", the latter surely deserves credit for its
simple yet thought-provoking prose. Ambedkar's story — woven into what
begins as a bus-stop conversation between an urban woman and a man
(from a 'privileged' caste) — is interspersed with recent news reports
on atrocities against dalits in different parts of India, a constant
reminder that his experiences have a tremendous relevance for each one
of us more so today.

Battle begins

In the narrative are many touching moments — points of extreme
vulnerability (for instance, his defining trip to Gurgaon as a young
lad when he is denied "so elemental a feeling as thirst" or later,
when upon his return from Columbia University, he is travelling on the
train from Bombay to Baroda and stops short from declaring to an
impressed co-passenger that he is not a Brahmin, or when he is thrown
out of the Parsi inn in Baroda) and historic assertions — like the
first Mahad satyagraha where Ambedkar declares — "we are not going to
the Chavadar Tank to merely drink its water. We are going to the tank
to assert that we too are human beings like others." In these moments,
through these words, we see the continuing battles of millions of
dalits for basic respect, dignity and equality.

The polemic of Gandhi versus Ambedkar towards the end necessarily
brings to our attention that, unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar's was a far more
universal struggle against injustice perpetrated by home-grown
oppressors. And the fact that a crime is committed against a dalit
every 18 minutes even today shows how his has proved, in many ways, a
far more difficult one. Bhimayana drives home that it is high time
each one of us owned this struggle. A must-read for every child and
adult in the nation and a must-include in every school's curriculum.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and activist based in Jaipur.


Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your settings at

On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to

If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank mail to OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by visiting

Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia:! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive