Heralding the New Year is Navayana's BHIMAYANA, a book that is remarkable in many ways. It is an illustrated telling of Experiences of Untouchability Incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the illustrations have been done by the Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam.
What does it mean to be an untouchable in India? Why do some Indians despise the touch of others? Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), one of India’s foremost revolutionaries, recounts his experiences of growing up untouchable and being routinely discriminated against: in school at the age of 10, in Baroda after his return from Columbia University, and while traveling. Battling odds, Ambedkar drafted the Constitution of India and eventually embraced Buddhism. Experiences similar to Ambedkar’s continue to haunt a majority of India’s 170 million dalits. They are still denied water, shelter and the basic dignities of life.
In this ground-breaking work, Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam interweave historical events like the Mahad satyagraha with contemporary incidents. Defying conventional grammar, they infuse fresh energy into the graphic idiom through their magical art mounted on an epic scale.
The book has come in for some well deserved praise-
- In his foreword, John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing calls it “An extraordinary book… No more rectangular framing or unilinear time. No more profiled individuals. Instead, a conference of corporeal experience across generations, full of pain and empathy.”
- Arundhati Roy, author of The God of small things, and activist says “The story of the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of India’s most important thinkers, has been deliberately sidelined for decades. Bhimayana re-tells it in the most unusually beautiful way. It is unforgettable.”
- Joe Sacco, author of Palestine: The artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam have dropped most of the West’s and manga’s typical comics conventions and boldly use of their own artistic heritage, the Pardhan Gond tradition, to craft a distinctive graphic biography of one of India’s bravest and greatest leaders, Bhimrao Ambedkar, an ‘untouchable’ and a fierce critic of Gandhi. Heavy in symbolism and motifs, Bhimayana is challenging in all the right ways and still conveys with flair who Ambedkar was and why his revolutionary ideas about the caste system still matter so much to the India of today.”
Durgabai and Subhash Vyam belong to the same clan as the legendary Jangarh Singh Shyam. The artist-couple lives in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Durgabai has won acclaim for her paintings and for illustrations for several books. Subhash is an accomplished sculptor and has worked with many media. This is their first graphic book and their first book together. The story is by Srividya Natarajan and S Anand.
Paul Gravett a London-based graphic art curator, says, “The pages I have seen are wonderful, their figures and clothes drawn in intense patterning, faces mainly in profile with large single eyes, and their pages divided into panels by curving, decorated borders. Accusing, pointing fingers are repeated in one panel. Even the balloons have shapes and tails uniquely their own: bird-like outlines for regular speech; a scorpion’s sting as the tail for venomous dialogue; and a distinctive eye in the thought bubbles to represent the mind’s eye. What better art to retell this tale today?”