THE GRAPHIC novel is inherently an interpretative form and relies much on swift audacities. In India, where graphic novels still have the shine of a young cult, we tend to ignore this and rely instead on other novelties — such as the surprise of deploying indigenous art for this modern form, as with architect Gautam Bhatia’s recent collaboration with Mughal miniature painters. Now, we have two Gond tribal artists from Bhopal who’ve produced a graphic novel that narrates a few episodes from the life of BR Ambedkar. As with Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s meticulous Delhi Calm or George Mathen’s muscularly silent Moonward, Bhimayana is more art, less novel.
Divided into sections of Water, Shelter and Travel, the book presents Ambedkar’s lessons in untouchability as a kid and as a young man — denials of thirst, roof and transport. This historic struggle to realise Dalit selfhood is juxtaposed with news items of caste atrocities in contemporary India.
Madhya Pradesh’s Gond art, which transitioned from village walls to ‘fine art’ on paper about 30 years ago, presents clean-bordered figures filled with intricate patterns of dots or lines. The style derives mostly from traditional murals and tattoos with pastoral motifs like ubiquitous fishes and swaying trees. The artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have innovated mural patterns as page-dividers rather than right-angled boxed images, with the result that the story literally flows along the pages. The Vyams use earth colours, animistic speech bubbles and keep their lines lyrical rather than geometrical. Some tricks nestle particularly well in bookmaking, like depicting forms within forms (eyes protruding from an eye) and forms without forms (hands gesturing without arms). Without the Western technique of boxed framing, these off-scale and often immense figures open up the book’s pages even as their dizzying intricate patterning is set against gratifying amounts of white space, so that Bhimayana doesn’t feel like a rectangular book anymore but rather a slide wavering in your hands.
First published here.