Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."
JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.
Acclaimed journalist and author Amitava Kumar says that a graphic retelling of the real life struggle of the Indian politician Ambedkar serves as a stunning reminder that his fight for justice continues.
In late August, a 20-year-old Dalit woman left her village home on her way to a town called Jind, in northern India, where she was to sit for a Teacher Training Exam. Her father, a daily-wage laborer, received a call that afternoon from a stranger who reported that the young woman’s papers had been found near a bus-stand. Her body was found the next day. The police had not so far agreed to register a report and when they did they claimed that the murdered victim had not been raped. The lawyer representing her family told journalists that people who had found the body reported that the young woman’s clothes were bloodstained and there were cigarette burns on her skin. Her father said, “Her eyes were still wide open with fear. Nobody bothered to straighten her curled fingers. And nobody tried to close her mouth. It was as if her scream was still inside her throat.”
Dalits are those who belong to the oppressed castes, those who were traditionally considered untouchable by upper-caste Hindus. In a country with a population of well over a billion, Dalits make up almost a fourth of the population. Although untouchability is illegal in India, acts of violence against Dalits as well as systematic discrimination persist. The rape and murder of the young woman in Jind, shocking as it was, cannot be described as uncommon or exceptional.
The Indian Constitution, which abolished untouchability, was drafted by a man who was himself a Dalit. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, also known as Babasaheb, was born in a poor family in 1891. He went abroad on a scholarship and was awarded doctorates from Columbia University as well as the London School of Economics; in addition, he was admitted to the Bar at Gray’s Inn. After his return to India, Ambedkar fought for the rights of the untouchables and, after Independence, became India’s first Law Minister as well as the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Before his death in 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with several hundred thousands of his supporters.
Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice is a graphic novel depicting a life that must have flashed meteor-like across the Indian sky in mid-twentieth century. The story is told in a way that connects Ambedkar’s struggles and triumphs to events very much like the one I started with: violent attacks in our contemporary times, every day targeting Dalit bodies and Dalit homes or institutions with brutal assaults. But all art is in the telling. The drawings are by Gond tribal artists, Durgabai Vyam and Subash Vyam, who have produced a startling graphic novel, different in style from anything else in that genre. We are always in the world of fables, always close to nature. For example, a train journey appears to take place in a forest growing inside an elephant’s head. The train is a mythical creature and the landscape a multi-colored bird in flight, its plumage adorned with the figures and eyes of many other animals and birds. The story of Ambedkar grows out of this aesthetic landscape; it is a powerful story and, in this particular landscape, it retains its strangeness and mystery. At the end, you feel you have gained knowledge but you need to enter, spiritually and politically, into the book’s larger world to become a participant in a new world.
In the first few pages of the book, I learned that Ambedkar’s statues outnumber those of Gandhi and Nehru. “But few people know about his life or work…” As an upper-caste Hindu, I didn’t grow up with any intimate knowledge of Ambedkar, but even I knew the story of his boyhood, when he was denied water in school because his touch was considered contaminating. Through Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice I learned of a journey that Ambedkar, as a ten-year-old, undertook to a city from his village with his siblings. We see the pictures on the pages as they unfold. The children are traveling by themselves; their father lives some distance from the city where they are headed. But the letter that has been sent informing him of their arrival has gone astray. There is no one to meet them at the train station. The children travel through the night; they face humiliation because of their caste, and they are also anxious and afraid. By dawn, Ambedkar and his siblings have reached their destination.
On the page that I have chosen to share with you, the children have been reunited with their father. The reader finds respite in that image: the outstretched limbs, a welcoming home with birds on the roof, the beautiful trees. On the opposite page, we read the following words about that childhood experience: “Ambedkar learnt his most unforgettable lesson about untouchability.” Such meagre consolation! For such lessons have not ceased to be delivered, with great brutality, right up to the present day.
Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice is titled Bhimayana in southern Asia and is published by Navayana Publishing. Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice is available in the UK and the United States from Tate Publishing.
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