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

Even the speech bubbles in "Bhimayana" are shaped like animals. "If you speak sweet words of truth and justice, then your bubble is like a sparrow. If your words are going to sting and cause pain, then the bubble is like a scorpion," Subhash Vyam said.

About 40 percent of the text and dialogue were changed to suit the drawings. For example, the Vyams inserted bats in the scene before Ambedkar falls from a bullock cart, because a bat is considered a bad omen. The publisher inserted text explaining that bats are a bad omen.

"I want people to pick up the book for its beauty and get to know the ugly social reality of India," said S. Anand, who published and co-wrote "Bhimayana." Anand runs Navayana in New Delhi, which publishes anti-caste books. He also inserted news of caste atrocities in contemporary India into the book.

The graphic book, in its final stages, will be released in October in English and three Indian languages. Discussions continue with publishers and agents in the United States and Britain.

Celebrated American graphic novelist Joe Sacco is one of the endorsers on "Bhimayana's" cover.

"The story was very engaging and done in a style that was completely new to me. I applaud the artists for sidestepping the standard Western comic-book conventions and drawing from their own traditions to tell the story of Ambedkar," said Sacco, author of "Palestine," in an e-mail.

The graphic novel, which is sustained around the world by urban subcultures and enjoys a cult following, is evolving in India. Since 2004, a dozen books have been released dealing with themes of urban angst, strife in Kashmir, corruption and most recently, about the two troubling years when democracy was suspended in India in the 1970s.

This year, New Delhi-based architect and writer Gautam Bhatia wrote a graphic novel called "Lie," using the medieval Mughal miniature painters to tell a tale of modern India's political and social decay.

"These miniature artists used to portray scenes from Hindu mythologies. It was difficult to try to get them to paint modern politicians, multiplexes and malls," Bhatia said. "The graphic book is still in its very early stages in India. Writers are testing new ground and new methods."

Three months into their work, the Vyams almost quit the project. They just could not draw boxes.

Then one day, they hit upon an idea. It was called "digna," the decorative pattern that the Gond tribal people drew on their walls during weddings and festivals.

They began using the digna motif as the dividers on the page. The graphic book took off.

"A digna is auspicious and conveys purity," Subhash Vyam said. "It is the beginning of all our art. It is like an ornament. It is not a box."


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