Extraordinary Life, Extraordinary Art

Despite the failings of its polemics, this graphic telling of Ambedkar’s story deserves to be read
Bhimayana | Art: Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam | Story: Srividya Natarajan, S Anand | Navayana | 104 pages | Rs 995
graphic novel
Bhimayana
Subhash’s brother Gangaram with some work he has done in wood
The Pardhan Gond artists of Bhimayana, Subhash and Durgabai, in the courtyard of their hut in Sonpuri village in Madhya Pradesh.
ARTHOUSE II The hut the Vyams live in. The art on the walls is by Subhash’s brother Gangaram

On page 90 of Bhimayana, BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi come face to face. Today, when we have just witnessed Anna Hazare fasting at Jantar Mantar, his supporters stressing his Gandhian credentials and his opponents speaking of the spirit of India’s Constitution being held to ransom, it is a pity that the event the page documents is not better known. The farce at Jantar Mantar was history repeating itself; almost 80 years ago, legislative reservations for Dalits were the result of a compromise that resulted after a fast by Gandhi forced Ambedkar to give up his demand for separate electorates.

Unlike Gandhi, who we know through events that still define our national consciousness—the Khilafat movement, Chauri Chaura, the Salt March, Quit India movement and his assassination—we know little or nothing about Ambedkar. After his 120th birth anniversary, only the detail that matters least, what he looked like, has stayed with us. His statues are as ubiquituous as Gandhi’s, thanks to leaders such as Mayawati who have made much of his name and little of his views that shaped our Constitution. Simply on this ground, Bhimayana justifies itself.

In itself, ‘graphic novel’ is not a term I’m sure I even understand, but Bhimayana is far more than the illustrated story it might seem to be, given that the story has been written by one set of people and the art drawn by another. It is a combination that is at its worst when the subject matter is polemical, doing little justice to a man with few equals as a political thinker in 20th century India. But strangely enough, these portions and their polemics really matter little when weighed against the heart of the book, a series of stories about key events in Ambedkar’s life, events we should know at least as well as the eviction of Gandhi from a railway compartment in South Africa.

The strength and weakness of the book perhaps could have been predicted from the choice of artists, the husband-and-wife team of Durgabai and Subhash Vyam. I used to think there was something patronising in the fact that the ethnic origins of artists becomes central only when they fall under the label ‘tribal’, but in their case, Gond is something they recognise as central to the art they produce.   

A few years ago, I had driven with them in a beat-up Maruti 800 from Bhopal to their native village Sonpuri, 400 km away. By the time we turned off the main highway, barely 30 km from the source of the Narmada at Amarkantak, it was nearing dusk. The dirt path ran straight through fields dotted with yellow, and after a steep climb we found ourselves atop a low plateau. The villages here were quite unlike the habitations of non-tribal India. No cluster of huts marked them out, each hut stood in isolation from the rest, surrounded by a field or two hedged off by lantana. The main land holdings of the village lay below on the plains. A chequerboard valley of fields, mustard and green, gently sloping down to a tributary of the Narmada, and then rising again towards the blue hills where the fields meet the forest.  

It was only by the morning light that we realised that the mud hut where we stayed over the next ten days deserved a place of its own in the history of this art. In form, it was much like any other in the village, built up on all four sides with the rooms opening out onto a central courtyard. But its exteriors and interiors were adorned with various gods. At the entrance, stands Dehri Devi, goddess of the threshold; in the kitchen, Chulha Deo, god of the hearth. 

We shared a room in one wing with Subhash’s elder brother Pyare Lal and his family. Durga, Subhash and his aged parents took up a room adjacent to the kitchen in another wing. Domesticated jungle fowl and cattle were almost at par with the humans in residence, with one wing to themselves. We found soon enough that here the days had a rhythm of their own. Nothing could be rushed.  The evenings would unfold in the courtyard at the centre of the hut. A single bulb lit up in our honour could not dispel the vivid night sky. The nearest large town was a hundred kilometres away. As the mahua (native liquor) began to flow, more and more people from the village would join us for another session of storytelling. Sonpuri was a village of Pardhans, who are both priests and genealogists to local Gonds, born storytellers. 

Only Pardhans can invoke the Gond’s ruling deity, Bada Deo.  In a world spun out of stories, Sonpuri’s Pardhans relate several tales of why this should be so; the one I remember invokes seven Gond brothers working on their father’s fields. They saw a handsome young man mounted on a white steed ride through the fields. Fearing for their crops, they gave chase. Only the youngest stayed back, fearful. At the edge of the fields, the horse and rider vanished. It was then they realised they had seen the Bada Deo incarnate. Angered, he had taken refuge in the Saja tree. The brothers prayed and pleaded, even sacrificed to Bada Deo. It did not work. Eventually the youngest gathered enough courage to find out what had happened. He went into the jungle and fashioned a string instrument out of a branch of the Khirsari tree. In his hands it soared, producing a music none of them had heard before. Pleased, Bada Deo appeared before them, “This instrument will be called the Bana, and whenever you play it, I will become manifest.’’ From that day on, the brothers told the youngest, he would not have to work on the fields: “You will get your share of our produce for playing the Bana. Even when we die, you will share our property, and our children will follow the same rules.’’ Today’s Pardhans are descendants of the youngest son.

In Sonpuri and the neighbouring village of Patangarh, Pardhans became painters thanks to J Swaminathan, the poet and painter who in 1979 took charge of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal.  In the belief that traditional crafts of tribals in the region could be looked at purely in terms of their artistic merit, he sent out a team of young artists to travel through the tribal areas of the state.  Walking through the village of Patangarh, their eye fell on a painting of Hanuman on the wall of a hut. It was an innovation they were not prepared for; geometric designs on floors, clay reliefs on the walls, all these were expected, but representational painting was a new discovery here. They found out that the painting was the work of a young Pardhan Gond named Jangarh Singh Syam.

Today, to see the evolution in Jangarh’s vision from the early paintings on paper is to appreciate the strength of Swaminathan’s judgement. But for all the help he received, Jangarh achieved a form that was rooted in his tradition. For a Pardhan to go from relating stories to illustrating them was an understandable step, but Jangarh’s talent was his own. Within a decade, his murals adorned the dome of Bharat Bhavan and the open halls of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly. In 1989, he was the Indian representative at the ‘Hundred Magicians of the World’ exhibit at the Pompidou Art Centre in Paris. Till Swaminathan’s intervention, tribal art had been studied in India mainly for its insights into a ‘tribal world’, but no one had ever achieved the individual presence that Jangarh carved out for himself.

While Jangarh worked at Bharat Bhavan, one by one his relatives came to live with him in Bhopal. It was often difficult for them to find work when they arrived from the village, so he set them to work on his paintings. He would begin by asking them to fill in a prescribed colour after he had sketched the design. In time, he would step back to allow them to sketch parts of the painting or pick colours of their choice. 

As demand for their work grew, more and more painters emerged from his village of Patangarh.  Many of them were fleeing the same poverty that had driven Jangarh to manual labour. Subhash himself recalls his childhood: “I barely studied till the fifth standard. Pyare Lal and my father were both doing work on barkhi for other households. That meant that for a sum of about Rs 1,000 a year, they would live in that household and do all that was asked of them in the fields. As you can imagine, it was not an easy life; the demands could be extreme and there was no dignity in it. But we had no choice, our fields had been mortgaged and even brass vessels had been pawned.

I took up a number of odd jobs to sustain the family.’’  It was during this time that Jangarh saw some of the clay figurines Subhash had crafted and managed to find a place for him in Bhopal. Durga was also encouraged by Jangarh to paint.

By the time Jangarh died, committing suicide under mysterious conditions in Japan, an entire school of art had been shaped. Apart from their clearly distinguishable style, what marks Pardhan Gond artists is that every painting they draw is born of a story; they are graphic storytellers. In Durga and Subhash’s hands, the story of the incidents that shape Ambedkar’s life—as a young Mahar boy not allowed to drink water from the handpump in school, as a young man returned from Columbia University denied shelter in Baroda—take on a vivid life, more than justifying Arundhati Roy’s blurb on the cover, ‘Unusually beautiful. Unforgettable.’

If the book had rested solely on their strength as storytellers, on the quality of their art, it would have been much the better for it. The events of Ambedkar’s life still have the power to shock us, not because they need elaboration but because they don’t. In the keenness to show that this was no aberration from the past, that things have changed little in our times, the book slips into propaganda, forgetting the unfortunate fact that those who remain unaware of its truth will not touch a book on Ambedkar, and if they do, they will only retreat further into denial faced with such polemics. 

It is this that leads me to suspect that there is a second reason for choosing Gond artists, one that stresses the commonality of the dispossessed in our country, one that seeks to bring together the different but tragic fates of Dalits and tribals in India. It is an admirable but fundamentally flawed idea. Even though there was a time when such a commonality seemed a distinct possibility, Dalit and tribal politics have already taken different paths in this country, as I realised on that very visit to Sonpuri.

A year earlier, I had travelled to Amarkantak on Makar Sankranti, and in the January cold walked into a political gathering of the Gondwana Gantantara Party (GGP), mistaking it for a local fair.  A huge crowd had gathered around a stage decorated with multi-coloured festoons; banners proclaimed the Gondwana slogan, ‘Jai Seva, Jai Bada Deo’. Stalls had been set up around the maidan, selling chai, pakoras and water chestnuts. Other stalls were doing brisk business selling books, posters and cassettes. Some of the posters bore simple words in Gondi, others the chronology of Gond kingdoms. There were books that connected Gonds to the Indus Valley Civilisation, others that related the history of Gondwana. The tapes blared out renditions of Gond folk songs interspersed with the message of Gondwana. Over the milling crowds, speaker after speaker returned to the same theme, “We are the original inhabitants of this land, we have a language, a culture, a religion of our own. We once ruled this land, others came and took away what was ours.”

Soon after, a number of GGP candidates won seats to the MP legislature. Sonpuri lay in Dindori district, one of the strongholds of the party, and after one more late night of storytelling, I set out in the morning to meet Ganga Patta, head of the GGP in the district. His village lay barely a half hour walk from Sonpuri. I had first met him at a weekly haat (market) where he sat at a tea stall surrounded by the slightly obsequious men always present around political figures in India. Neither in his speech nor his appearance was there anything to mark him out as Gond; he could have been at ease anywhere in small town India. We talked for a while and he asked me to come and see him. 

We were late getting there, but Ganga Patta was still waiting for us. The trappings of power seemed a world away from the hut where we sat, in a village much like Sonpuri. “I was the first person from my family to go to college. One of my uncles had studied till Class X, but that was all. After finishing my MCom, I got a job as an irrigation supervisor. I was posted to a site near Shahdol. It was then that I became a member of Kanshi Ram’s BAMSEF.’’ It was an interesting connection: Kanshi Ram’s move towards a Dalit reassertion in Indian politics had started with this employees’ federation that wanted to bring together Dalits, tribals, minorities and other backward castes.

“In 1984, Indira Gandhi clamped down on the BAMSEF. Kanshi Ram responded by dissolving the body and starting a political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party. I became active in the party. At the time, the party had no roots here. Soon some of friends joined, mainly for my sake, and then a few others came along who genuinely believed in the idea.  In 1998, I resigned from the BSP. The state president and secretary of the party conspired to help the Congress candidate win. When I raised the matter at the post-mortem on the party’s performance, I was blamed for the defeat. Even Kanshi Ram paid me no heed. I realised I can’t move ahead and decided to work in other ways.’’

It was a story repeated often enough for the GGP to emerge from the organisational skills and ideas that the BSP first brought to the area’s Gonds. Like Gond artists, Gond politicians were reshaping their own story. Once again in India, the politics of identity had triumphed over the abstract ideas that go into defining a theory of politics born out of similar histories of dispossession.  It is not an illegitimate hope or an unworthy desire, but it makes for bad politics and bad art. The advantage is that, with this wondrous book, it is possible to lay aside this minor weakness and focus on what it does reveal, the quality of the mind of a man who gained strength from the humiliation heaped on him, the quality of the art of Pardhan Gond painters, many of whom have gone from bonded labour to a vivid creativity in the same life.