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Tracing a tract

Mihir S Sharma 

A few days after B R Ambedkar’s 121st birth anniversary this week, a confrontation broke out in Hyderabad’s Osmania University: apparently a bunch of Dalit groups had decided to eat beef biryani on campus. The various right-wing groups that descended on the food festival in fury condemned it as deliberate provocation. Which misses the point, of course: it was a challenge to dominant cultural norms — and thus assertive, radical and yes, provocative as much as it was non-violent. Creating a space for Dalit cultural assertion can not be, it appears, a passive act. It requires an active assault on ideas and aesthetics that are, when seen from below, irredeemably polluted with upper-caste bias.

A Gardener in the Wasteland is bracing for precisely this reason. The new graphic novel from Navayana Publishing could be called many things. A retelling of the claims made by Jotirao Phule in his 1873 attack on Brahminical concepts, Slavery; the story of Phule and his equally inspiring wife, Savitribai, as they battle for the right to propagate deeply unpopular ideas; and an explanation of how, exactly, young Indians could conceivably be drawn to ideas that are far from acceptable in our nationalist, tolerant, quiescent public culture. It is also, primarily, provocative.

It pulls no punches — nothing inspired by Slavery could afford to. Phule was one of this country’s great emancipatory thinkers. Most Indian kids will never hear of him. That’s unsurprising. Take Slavery at face value, and your world turns upside down. It inverts the all-pervasive nationalist narrative we have been taught to adore: of a nation united against the stifling British presence, which needed nothing more than freedom from their brutish cultural and political dominance to shine forth once again.

Accepting that as truth, as most of us do, cannot survive reading this book. It becomes painfully clear that, to Jotirao and Savitribai, British imperialists should, indeed, have been greeted as liberators. They opened doors that India had kept closed against most of its people for millennia — doors to education, to a say in policy, to understanding. British power and Western thought were the only access to the very grammar of freedom, intrinsically alien to a Sanskritic, Bharat-mata culture. This was a desire for freedom orthogonal to the Struggle for Freedom, contrary enough to be written out of our triumphant histories.

And its weapons were words and exhortation. Slavery was a vicious attack on Brahminical Hinduism, one that consciously aligned Dalit struggles against oppression with those of slaves in the American South — the book was dedicated to Northern abolitionists, presumably to encourage the Raj into similar feats of moral daring. Of course, the Phules were doomed to fail. Gardener shows us why, interweaving its extracts from Slavery with excerpts of Jotirao’s address to the Hunter Commission on education — calling for less freedom from British supervision for state-funded education, for money to primary schools rather than universities and a change to its native-focused curriculum. The price of his failure is made clear. We debate these issues today, and Jotirao’s arguments are as sadly relevant now as then.

A Gardener in the Wasteland is at its best, and best-drawn, when it traces out Phule’s angry attacks on Hinduism’s mythology, Brahmin control, and the concessions made by the British government to upper-caste cultural nationalists. In today’s India, much more oppressively polite about oppression than a century ago, this book wakes you up like a punch in the face. Myth and religion are stripped of the mumbo-jumbo of sanctity and revealed as naked attempts at social control — an attack made more savage, and yet more elegant, by Aparajita Ninan’s unforgiving visual aesthetic, stark yet detailed, compassionate yet divisive.

The book is a collaboration between Ms Ninan, a Delhi-based artist, and Srividya Natarajan, a Bharatnatyam dancer and Canada-based professor of English. Moments from their collaboration serve as a framing device, interspersed with extracts from the Phules’ work and bits of the Phules’ life. Frankly, I’m not sure that works too well as a narrative device. It comes across as too self-conscious, a bystander-casual counterpoint to the intensity of the rest of the book. Do we really need how we should experience the Phules to be literally illustrated for us? Everything else in the book is so wonderfully calculated to shock? That’s what afterwords are for.

Yet you finish it full of ideas, turn back to re-evaluate panels you were too hasty about. I wish there was some way to frame one: a line-up of Western, Asian and Indian reformers and radicals that turns, as you look at it, into Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Some of the art is exceptional. If you wonder, as I did, how it’s made, go online: there’s a video you can watch of Ninan creating one of the panels from scratch, with little explanatory balloons, like MTV’s Pop-Up Video For Art-Loving Liberals.

Read this book. Then read Phule’s original. And learn where Ambedkar came from, with his cynicism about the other leaders of India’s Greatest Generation. And understand why the Constitution he framed is so irredeemably foreign and Enlightenment-influenced that it unsettles both Left and Right.

Jotiba Phule’s fight for liberty
Story: Srividya Natarajan

Art: Aparajita Ninan
Navayana Publishing; 128 pages; Rs 220

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First Published: Fri, April 20 2012. 00:39 IST