The idea of conceiving a workshop around Bhimayana stemmed from a personal choice—the book had left a layered, distinct impression on my colleague Rajosmita and I, differently, from our respective first and subsequent encounters with it.
The book’s structure already being so well designed made our work simpler as well as more difficult: What could we bring to workshop attendees that the book didn’t already? In the course of preparing we decided that instead of taking on the impossible onus of trying to become familiar with Ambedkar’s extensive oeuvre in such a short time period, we would instead focus on building a framework that would allow for: maximum engagement with Bhimayana itself; building connections with the participants’ own perceptions and experiences; opening up avenues to exploring Ambedkar’s work and literature as well as to ongoing caste-based discrimination and the ways in which it is resiliently being challenged.
By 9.45 a.m. on 10 December, the workshop participants slowly began to trickle in. Our excitement at finally hosting and conducting a workshop on our own premises (The Seagull Foundation for the Arts) was only slightly dampened by the number of registered participants who did not end up showing up. Those who did, however, were a rather diverse mix of practising and retired high school teachers, one college lecturer and a young high school student.
We began with presenting to participants a manual collage of images without captions that we put together from newspaper articles—all depicting different, mostly contemporary invocations of B.R. Ambedkar. They were invited to take a look and then attempt to locate the images based on what they read in them, which of course organically led into a discussion around the implications of invoking his image in the present moment across these different contexts of people’s struggles. To encourage closer reading of the images, we questioned their responses to the images—for instance, in response to one participant saying their primary association with Ambedkar was Dalit rights, we invited them to think of why one of the images in the collage was of a portrait of Ambedkar being held up in an anti-CAA demonstration; we also sought their thoughts on what they thought had guided our selection of the images, and if they could identify possible narratives behind that.
Having set the tone for the workshop, we next moved on to the activity. Each participant was assigned a selection from Bhimayana and offered a choice of quotes by Ambedkar or from the book itself to pick from. They were then instructed to create a storyboard connecting their choice of quote/s to their assigned text selection, building the narrative that stood out most to them. For the next forty minutes, everyone buzzed around, snipping text and images, sharing stationary as they read and re-read the text selections and pasted away.
We then took ten minutes to go around the room, participants viewing each other’s storyboards to get a sense of the narratives they had each built in the course of the activity, before sitting down to an open discussion around two questions, based on the work they had just done:
● Do you notice anything that is distinctive to this form/ kind of discrimination [caste] when compared with other forms of identity-based discrimination?
● Does your assigned reading remind you of anything contemporary you’ve read/heard/seen recently?
It was interesting to see how and what each participant decided to focus upon in their storyboards, including one that based it upon his reference to the similarity between the French Revolution and the Mahad Satyagraha while another emphasised on him being deprived of access to water as a child in school while his father was building a tank in a water scarcity region in Maharashtra. Therefore, each storyboard brought out a different historical moment from his lifetime to piece together the socio-political context amid which he became the revolutionary thinker that he is. One of the storyboards took an interesting, slightly different direction, taking the form of a map of sorts of cultural associations (across media), contemporary and otherwise, stemming from the concerned participant’s assigned text selection.
From here, over tea and snacks, we moved to discussing the form of the book with a single question: Do you consider Bhimayana a comic? A question I personally had been dwelling on when preparing for this workshop.
A class 8 student, our youngest participant thought not, because he associated comics with humorous content. None of the other participants were comfortable with the category of comic either, with one participant suggesting ‘graphic novel’, which the others too found more convincing. Shedding some light here on disagreements within professionals in the comic industry as well as comic scholars on this neat bifurcation and system of nomenclature, we tried to probe what the participants’ ideas were of what qualifies as a comic. Drawing from their responses, we went from the concept of the ‘icon’ in comic books as per Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics to the fourth segment in Bhimayana where the artists talk about their philosophy and style, as well as the section where publisher and co-author S. Anand discusses the Pardhan Gond art style and its system of signifying rather than representing. Reading out/sharing some examples of this caused much excited revisiting of specific pages and motifs in the book.
The workshop concluded with a close reading of the foreword by John Berger, with each participant picking the bit from the foreword that most draws them followed by a discussion around those sections with reference to the entirety of the book. This brought out the distinctive nature of the book in its emphasis on situating Ambedkar amid his community which is fundamental to how both, the text and the art, come together.
Ranita Ray, Rajosmita Roy