Monday, November 14, 2011

Ambedkar and caste, in Gond art

[From my Sunday Guardian books column]

At the first edition of Delhi’s Bookaroo festival a few years ago, I was very taken with a picture book titled The London Jungle Book, beautifully drawn by the Gond artist Bhajju Shyam. It was his perspective on a three-month stay in London, which had been a difficult time for him given his lack of familiarity with the culture and the language. But Shyam used his art as catharsis, making alien things familiar and comforting: in one picture, for instance, he combined Big Ben with a rooster (“In the village I come from, the rooster is the only time-teller,” he explained). In another, the red bus he took every day – a reassuring sight for him – was depicted as having the body of a dog, “a creature that is warm and dependable”.

This gentle anthropomorphising, not just of other living beings but also of inanimate objects, is a characteristic of the Gond art I’ve seen so far, and it suggests a worldview where everything is interdependent and there is a certain harmony in nature. Consider the very first page of Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a stunning illustrated book about caste discrimination, drawn by Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam and co-written by Srividya Natarajan (who authored one of the funniest Indian novels of the last few years, No Onions Nor Garlic) and S Anand.

A man and a woman are at a bus-stop; their conversation will become the book’s framing device, as the man rants about the unfairness of quotas and reservations and the woman responds by relating incidents from B R Ambedkar’s life and stressing that caste-related intolerance is still very much a reality. But part of the bench they are sitting on is depicted as a smiling person – arms spread out as if inviting the weary to sit, long hair extending to represent the roof of the shelter. Nearby, a winding road merges into a giant peacock head, and flocks of (more realistically sized) birds keep vigil from the rooftops of houses.

There are hundreds of such details scattered through Bhimayana: the train in which young Bhimrao Ambedkar travels to his father’s house has carriages with disproportionately large eyes filling the windows, wheels that resemble serpents’ heads and large snails curled up outside the compartments; a water tank is given the shape of a fish; an animal head protrudes from a man’s trouser legs. Some juxtapositions and artistic flourishes are just as startling in their own way as anything done by the Surrealists. People walking across a green field are represented only by their heads and feet. A group of men threatening Ambedkar are depicted as heads placed atop the sticks they are wielding (as if to suggest that their prejudices have reduced them to symbols of pure violence). The “panel” format of most graphic novels is eschewed in favour of a much bolder, unfettered use of space on each page.

The “story” does of course continue through all this. The woman’s narrative is usually chatty and informal (typical sample: “The Brahmins decided to ‘purify’ the ‘polluted’ tank by pouring into it 108 pots containing a mixture of cow-dung and cow-piss, milk, ghee and curds – I kid you not – to a soundtrack of Vedic chanting...”) but there are also transcripts of newspaper reports – grim reminders that the spectre of caste is still alive even in big cities like Delhi, much less the tiny, cut-off villages to which the hand of justice rarely stretches.

Still, it's the artwork and the page layouts that are really mesmeric; they compel you to return to each illustration, searching for details you had earlier missed. And therein lies the minor problem I have with Bhimayana (in fact, I’m not completely sure it IS a problem). Reading – or rather, experiencing – this book, I wondered: given that the writing is clearly meant as a primer for the relatively uninformed reader (there is a textbook feel to it), is there a danger of the book’s dazzling form utterly overwhelming its workmanlike content? When I revisit Bhimayana – and I know I will – it will mainly be for the art. I don’t know if its impact as a conscience-raiser is equally strong.

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