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

By Rama Lakshmi
Thursday, August 19, 2010; C08

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.

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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