Indian graphic artists draw outside the box for nonfiction 'Bhimayana'

By Rama Lakshmi
Thursday, August 19, 2010

NEW DELHI -- When tribal artist Durgabai Vyam was asked by a publisher to draw for a graphic book about caste untouchability in India, she leafed through the celebrated titles laid out in front of her -- books by Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Osamu Tezuka and Marjane Satrapi.

She was aghast.

"The books were full of boxes. I did not want to do a book that cages art in little boxes," said Vyam, 35, recalling her first brush with the literary genre that is slowly taking off in India. "I like to draw in open spaces, where they can breathe."

Two years later she got her wish, and two years after that, she managed to finish her first graphic book without boxes. And in doing so, Vyam may have revolutionized the format of the genre.

Vyam and her husband, Subhash Vyam, just put final touches on "Bhimayana," a graphic nonfiction book about Bhimrao Ambedkar, a revered 20th-century leader of India's untouchables, now known as Dalits. The topic is similar to many internationally acclaimed graphic novels that deal with grave themes such as the Holocaust, Palestine and the Bosnian war.

But this book is different in that it jettisons sequential, cinematic narrative style and brings visual magic realism into a new universe. Symbolism tells the story.

The Vyams are renowned practitioners of Gond tribal art, traditionally painted on floors, walls and doorways of mud huts in villages. The indigenous art form made the transition to paper and urban galleries only three decades ago. The edgy graphic book is the latest incarnation of their ancient art.

"Bhimayana" traces Ambedkar's personal battles with untouchability and the 3,000-year-old hierarchical Hindu caste system, which regards the Dalits as the lowest level. The grim graphic book depicts him as a thirsty boy desperately seeking water in a segregated school, as a young traveler denied a bullock-cart ride and as a young man being thrown out of a motel.

The lake where Ambedkar agitated for access to water takes the shape of a giant fish; a road winds across the page like a snake; a desperately thirsty Ambedkar at school is shown with a fish inside him. A train runs on wheels that look like coiled snails; trees grow legs and race along as the locomotive's steam billows like long, flying locks of hair. When Columbia University graduate Ambedkar is thrown out of a motel because he is an untouchable, the Vyams draw prickly thorns all over his body.

"Ambedkar must have felt like he had thorns on him, because nobody would touch him," explained Durgabai Vyam, an unschooled, bony woman in an orange sari with bright bangles jingling on her wrists. She was only 6 when she learned from her mother how to plaster the mud walls with cow dung, collect clay of different colors from the forest and paint on the walls. She illustrated a few children's books before "Bhimayana."

Symbolism is central to the Gond art world; nothing is perceived literally. Subhash Vyam, 40, dismisses realistic representations as "ditto art."

Years ago, the couple drew the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks after hearing about them on the village radio. They never saw the troubling newspapers and television images. Their painting showed two tall thatch-roofed mud huts and a bird gently swooping down to hit them.

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