NADIM DAMLUJI’s insightful assessment of two politically charged English-language graphic novels from India - Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland.
Can the Subaltern Draw?: Reframing Caste in Indian Graphic Novels
If A Gardener in the Wasteland feels like a mediated success, it is predominately mediated by the innovation on display in Bhimayana. While Bhimayana uses artwork to interpret a narrative loosely, A Gardener often skews towards using its strong art for straightforward exposition. The moments where A Gardener succeeds at becoming a “new vehicle” are when it forgoes panels and Westward analogies in favor of the cleverness found in the pages of Phule’s anticaste arguments. The best example of how A Gardener takes a risk with content to produce something unique is an extended midsection which walks readers through a socratic discussion between Jotiba Phule and his friend where Phule challenges many of the assumptions on which the brahman base their caste based view. In what has become the lynchpin of the book’s marketing campaign, A Gardener illustrates an argument that has Brahma (the father of the brahmans) menstruating out of his mouth. It is in the moments like this where Ninan is having clear fun with her art that make Phule’s 19th Century argument feel 21st century compatible.
The success of both of Navayana’s graphic novels is recasting biography of anticaste leaders as intriguing graphic novel. Bhimayana and A Gardener work towards this goal from different starting points, but they both end up as strong debuts in the global comics landscape. For a long-form comic to balance entertainment, technical skill, and Theory is not easy, which makes it somewhat remarkable that out of the gate Navayana has two comics that pull of such an act. Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland are worth receiving the spotlight not just because they are Indian, but because they are good.
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Images: From Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland