Archive for ‘caste’

May 26, 2012

Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam, Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand, Bhimayana

As is probably obvious from last week’s column (reproduced below) I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I love that the book resists attempts to simplify it entirely, and that it forces its reader to negotiate and struggle to learn its visual language. This is one of the reasons I disapprove of Anand’s explanatory afterword; I object simultaneously to the idea that it needs explaining and the idea that we should be allowed the option of not struggling with it a little. This is a comparatively minor quibble, though, and it really is worth reading.



Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability begins in “the recent past”. A young man waiting at a bus stop complains about his unsatisfactory job and blames his lack of advancement on the system of reservations that ensures job quotas for people from the backward and scheduled castes. As a young woman waiting at the bus stop responds and engages in the debate, this man trots out a series of arguments that will be familiar to those of us who have had this debate before. That caste has been abolished; that his own merit has been unfairly overlooked; that in arguing with him the woman is talking “like one of them”. It’s almost a parody of the ignorant and privileged, and it works only because we have all met people like this. It is at this point that the unnamed woman sets out to educate him about the continuing violence perpetuated against Dalits, and she does this with reference to B.R. Ambedkar.

This framing narrative provides us with a context in which to read the main body of the text. First, it is explicitly, openly didactic. This is not a criticism of the text; simply a statement of its form. Secondly, Ambedkar’s story here is told specifically in terms of how it is relevant to present day caste discrimination.

With art by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam, Bhimayana is physically gorgeous. The artists here have chosen to eschew the traditional panel style of the graphic novel (in S. Anand’s afterword they describe this as “forc[ing] characters into boxes”), and the pages are open and free-flowing, divided in places by traditional dignas. Durgabai and Subhash Vyam are working from the Pardhan Gond tradition, and each page is filled with details that act as clever signifiers.

There are the animals, for one thing. Nature is all over this book – fortresses are fierce beasts; trains are snakes; the road is a peacock’s long neck. The handle of a water pump turns into an elephant’s trunk. The first section of the book, which deals with the right to water, is full of water-based imagery – when the young Ambedkar is thirsty his torso turns into a fish, and when he urges a crowd to stand up for their rights the speakers morph into showers sprinkling water into the audience. A section on shelter has the recurring imagery of the banyan tree and its many twisted roots. Even the speech bubbles have significance – harsh or prejudiced words are given a tail like a scorpion’s to evoke their sting. Gentle words are encased in bubbles shaped like birds, and unspoken thoughts are given an icon to denote the mind’s eye. Trying to work out what each of these symbols mean is part of the joy of the book. With this in mind it’s rather a pity that the afterword should explain everything –this assumption that we need a translation makes me feel rather as if a layer of separation has been placed between the reader and the book.

The text itself, by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, is workmanlike, serving mostly as a background for the art. Bhimayana doesn’t attempt a comprehensive biography of Ambedkar; what we get instead is a selection of important scenes from his life. At no point does Bhimayana attempt (or claim) objectivity. We are allowed to see the justifiable bitterness against the Hindu religion – at one point the text even makes a flippant comment about the priests’ attempt to “purify” water touched by Dalits by using cow urine. The scorpion speech bubbles are occasionally applied to comments that are well-meaning, if ignorant and harmful.

Yet none of this is evidence of any kind of simplistic reading of caste. It’s clear throughout that caste oppression is a complex, many-tentacled beast – Bhimrao faces discrimination from Muslims, Parsis and Christians as well as Hindus. If it’s possible to draw from this book a child’s narrative of good versus evil, this is because the simplest narratives are the most politically expedient. Bhimayana is always conscious of that, and of the sort of book it aspires to be.




December 3, 2007

The Aaja Nachle lyrics and Privilege

My first reaction to Aaja Nachle being banned because of offensive lyrics was an eyeroll . Because censorship is bad, but we’re all so used to it that it’s hard to work up righteous anger when I’m writing against it. But people who come here regularly know where I stand on this (link, if you’re new) so this post really isn’t about free speech and censorship.

What it is about is my increasing discomfort with the accounts of the banning that I’d read, and until today I wasn’t sure why this was. But then my friend (and possibly soon-to-be-flatmate) SupriyaWhoHoldsMyHeart posted this, and I think I’ve partly figured it out.

See, what bothers me is that if someone had written down the lyrics of that song and given them to me to read, I would never have known they could possibly be offensive. Nor would most of the people writing indignant articles and blog posts about freedom of expression. Because I (we, I suspect) get to go through life not having casteism thrust upon us – I can be reasonably sure that I will never be looked down upon, treated as inferior or held in contempt based on my class or caste (I might meet with resentment I suppose, but that’s another area entirely). I can afford to be ignorant of what is offensive within a caste based system in ways that people who are constantly having their ‘inferior’ status within that system thrust upon them (in various ways, some more subtle than others) cannot. [Remember during the reservation debates when upper class students honestly declared that the caste system was irrelevant because they had never felt its presence? Yeah]. In fact, the whole thing reminds me rather of this incident, discussed at PunkAssBlog, where someone did something stupid and racist without knowing it was stupid and racist because, yes, he was in a position not to know. Ignorance is a privelege. (As an aside, I’m amazed anyone living in the US could not get the noose thing. I’m in India, and even I know this much.)

And so when posts like this one try to figure out what’s wrong with the lyrics in question and decide that hey, they’re not really that offensive, it really annoys me. Because do people who are unlikely to face racism or casteism really get to sit there and tell the people who are affected by it what they do and do not have a right to be offended by, what is racist enough to be important and what isn’t? And I’ve seen this happen on this blog and on other blogs where gender is concerned as well (I’m sure it happens just as much with race and class and the like, gender is just a greater proportion of what I read) – where people are constantly coming in and telling one that something isn’t really a big deal, that we’re making too much of something, allowing ourselves to be too affected by something that is really trivial, and I’ve even seen this come from men who are generally lovely people and who identify with feminist positions on ‘larger’ issues. As Sups said, “all these enormously clever, influential people don’t seem to understand that racism isn’t what a dominant class decides it is. ”

And like her, I wonder what would have happened if no one had banned this movie. If the studio, had it received a polite letter, would have apologised and removed the lines, maybe even done so publicly. If those of us who get to ignore casteism usually would ever have found out those lines could be offensive. I doubt it.

But banning movies? Still bad.