Popular Literature Unit 4 Graphic Novel

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Graphic Novel


Popular Literature

Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability/ Autobiographical Notes on Ambedkar (For the Visually Challenged students)

Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand’s Bhimayana (2011), illustrated by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, is a graphic novel of the early life of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), one of modern India’s most significant thinkers, the man behind the country’s Constitution, and the revolutionary who initiated radical changes in the legal, political, cultural and social domains in pre- and post-Independence India directed at improving the life of the historically subjugated popula-tions of India — the so-called ‘untouchables’, or Dalits, as they are now known. 

This article argues that Bhimayana situates debates about caste, discrimination and human rights in the popular cultural realm when it appropriates the comic book medium. It is Bhimayana’s adoption of popular-populist regimes of the verbal-visual (or image-text) that constitutes a radicalization of form, even as it contributes to a critical literacy about casteism, atrocity and human rights. Critical literacy forces the reader, through the use of narratives and autobiographies, to link personal experiences with socio-historical and institutional power relations. It uses other texts on contemporary historical realities to reflect on issues of otherness.

It also uses multimodal (visual plus verbal) semiotic strategies where multilingual and multi-register texts are used in multilin-gual classrooms (Morgan and Ramanathan 2005; Chun 2009). Critical literacy sees texts as situated within unequal social fields — in Bhimayana’s case it is caste —and demands that the reader become alert (called ‘meta-awareness’, Ramanathan 2002) to the position she takes vis-a-vis not just the text but the social domains repre-sented in it. It refuses to see the reader—text relation as that of subject (reader) and object (text), but sees all subjects as subjects-in-process, where reading the text produces the reader. A rich and varied visual culture has an important role to play in the reconfiguring of Indian modernity, as some scholars have persuasively argued (Freitag 2003; Ramaswamy 2003). Bhimayana is a valuable constituent of this visual culture now.

This article argues that Bhimayana is a significant text due to the critical literacy it calls for towards modernity and postcolonial India’s continuing negotiations with caste when it takes a pernicious social issue (caste) into a new medium, even as it offers a whole new visual and verbal experience of the medium (the graphic novel). Bhimayana, the article proposes, contributes to a postcolonial critical literacy that can help young people in contemporary India engage with social issues such as caste. 

Bhimayana is located in the tradition of popular comic books, of which there has been a wide variety in India. In 1964, Indrajal Comics (owned by the leading news-paper group The Times of India) began marketing King Features Syndicate’s comic books featuring Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and Buz Sawyer in Indian languages. In 1976, the company introduced the indigenous comic book Bahadur. Raj Comics, perhaps India’s largest publisher in the medium and the owner of comic book characters Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Bankelal, Parmanu and Dogs, among others, publishes around 80,000 copies annually (Khanduri 2010: 188, n. 3).

Brought up on Amar Chitra Katha (aligned with that most popular medium in India — cinema — according to Chandra (2008: 9)), and a large variety of comic books (in English as well as the vernacular), and now with the increasing availability of global comic books and series from companies like Vertigo, DC, Marvel, Jonathan Cape, Virgin and Dark Horse, India’s English-speaking youth (embodied in the form of the two metropolitan characters in the opening sections of Bhimayana) recognize the format quite easily. Home-grown graphic novels — as opposed to comic books — have appeared from Penguin and other publishing houses since 2004 with work by Sarnath Banerjee, Naseer Ahmed and Amruta Patil, even though, editors admit, both the graphic novel and the non-fiction graphic novel, of which Bhimayana is an example, are still very much niche genres (Mitra 2011; Daily News and Analysis 2011). Critical attention to the medium and genre from Indian academics has also emerged in the recent past (Chandra 2008; Nayar 2009; Khanduri 2010). Bhimayana taps into this history of comic book consumption and the consequent visual literacy about the medium. 

Bhimayana is also in the tradition of globally acclaimed graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s celebrated Maus, and the works of Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi, among others. For my purposes here, I define graphic novels as stand-alone stories in the format of a comic book, but not categorizable merely as the ‘funnies’. Lila Christensen suggests, correctly, that ‘in contrast to superhero comic books, graphic novels are more serious, often nonfiction, full-length, sequential art novels that explore the issues of race, social justice, global conflict, and war with intelligence and humour’ (2006: 227). Like Spiegehnan’s Maus, Bhimayana radicalises the form of the comic book as well as the genre of the biography. 

A postcolonial critical literacy emerges primarily due to the demotic, or the commonplace/everyday, register of the graphic novel form. Following Gretchen Schwarz’s argument that in order to explore critical literacy one must begin by paying attention to form, a process that involves a rhetorical analysis. I first examine the formal features of Bhimayana before turning to the literacy it generates. Critical literacy, as noted above, sees the reader as constituted within the process of reading, and asks the reader to be aware of his or her negotiations with the text. This suggests that the form of the text has a significant role to play in the ways in which the reader is drawn into the text while being made aware of the social structures from within which he or she is ‘performing’ the reading. 

breaking form : 

Bhimayana renders a serious subject —Ambedkar’s life and the experience of caste-based oppression — in a medium famous for superhero tales and fantasies. It uses episodes from Ambedkar’s Autobiographical Notes (first published in 1990). Like Sacco or Spiegelman, Anand and Natarajan, with the Vyrams, also take the medium’s traditional fantasy plots and turn them, instead, to social critique. First, a brief outline of the book. 

Bhimayana is divided into three ‘books’. A preliminary framing segment, ‘One Day’, sets the scene for the narrative to follow. Two girls in an unidentified Indian metropolis begin talking about reservations and Dalits. One of them voices a hatred of the ‘quota’ system (the affirmative action policy through which seats in educational institutions and employment arc ‘reserved’ for particular castes and communities identified as historically depressed and marginalised) that ‘favours’ the `Backward and Scheduled Castes’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 11).

The other girl then responds with information about continued caste-based oppression in India and the nature of this oppression (denial of equality, violence directed at particular castes). Then she embarks on Ambedkar’s story. Book One, ‘Water’, describes his childhood and experiences as an ‘untouchable’ in school when he is insulted, made to sit apart from other children, and even denied water to drink. News reports about violence against ‘untouchables’ in contemporary India are set beside Ambedkar’s story, his arrests and campaigns. Book Two, ‘Shelter’, describes Ambedkar’s Baroda days when, despite his job, he encountered hostility from Brahmins and Parsis as a ‘lower caste’, once again situating his experiences alongside that of several thousand Dalits being beaten, killed and denied basic rights. Book Three, ‘Travel’, depicts a few of Ambedkar’s later experiences as a leader of the so-called ‘untouchables’. It also details the Ambedkar—Gandhi differences over equal rights and separate .electorates (under the British government) for Depressed Classes (as the ‘untouchables’ were then called in official language). 

Bhimayana uses a new typeface, which the publishers term Thim’ after Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, thus working the subject of biography into the very language of cultural production. The non-linear arrangement of the pages breaks the routine linearity of the graphic novel form. Instead of boxes and gutters, we have dignas, the traditional artwork of the Gond tribes. The dignas that serve here as the ‘frames’ for the story are actually the auspicious designs Gonds apply to walls and floors in their homes (see Figure 1). This means that the story proceeds in a fluid style as the dignas crisscross the pages rather than cut them up into neat, square boxes. It suggests less a neatly compartmentalised movement than a simultaneity. One could think of the visual language of Bhimayana as a convergent design, where moments, stories and episodes sit adjacent to each other on a page but not in any linear sequence at all, suggesting a mixing and merging rather than an ordering. 

By using Bhimayana as a title, with its echoes of the Hindu sacred epic Ramayana, Srividya Natarajan, Anand and Navayana (the publishers) invite an intertextual connection and a dissonance. The dissonant note is already an implicit critique, for it is already the story of `Bhim’ (as in Bhimrao Ambedkar), just as Ramayana was the story of Rama. Instantiating a textual but also historical and socio-cultural uncanny in its echo, Bhimayana alerts us to the persistence of the past, but not as a temporal antecedent as much as a repressed past (the uncanny, as commentators would tell us, is the return of the repressed, see Royle (2003: 154-55,177— 78)), of a story that has not been told.

The sociocultural uncanny is the persistence of caste as a nightmarish reality, even as it is denied, or deemed to be a thing of the past. Caste, according to the disbelieving, ill-informed and prejudiced girl in the framing narrative, is not an issue in contemporary India, but well in the past. Echoing Ramayana, Bhimayana suggests that there are other pasts not often ‘read’ in the epic: pasts that include caste-based discrimination. Thus, (1) not only is caste not addressed when speaking of the Indian past (the repressed of history, so to speak), (2) it is not only in the past either. It is at once a part of India’s hoary past and troubled present. Anand explicitly references this textual/historical uncanny when he notes in his short essay at the end of Bhimayana, ‘A digna for Bhim’, that Gandhi’s experience of racism in 1893 South Africa has become an iconic moment in the ‘global history of anticolonial struggle’ but Ambedkar’s experience of castebased discrimination in the 1901 Bombay Presidency has been ‘forgotten’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 103). 

The Ambedkar story in Bhimayana is at once a biography and something more. It ensures that the individual’s story is merged with, or stands for, the story of a collective. The collective is not a group of identi-fiable individuals, but rather types in Bhimayana’s non-realist mode of representation, akin to Spiegelman’s Maus. Spiegelman’s nonrealist and symbolic representation of his characters (Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice) drew attention to the de-humanization of victim and perpetrator in the genocidal state: the Jews were not ‘persons’ in Nazi eyes, they were just types (Orvell 1992: 120-21).

Indeed, it is the anti-realism and heavy symbolism that makes us conscious — to reiterate, critical literacy includes an incessant alertness to form, and the ways in which a text’s formal properties work on the reader — of this condition of dehumanisation. Bhimayana does not seek realistic presentations of people either. The characters do not necessarily allegorize a reality of their own, but we, as readers, are asked to enter their world, to see ourselves in what is going on.4 In the non-realist mode of Bhimayana we see a type, the oppressed, rather than clear-cut individuals. We have identical faces of Dalits listening to Ambedkar (Natarajan et al. 2011: 48) and identical faces representing ‘ortho-dox Brahmins’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 50-51), for instance. 

This is an important move in Bhimayana. The iconography that invites us to enter the world of Ambedkar’s India also offers a window into an India that is startlingly contemporary: we see similar instances of atrocity and oppression today as well. It is the lack of uniqueness of characters, and their similarity to, and resonance with, the experiences of Dalits and other oppressed today that constitutes the first step towards a postcolonial critical literacy. With this literacy readers connect texts to social iniquities and the de-humanized ‘otherness’ — symbolised in the ‘types’ rather than ‘individuals’, as I have suggested above — that caste engenders: the world of Bhimayana, the experience of untouchability, the horrific injustices were not unique to Ambedkar’s India: we see them even now.

Disavowing uniqueness is a political move in this text, for it merges Ambedkar’s experience with that of millions of Dalits today — a narrative move that is coterminous with the visual—verbal juxtaposition of Ambedkar’s story with reports and headlines of contemporary antiDalit oppression elsewhere. Bhimayana relies heavily on symbolism and a densely metaphoric visual narrative. The opening conversation between urban youth, one seemingly ignorant of the very persistence of caste in India, offers the first of these powerful metaphors.

The speech and thought balloons, Anand’s afterword on the art of Bhimayana informs us, are designed to function as metaphors : bird speech balloons for characters whose ‘speech is soft’, for ‘lovable characters, the victims of caste’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 100). Speech balloons for ‘words that carry a string’ from `characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is poisonous’ are designed like a scorpion’s sting (Natarajan et al. 2011: 101). After the girl, the first-level narrator to whom the second girl is telling the story, has understood the poisonous nature of caste, her thought balloon becomes shaped like a bird, to suggest a transformation in her outlook and attitude (Nataraj an et al. 2011: 93). 

Thirst becomes embodied in the form of a fish, as the young Ambedkar pleads ‘Sir, may I drink some water ?’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 19). The triad of fishwater-thirst recurs (Natarajan et al. 2011: 21), and is reinforced with the image of arms extending in a pleading image (Natarajan et al. 2011: 21), all suggesting a plea. The water pump itself assumes an angry face at the denial of water (Natarajan et al. 2011: 21). The entire village ‘turns a desert’ when Ambedkar tries to `quench [his] thirst’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 25). The accompanying visual shows a herd of animals drinking from a pond, The village is only metaphorically a desert because it excludes from its ambit only the ‘untouchables’ while allowing even animals to consume water. Mobility becomes embodied in a bird, where young Bhim’s ‘heart is a bird in a cloudless sky’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 31). 

Representing the Satara massacre (where a Dalit was killed for daring to dig his own well) in 2008, the visual shows a harvester machine crying (Natarajan et al. 2011: 46), serving as a metaphor for the feeling machine and the unfeeling upper-caste humans. Ambedkar’s words function as sprinklers, energising the lands with reviving water and freshening the people’s minds (Natarajan et al. 2011: 48). This reconfigures the image of thirst, water and deserts from the earlier parts of the tale (see Figures 2 and 3). 

Towards the very end of the narrative we see one of the most powerful of such visual metaphors. The anti-caste and casteist urban youth debate Ambedkar’s role in the making of modern India, with the text inked in blue. The entire visual vocabulary is of a human chain, of people holding hands (Natarajan et al. 2011: 90-91). The human chain is spread across two pages, suggesting community and unity. Set within this ‘network’ of human hands is a face-off between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the question of the ‘untouchables’. The two are also framed by a semicircle of people listening to them and witnessing the Gandhi—Ambedkar debate (90-91). The power of this set of pages lies in the way in which the Ambedkar-blue human chain (blue is tra-ditionally the colour of Ambedkarites) spreads wider than the subset of people listening to the Gandhi—Ambedkar debate, symbolically attesting to the concerns of a larger section of humanity. 

In concluding with the human chain, the only image of such a ‘positive’ collectivity (all other collectivities in the text are either victims or violent oppressors) in Bhimayana, the text gathers into itself the entire theme of united action and togetherness. The textboxes carry quotations from Ambedkar’s speeches and letters where he had demanded equal rights, constitutional protection and legal remedies against caste-based discrimination. These text boxes also situate Gandhi’s speeches and letters in a `face-off’ with Ambedkar’s textboxes, with Gandhi expressing concern that separate electorates for `untouchables’ — an 

Ambedkar demand — are ‘harmful for the Depressed Classes and for Hinduism’, thus suggesting a conflict of views (Natarajan et al. 2011: 91). What is also interesting is that cutting across the two pages (carrying Gandhi and Ambedkar in adversarial positions) and beneath the Gandhi—Ambedkar debate is a textbox shaped like a book containing words from the Constitution of India, starting, ‘We, the People of India …’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 90-91). The arrangement of this textbox, with Ambedlcar’s image on the lower half of the page, symbolically merges, and converges, the two debates into a larger cause. The entire issue is seen as embedded within the large human chain, and invests the Constitution with the authority of a larger segment of the Indian population. 

This set of visuals of the human chain also resolves the isolation and fear set in the early pages, wherein an isolated and thirsty Ambedkar pleads for water, and its continuation in the middle pages where, alone in his rooms, he is threatened with eviction by a group of armed Parsis (Natarajan et al. 2011: 68), or is sitting alone in a park at night, homeless and. frightened (Natarajan et al. 2011: 71). 

Much of Bhimayana’s metaphorization generates enormous verbal and visual emotional appeal. Take for instance, the extraordinary ‘pointing-finger’ image. Accusatory fingers, pointed in the direction of the victim of, caste,, occur throughout the narrative (Natarajan et al. 2011: 13, 20, 21, 47, 68). They are invariably in groups, to indicate the numbers arrayed against the Dalits. If in Maus the Auschwitz inmate’s arm with its tattooed number is spread across panels (Spiegelman 1986: 12), here it is the recurring pointing finger that performs the same task: of isolating and targeting the victim (see Figure 4). The Vamps’ art offers an extraordinary contrast between cruel humans and the sentimental non-human. I have already cited the crying harvester machine visual metaphor above. The water pump (Natarajan et al. 2011 : 21), in the midst of the water debate, expresses distress and annoyance. The train on which Ambedkar and his siblings have their momentous journey is cheerful (Natarajan et al. 2011: 27). Similarly, the bus on which Ambedkar and his colleagues travel is benign-looking (Natarajan et al. 2011: 77). 

Cultural and linguistic diversity, with Parsi, Muslim, Christian, Mahar and various Hindu portraits, serves to show how the untouchables are uniformly disenfranchised by all social, religious and linguistic groups in India. There is a clear subtext here, where India’s greatest cliché, ‘unity in diversity’, is reflected with tragic irony in the unity of Parsis, Muslims, Christians and Hindus in their ill-treatment of the Dalits. Ambedkar’s thoughts are given to us here: ‘a person who is untouchable to a Hindu is an untouchable to a Parsi, and also to a Christian’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 71). Multiple registers are also deployed to give us the social and the personal, the collective and individual story. Rhyming poetry is used to describe caste-based oppression (Natarajan et al. 2011: 22-23, 37), symbolically showing the clash of registers between the poetic and the ruthlessly ‘prosaic’ (banal?) nature of casteism. Official letters from Ambedkar are reproduced (Natarajan et al. 2011: 90-91). Newspaper accounts of caste atrocities across India are placed in textboxes (Natarajan et al. 2011: 13, 46-47, 55, 73). 

There is a factual biography about Ambedkar (Natarajan et al. 2011: 14) that, in conjunction with the Powerful visual vocabulary of atrocity and suffering, unsettles us. Speeches by Ambedkar constitute yet another register (Natarajan et al. 2011: 48-49, 51). The multiple registers ensure that no voice is dominant, and that all narration is finally linked up with the historical events (Ambedkar’s life) and contemporary reality (represented in the newspaper reportage). This unsettling tone of the work is perhaps its single greatest achievement as it prods us into acknowledging multiple modes of telling the story. It also refuses the comfort of claiming, as the young girl (the first-level narratee) does, that `all this happened more than a hundred years ago’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 45) when it shifts from Ambedkar’s India to contemporary India. Breaking the spatio-temporal frames with its contemporaneity of the past embodied in these multiple narrative registers, Bhimayana maps a continuum, from late nineteenth-early twentieth-century India to the present. 

Towards a Postcolonial critical literacy:

Thus far we have seen how Bhimayana subverts the aesthetic and formal conventions of the graphic novel. I now propose that this radicalization of form enables Bhimayana to forward a distinct agenda — of a postcolonial critical literacy. 

`Literacy’ itself is a social practice, of course, and is often used as a means to dominate particular social groups. Critical literacy, in the case of texts explicitly about social conditions and historical trauma such as Bhimayana, is social literacy. In Bhimayana’s case it offers a new vocabulary in which to talk of social trauma, and opens up the cultural realm, through a popular format, to issues of human rights. 

The juxtaposition of texts, from newspaper reports on anti-Dalit violence in the first few pages, to Ambedkar’s autobiographical text, to Ambedkar’s offi-cial letters, and extracts from the Constitution of India (see Figure 5), constantly forces us to move from a personal life story to a larger socio-historical reality — one of the prime requirements for critical literacy. 

The postcolonial critical literacy of Bhimayana engages the reader through its inter ocularity borrowed from already existing and popular regimes of the visual. Its rich verbal-visual text functions, to invoke Homi Bhabha’s distinction (1995), as a performative that ruptures the pedagogy of the young girl’s, and by extension the readers’, beliefs, claims and meta-narratives about India. The demotic register of the graphic novel appropriated by Bhimayana effectively harnesses complex social issues to a new, urban folkloric medium, even as it gives these issues a certain ‘cultural legibility’ (I employ the term from Joseph Slaughter (2007)). 

Modernity in South Asia, Sandria Freitag proposes, has been dominated by the visual and the acoustic (2003: 394). Acts of seeing become acts of knowing as consumers and viewers impute new meanings to familiar messages. Civil society’s informal activities — as opposed to the state’s — especially in the realm of popular visual culture, often challenge the actions of the nation state (2003: 389). Freitag’s emphasis on the visual realm of modernity and its moments of interrogation is a useful way of approaching the cultural work of Bhimayana. 

The tale opens with an urban youth’s immediate identification of ‘Ambedkar’ as somebody who is represented by statues around the country (Natarajan et al. 2011: 14). This reference to already existing and there-fore recognizable visual images is crucial, for Bhimayana’s cultural work is to generate what Sumathi Ramaswamy calls the ‘interocular’ field. The interocular is the field where the visual intersects with other images from other media, thereby reconfiguring the familiar (Natarajan et al. 2011: xvi). The statues of Ambedkar and Bhimayana’s visual representation of the early life of Ambedkar, the symbolic representation of massacres and suffering – Ambedkar’s as well as other instances such as Khairlanji – open up a whole new visual field: of caste-based atrocity that impinges upon us.

The purpose here is to draw the ‘statues’ into the field of common knowledge. Urban youth do not know anything about either Ambedkar (except his statues) or caste atrocities in India. I am proposing that Bhimayana taps into a visual literacy already generated by an existing interocular field where we are called upon to move beyond the statues to the story behind the statues, even as we are ‘shown’ the contexts of both Ambedkar and our (re)reading of his life in the events unfolding today across India.5 That is, Bhimayana’s interocular field draws existing visual cultures of both Ambedkar and the horrific representa-tions of caste-based massacres into its ambit and our reading practice. Hereafter, we will widen our visual field, as’aimayana causes Ambedkar and caste-based atrocity to erupt into the present. 

The inter-ocularity of Bhimayana abandons the tradi-tional mode of sequential art in favour of the traditional form of Gond arts. As Sandria Freitag suggests, tradi-tional art or performance is fine-tuned to accommodate the new (2003: 371). While Bhimayana does rely on the contemporary fascination with and circulation of graphic novels, it retrieves an older art form in order to speak about the present. The styles of Bhimayana as noted above are unconventional in that they are not what we see in Frank Miller or Joe Sacco. Yet they are conventional because they are traditional. Freitag observes that ‘The new is dealt with through a deliberate choice of the antique’ (2003: 367).

Retrieving Gond art for the purpose of narrating Ambedkar’s story in the very contemporary graphic novel format has the effect of situating one of the oldest forms of oppression -based on caste – in a new medium and genre. In terms of cultural production this is a radical step, for it simul-taneously showcases the beauty of a traditional art form – and I will return to the problems of this later in the article – while telling us a contemporary ‘story’. It takes localised, Gond art and cultural practices and deploys them to design a work in a more or less globalised medium – the comic book. The art of Bhimayana, in other words, underscores at once the need for a new visual register but also the contemporaneity of the past in terms of both the language of art and continuing casteism. 

In order to speak of the second, Bhimayana suggests, we need a language that is at once ancient-traditional (`antique’, as Freitag would say) and new (the graphic novel way of telling a biography). The power of the interocular field generated by Bhimayana lies, as should be clear from the above discussion, not in its exclusivity, but in its hybridised and demotic register of representation, as Maus did to devastating effect years ago. Writing about Spiegelman’s Maus, Thomas Doherty (1996) suggests that by delivering the horrors of the Holocaust in the form of an everyday medium like the comics, Spiegelman brings the Holocaust closer to the people, because the graphic novel remains, ultimately, `populist art’ (Wollc 2007: 23).

This argument might be extended to suggest that what Bhimayana does is to make caste-based oppression and its history (hyper)visible by steering clear of standard modes.of documenting oppression (tracts and Amnesty reports) and by shifting it into the demotic, or populist, register. Richard Wilson writing about human rights coverage notes that such writing is ‘minimalist’, and ‘strips events of their subjective meanings’ when they cast them into `objective legal facts’ (2009: 209). Wilson argues that it is therefore necessary to ‘restore to accounts of political violence both the surrounding social relations and an associated range of subjective meanings’ (2009: 209). Such a ‘restoration’ of subjective meanings is possible through the use of a popular interocular field. 

This popular interocular field is performative ! For Homi Bhabha, the ‘performative’ is aligned with instability, a ‘practice that destroys the constant principles of the national culture’ (1995: 303). Bhabha argues that the ‘performative’ destabilises the stereotypes on which the nation depends and which miss ‘the zone of occult instability where the people dwell’ (1995: 303). The performative in Bhimayana is the intrusion of multiple registers within the overarching demotic register of the graphic novel that disrupts the youth’s continuum of ignorance as well as our own. 

The demotic register is crucial because it enables a popularisation of a social condition and of historical wrongs. Bhimayana contributes to a postcolonial critical literacy because it enables the circulation of stories in a medium and form that draws upon the existing interocular field. The personal narrative folding into (but not blurring) the social-historical in a popular format creates a new story-space where we begin to see a history of violations, a history otherwise available in UN tracts or sociological studies. Commentators on human rights have pointed to the necessity of such a space for storytelling. Writing about the role of narrative in human rights, Joseph Slaughter says : 

A public sphere is a story space that not only enables but also shapes and constrains narrative; moreover, it is not simply a clearinghouse for the publication of personal narrative truth but a kind of story factory in which the norms of public discourse become legible both in the social interactivity of storytelling and in the story forms that it disseminates, conventionalized, and canonizes. (2007: 144) 

In a similar fashion, Paul Gready writes: Human rights work has two primary points of reference, the law and what we are calling here the story – you could define human rights practice as the craft of bringing together legal norms and human stories in the service of justice. Law provides the mechanisms for rendering power accountable, particularly state power, but also increasingly the power of non-state actors. Human stories provide a no less essential resource —attempting to spark the law into life, transcend cultural and political differences, and cement the solidarity of strangers. (2010: 177-78) 

Writing about popular perceptions of the law through such cinematic representations — even fictional ones —Anthony Chase states that ‘Popular perceptions [of the law] are constituent elements in the social process by which any legal culture becomes recognizable to its own participants’ (2000: 559-60). It has also been suggested that a cultural apparatus of human rights emerges in a folklorization of political human rights discourses and the concomitant circulation of opposite narrative forms. We can make universal standards of human rights folkloric by sliding them into local cultural forms and practices of thought (Nayar 2011). Bhimayana opens up the cultural realm to human rights discourses.

The culture is the space where human rights are staged for common consumption. It is the domain where an implicit discursive operation of human rights — equal rights, human dignity, protection against torture — can be discerned in narratives of violations, abuse and rights-denial. The culture of human rights strengthens and expands the moral project of human rights when literature and cinema trigger the moral imagination of listeners and viewers about the fate of Dalits, genocide victims, the destitute and the abused. It is in popular representations such as Bhimayana that the essential critical literacy about human rights originates.

I am proposing here that a postcolonial critical literacy about the need for human rights, the historical abuse of certain social groups, and the urgent need for reforms is best articulated in the demotic register of Bhimayana, with its inter ocularity, vernacular, non-official, everyday life and stories in a supposedly ‘non-serious’ medium such as the graphic novel. With its economy of the languages of representation — minimal speech balloons, no boxed-in narratives, and the seamlessness of narrative movement —Bhimayana is at once high art and low culture, a mix of genres and subgenres that recalls antique artwork and the highly commercialised comic book format at one go. Miles Orvell’s comment about Maus that Spiegelman seems to ‘have projected the mentality of the cartoon world with the complexity of high art, aiming at a broader based audience, a middle space between high and popular culture’ (1992:111) applies equally well to Bhimayana. 

Critical literacy invites readers to take up the ideology of a text, but it also examines the assumptions of the authors and readers, involving readers as active participants in the reading process. Critical literacy is also localised (Boatright 2010), and Bhimayana ensures that the narrative remains rooted in local conditions and contexts, even though it seeks to situate itself, and Ambedkar and the caste issue, globally (I will return to this below). Such an approach to Bhimayana treats this text’s contemporaneity of the past with(in) its multiple registers as uncovering and ‘unlearning’ the uninformed assumptions about caste in India of the immediate audience (the first listener of the story) as well as us readers. Bhimayana defies the ‘lightness’ one associates with cartoon/comic mode and produces a literary text that bridges the political and the personal, and thus inaugurates a whole new attitude towards Indian history. 

By engendering a postcolonial critical literacy, Bhimayana offers human rights, the problem of casteism, and the inner workings of an oppressive society a significant cultural legibility. If cultural legibility is the narratological — representational — foundation of human rights (as Slaughter’s (2007) work suggests), it demands and implies a popular acceptance of the norms, values and belief systems about human rights through the consumption of these narratives. In the case of the United States, studies have shown that genres like the graphic novel have empowered teachers by combining ‘recreational reading’ and ‘advanced themes in literature and visual literacy’ (Seyfried 2008: 45; Yang 2008). It is this conflation of the popular with the critique (or the critique within the popular) that enables the cultural legibility of contentious social issues, and bestows upon concerns about human rights, which are otherwise debated mainly in the realm of the legal-juridical, a cultural legitimacy. ‘Cultural legitimacy’, as I have defined it, is the popular acceptance of the norms, values and belief systems through the consumption of particular narratives (Nayar 2012: 12-13). Bhimayana offers the human rights ethos this essential cultural legitimacy precisely because its register is the popular. 

Admittedly, a postcolonial critical literacy alerted by Bhimayana to the persistence of caste-based discrimination will also be alerted to the globalizing market and ideological positioning it seeks to achieve, but without taking away its political and social concerns or power. Such a literacy will take note of Bhimayana’s commercialization of tribal art forms for the rapidly growing comic book market in India. (It will also note that Bhimayana has a strong ‘ethical consumer’ dimension : Bhimayana T-shirts are available from Navayana, suggesting a clear merchandising-commercial angle to the political comic book.) 

Navayana describes itself as ‘India’s first and only publishing house to exclusively focus on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective’, but this does not change the fact that it is a commercial venture with a particular political slant in its choice of books to be published. Anand admits in his essay ‘A digna for Bhim’ at the conclusion of Bhimayana that a book with ‘full:- page drawings’ would have resulted in an ‘unwieldy and unaffordable 400-pager’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 101— 02, emphasis added). The popular intersects very clearly with the commercial here. The Pardhan Gonds — the clan to which Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, the illustrators of Bhimayana, belong — are the ‘traditional keepers of their people’s heritage and lineages’, writes Anand (Natarajan et al. 2011: 100).

It is interesting to note that the traditional art forms of the Gonds were losing patronage when attempts were made to showcase them in India as well as abroad (Natarajan et al. 2011: 100-01). Bhimayana therefore represents a globalisation of ethnic chic, where ethnic, rural, tribal and village styles are revived and popularised for commercial purposes by organisations and entrepreneurs. Gond art and the labour that went into Bhimayana are also globally ‘visible’ through Bhimayana, but also on that most ubiquitous of media forms: Facebook. They have also received attention from globally circulating newspapers such as the Washington Post. 

The detailed comments on the ‘tribal art’ of Bhimayana in Anand’s essay and in other media such as the Washington Post article not only highlight an ethnic art form, they also shift it out of the realm of the ethnic — rooted in an ethnos or ethos — and into what can be termed the global-popular, with its own market share. `Authentic primitive art’, notes anthropologist Sherry Errington, ‘dies’ in one sense because its ‘producers’ (the tribes) are dead or dying, even as the ‘concept of authentic primitive art is alive and well among collectors, primitive art galleries, and the art market’ (1998: 3-4). In Bhimayana a tribal art form is used to craft Dalit/ untouchable, thereby bringing together the Dalits and the tribals in a problematic move because historically the relations between the two have not always been exactly harmonious.

It also converts Gond art into a commercially attractive mode of illustrating a subaltern social issue, symbolically investing a pre-modern (Gond art dates back centuries) form with considerable ‘authenticity’, keeping it alive through a publishing project that targets an elite English-reading public in contemporary India and the world. Anand claims he was looking to provide the artists with a ‘challenge that did justice to their sophisticated visual language’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 100). Thus, Gond art fits the art market of the publisher, even as the tale to be narrated for a social cause fits the art form, each authenticating the other, suiting the other. Ambedkar’s struggles against the tyranny of the caste system could not, if Anand is to be believed, be represented through the ‘tyranny of conventional panels without compromising on the [Gond artists’] credo of not forcing people into boxes’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 102).

In other words, Anand suggests that the ‘tyranny’ of the conventional comic book format (panels) would simply replicate, in art form, the tyranny of a social system. The challenge was to find an art form that was ‘open’ (which is how the artists describe their work, Natarajan et al. (2011: 100)) in order to reflect a move towards openness and caste-less equality in the social domain. A more authentic mode, supposedly, would be an ‘open’ art form, which thus enters the process of cultural production as well as a political medium: the comic book, Bhimayana. 

Ruth Mandel notes that ‘prestige’ is associated with the consumption of ‘ethnic chic’, represented by oriental rugs, tribal artworks and artefacts, ethnic cuisine, etc, in First World cities, Third World metropolises and upper classes, but also has clear ‘political moral dimensions as well’ (2008: 97). Mandel’s argument is illustrated both in the production and reception of Bhimayana. When Anand concludes his short essay ‘A digna for Bhim’, he carefully positions the book, and Ambedkar’s story, within a global marketplace of thinkers and intellectuals: he lists ‘Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X’, to make Ambedkar’s story ‘universal’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 103).

He claims that the artwork of Durgabai and Subhash Vyam contributes to this universalization (Natarajan et al. 2011: 103). This sense of the (marketable) global-popular nature of ethnic chic is indicated — though it is still too early to predict the course of popularity for the text —in the coverage Bhimayana has received in the Times Literary Supplement (Gravett 2011), the Guardian (Singh 2011), and other international periodicals and newspapers. The work’s paratexts — a foreword by John Berger, blurbs by Joe Sacco and Arundhati Roy — indicate the process of globalisation at work. Sacco underscores the ‘artistic heritage’ used by the Vyams to ‘craft a distinctive graphic biography of one of India’s bravest and greatest leaders’ (Bhimayana, inside jacket blurb).

Roy comments that Bhimayana tells the Ambedkar story in ‘the most unusually beautiful way’ (Bhimayana, inside jacket blurb). A commentator on CNN lists it alongside Satrapi’s Persepolis, Spiegelman’s Maus, Sacco’s Palestine and Didier Lefevre’s The Photographer as one of the top five political comic books, thus suggesting a globalization of Bhimayana within the domain not only of commercial comic books but also human rights issues, ethnic strife, discrimination and war (Calvi 2011). It is this linkage of ethnic chic with commercial art and global political morality that a postcolonial critical literacy ought to note about Bhimayana. 

Despite these problematic issues of cultural production, Bhimayana is a key text in bringing human rights, the problem of caste-based discrimination and the life of Ambedkar into everyday life. With its ‘antique’ art, subversion of form, and the visual vocabulary of atrocity and social inequality, it offers a different voice — the cultural legibility and legitimacy — to the language of oppression and rights. When it subverts the genres, it also encourages a critical examination of the available registers of justice, the institutional forms through which rights and claims can be made, and the corrective discourses being put in place. The postcolonial critical literacy it demands and fosters in us is an anterior moment to a larger reformatting of the public space through the production, dissemination and consumption of such stories.

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