How ‘Bhimayana’ Challenges the Conventions of Mainstream Graphic Novels

Bhimayana is a graphic novel based on the life of Dr B.R. Ambedkar written by the founder of Navayana publishing house S. Anand and novelist Srividya Natarajan. It has been designed by Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam.

Unlike any other graphic novel, Bhimayana, which was released in 2011, doesn’t conform to the template of a conventional graphic novel, making it a creative first in its own right. The so-called mainstream graphic novels usually follow a set pattern with features like panels, gutters, easily discernible graphics, and so on. Bhimayana, on the other hand, has its own unique style.

The multiple narratives that go on simultaneously, linking the past events with the contemporary debates, provides a sense of the writers’ and illustrators’ postmodernist approach to storytelling. On the other hand, in Amar Chitra Katha’s Babasaheb Ambedkar, we see the narrative progressing in a linear fashion. This very difference helps us gauge the cutting-edge style of Bhimayana. In terms of graphics, too, Bhimayana flouts otherwise popular conventions. In the concluding chapter of the novel, we can trace the journey of ideating and conceptualising the epic narrative undertaken by the creators.

Also read: ‘Bhimayana’: Why You Should Be Reading This Anti-Caste Narrative

The illustrators of the novel, Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, refuse to suffocate their characters inside caged structures (box structures used in conventional graphic novels). They break out of boundaries and let their characters and symbols flow across the book without any restrictions, perhaps alluding to the Dalit community’s age-old search for an open space where they can breathe and freely voice themselves.

Bhimayana offers a novel experience in terms of narrative and art form, thus pioneering a radical new style. There are different types of speech bubbles, font styles, characters and symbols which are far-fetched from what we read or see in a conventional comic. The Digna patterns, meaning ‘lines’, which are usually painted on the walls and windows of the Gond community, appear on paper invading the mainstream narrative which further brings up the caste-based oppressions to the forefront with an all-around sensory impact.

Figure1: Scene from book 1, Water. Image credit: ‘Bhimayana’.

Unlike Amar Chitra Katha which idolises Ambedkar – and therefore alienating him from his own community – in Bhimayana, we see him as an essential part of the world he comes from; he doesn’t ascend to the level of God. The recurring images of eyes and multiple hands makes it a narrative of the collective.

From figure 1, we can infer that the entire construction of the episode is somewhat unique per se. This illustration of a large fish speaks volumes: a place where upper caste people usually wash their clothes and bathe their cows whereas the untouchables are denied access to water.

The illustrators have aptly depicted the caste hierarchy where the Dalit characters find a space in the corner of the page while the Savarnas occupy the central part, thus making us question the norms of the society.

“The artwork is extremely beautiful. Its beauty stems not from an ornamental excess or prettiness, but from being comfortable in one’s own artistic skin and oeuvre,” says Nandini Chandra in her review ‘Ambedkar out of frame’.

The prevalence of the concept of ‘khulla’ (open space) makes Bhimayana even more revolutionary in its style and presentation. The inclusion of newspaper cuttings to enable the notion of chronotope (configurations of time and space through language) makes the narrative much more realistic adding to its avant-garde style.

Through the fluidity of interpretation (train converting into a snake, fingers floating around, animals becoming monuments, etc.), Bhimayana creates a greater emotional impact because of its animal imagery – the illustrators have depicted every emotion not through facial expressions of the characters but through the images of fish, lions, peacocks and even via colours.

At various places in the novel, we can see some fingers which also have an identity of their own, for instance, the pointy fingers are always directed towards the Dalits almost as if hurting them whereas the rounded fingers try to direct us through the narrative hence facilitating ease of reading.

Figure a: Mahad protest. Image credit: ‘Bhimayana’

Figure b: Ambedkar’s search for home. Image credit: Bhimayana.

These two visuals – one from Amar Chitra Katha and another from Bhimayana – substantiate my discussion on how the graphic representation of Bhimayana is so innovative that it compels the reader to develop their own line of interpretation.

In figure a, we see a clear structure inclusive of four panels, gutter spaces dividing the different episodes from each other and the conventional oval-shaped speech bubbles. It is something we are used to seeing and reading, whereas when we divert our attention towards figure b, we can infer the stark contrast as far as the construction and the visuals are concerned.

Unlike the western influence in most of the Indian graphic novels, the use of Pardhan-Gond art makes Bhimayana very much culturally rooted. In figure b, we see that the narrative is not bound in the cage of boxes but separated through Dignas and the colours. The panels are much more indefinite and open. The different styles of speech bubbles also convey different meanings, such as stinger tails for words that hurt and pinch whereas a bird-like tail to the comments of the oppressed, in turn, offers a more intense understanding of the struggles and oppression of the Dalit community.

When talking about the use of colour, we see that the illustrators do not use colours as part of the convention to simply make the novel look more attractive which is more evident in the Amar Chitra Katha version meant for mass consumption. In Bhimayana every colour denotes a meaning: orange for courage, ochres and browns for the earthly touch, black and white to depict equality, shunning the caste, class, or gender-based differentiations.

Quoting Meghan Maier, “By adding space and colour, this book gives the untouchables something that they never had.”

It has indeed given enough space for the pictorial art to float which in turn brings up the issue of untouchability more vividly and the audience experiences a rich artistic viewership. The opportunity to decipher the deeper meanings showcased through an ample amount of imagery, allegory and symbolism sets Bhimayana apart from the rest.

Arpita Chowdhury is a third-year undergraduate student of English at Lady Sriram College for Women, University of Delhi.

Featured image: screenshots from Bhimayana; Editing: LiveWire