Phule in Black Paint and Dry Pastels

Jotiba Phule’s intense polemic gets framed in a graphic novel

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: March 3, 2012 12:05 am

Book: A Gardener in The Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight For Liberty

Author: Srividya Natarajan

Publisher: Navayana

Price: Rs 220

Jotirao Phule’s Ghulamgiri is not just a book,but a declaration of war. War against Brahminism. War against ignorance. War against injustice. Phule was a pioneering social reformer in Maharashtra,fighting against the oppressive terror of the caste system and standing up for women’s emancipation. He strongly believed in the power of education — he and his wife Savitribai opened one of the first schools for girls in India in 1848.

Ghulamgiri (its full title can be translated as Slavery in the civilised British government under the cloak of Brahmanism) came out in 1873,a time of immense political ferment in India. The 1857 rebellion and its bloody aftermath had ended one epoch of Indian history and a new one was dawning. When Phule wrote the book,he had been fighting for more than 20 years for social justice. Ghulamgiri is a polemic,with the white heat of anger at oppression radiating from its core,and it should be read in the light of that white heat.

A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty,written by Srividya Natarajan and drawn by Aparajita Ninan,has a unique approach,retelling,adapting and framing Phule’s book in sequential art form. Every now and then,Natarajan and Ninan themselves appear in the narrative,discussing the book they are creating. This device cleverly mirrors the dialogue between Phule and his friend Dhondiba,which Ghulamgiri is structured around.

This is where I feel an opportunity was missed. Instead of challenging,examining and engaging with the text,Natarajan and Ninan offer a few of their personal experiences but don’t go very deep.

For example,Phule repeatedly asserts that the “brahmans” are stirring up the shudras against the British,who offer a bulwark of protection against oppression. “The brahmans recite tall tales from the puranas,poison the minds of the shudras against the British,stir up rebellion,” goes one panel. It would have been interesting to see what the authors make of this,especially as some theorists hold that the British codified the caste system,“fixing” it,from what was formerly a little more fluid. As for the alliance between the Shudras and the British (this is not as outre as it seems,right-wing Hindus also considered the British as liberators from “Muslim tyranny”),it could be argued that Phule fundamentally misread the entire engine of colonisation.

Natarajan and Ninan state,“Nationalists believe that he is a comprador admirer of European liberalism”,and leave it at that. Such a central point should perhaps have been grappled with more forcefully. After all,the argument has plenty of contemporary resonances and has been the excuse for western intervention right up to the present day.

Phule is not blind to imperialism,he has a British official tell a Brahmin,“You lend me some of the power you acquired through religious brainwashing,and I will lend you the power I acquired through conquest and administrative control.”

The picture that Phule paints of primary education is unfortunately accurate nearly 150 years on: “The subjects they teach do not connect with the lives of the children at all — for instance,the children are never taught anything about the basics of sanitation. The schools run almost unsupervised; the teachers are not accountable to anyone.”

Georges Dumezil,in his work on the proto-Indo-Europeans,who covered most of Asia and Europe,shows that all shared a hierarchical model of society involving priests,warriors and peasants or pastoralists. It is one of the great historical questions as to why only in India it solidified into that all-pervading colossus.

A bizarre theory,of Aryans in canoes invading India,is presented in the book without any comment. This is Phule attempting to interpret the dasavatars through a nautical lens.

To digress,all superheroes need an origin story. There is a good reason why Superman comes from a dying planet or Batman was forged in the fires of seeing his parents killed. In the superhero business,origin stories are everything. The decades when Phule was writing was a time when every race was running around to find their urheimat. Max Muller had fired the minds of Indian intellectuals with his tracing of the Vedas to Kant’s work as the childhood to the “manhood of the Aryan mind”. In 1898,Tilak came up with the ultimate origin story,Brahmins came from the North Pole. Hard to beat in the coolness index. As late as 1938,Himmler was sending SS expeditions to Tibet to find the true origin of the Aryans. Stripped of all this context,the scenes with the canoes make Phule sound like a crackpot. But Phule was actually attempting a “secret history” by taking a sledgehammer to grandiose origin theories. After all,all acts of resistance begin with the counter-narrative.

“History,like myth,changes depending on who writes it,who reads it,” as one of the authors says.

A Gardener is hand-drawn with black paint and dry pastels,the stark style fitting perfectly with the content. The hand-drawn approach illuminates the entire project,Ninan going so far as to design a custom-made elegant typeface “Joti” specially for the book.

Phule,as the Gardener,Mali,is always shown with a flower,and this motif is weaved into the narrative. The visual inventiveness extends to even the speech balloons. The tails of the speech balloons of the Brahmins are twisted while that of Phule and his peers are straight. A Nike-shod Vamana pushes down King Bali into the underworld. The famous painting Liberty leading the People by Delacroix is repurposed,showing everyone from Marx to Irom Sharmila.

The Brahmins are drawn with beetling brows,huge moustaches and spiky skin making them look like evil if well-fed porcupines. The Shudras are drawn with “clean” proportions. “Hairyness” being one of the oldest denoters of the barbarian,this exaggeration of anatomy is a standard device in dehumanising the Other. It is ironic to see something straight from such a hoary toolkit being used here. Fighting the oppressors without using their idiom is a tricky artistic problem.

However,at the end of the day,the Indian comics scene,presently submerged in mythologicals,desperately needs more books like A Gardener in the Wasteland. It is an important addition,a new graphic force.

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