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.”
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.
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.
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.Symbolism is central to the Gond art world; nothing is perceived literally. Subhash Vyam, 40, dismisses realistic representations as “ditto art.”
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.
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.”
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Also, this book will be released in 5 Indian cities. Click here to view the schedule.