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Scaling Modernism Otherwise in the Dalit Graphic Novel

My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.[1]

B. R. Ambedkar

In the introduction to their graphic novel Bhimayana: Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (2011), its authors and tribal artists note that they eschewed “tiresome photorealism.” Instead, Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam's much-lauded graphic novel adopts what I argue is a mode of modernism to capture the life and anti-caste struggle of the Dalit intellectual and activist, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was also British India's Minister of Labor, independent India’s first Minister of Law and Justice, and the chief architect of the Constitution of India. Why does a biographical, at times journalistic graphic novel, make the seemingly counterproductive choice to eschew realism? Why does it choose modernism instead? In this essay, I suggest that investigating the particulars of the novel’s aesthetic choices does not just answer these questions but also sheds new light on the question of how modernism scales across the globe.

I add to this line of inquiry despite now-familiar critiques of the very attempt to scale modernism. These arguments range from “scaling ends up watering modernism down so that everything is modernism,” to “scaling ends up reducing every aesthetic form to a cheap imitation of European modernism.” While acknowledging these problems, I suggest that we may make more headway towards defining what modernism looks like globally by first considering the common impulses that shape European and other modernisms differently in different places. Beginning with these common impulses would enable us to agree on what the core spirit of modernism everywhere might be; it would allow us to consider what makes modernism universally similar while also enabling us to see how particular, indeed different, instantiations of that similarity lend depth to its core spirit. I begin, then, with the basic idea that modernism is an aesthetic response to modernity and then ask: what defines modernity globally? What is modernity’s common thread all over the world? For Susan Stanford Friedman, modernity everywhere includes rupture; for world systems critics such as the Warwick Research Collective, modernity everywhere is the spread of global capitalism; for Arjun Appadurai, modernity globally is the constriction of the world through mass migration and electronic mediation. In what follows, I take Ambedkar as a guide and turn to another common denominator: specifically, I define global modernity in terms of a concern with what best enables human flourishing. Such a concern gained salience in response to modernity’s more oppressive modern social and political institutions, like colonialism, and the defining categories, like race or caste, that it invented or utilized. In this context, I look to transnational discourses of the human that posit ideals of social justice as they undergird various aesthetic forms.

In reimagining modernism as an aesthetic response to transnational discourses in pursuit of human flourishing, I draw on Jessica Berman’s definition of modernism as a set of global aesthetic strategies that reimagine social justice through oppositional political engagement. She argues that “reading modernism transnationally shifts our perspective on its forms and commitments, asking us to recognize the rhetorical action its forms undertake and the continuum of political engagement that undergirds its worldwide emergence.”[2] Berman specifies that these commitments are “ideas about what we ought to be and do,” which lead to the “active creation of political relationships and just conduct” (Modernist Commitments, 5). She studiously avoids the language of universalism but her language about what we “ought to be and do” brings us back to the ‘human’ as he or she should be – a normative category that helps organize social and political life and to consider what would make human life optimal.

I expand on Berman’s contention that such a modernism emerges transnationally in my argument that the kinds of modernisms she describes are often undergirded by universalisms that appear in local forms and that speak to each other as they circulate globally. By universalisms here, I mean discourses that posit “universal” categories such as “humanity” or “Man” and then elaborate concepts such as “equality,” “freedom,” or “reason” on the basis of these categories. In other words, I refer to discourses that are normative and that base their norms on a presumption of universality. This line of inquiry may be familiar to readers of my book, Literatures of Liberation: Non-European Universalisms and Democratic Progress, in which I argue that universalisms, including ideas of “individual freedom,” and “reason,” are born in various contexts, in local forms, all over the world rather than just, say, in Enlightenment Europe. Such “contextual universalisms,” as I call them, are expressed through an oppositional political engagement in various aesthetic modes, with lineages in vernacular folkways, as well as more transnational forms of narrative such as the novel.

In making this argument, I push back against various critiques of universalisms on the grounds that ideas like individual freedom and rationality are inherently tools of hegemonic power.[3] One way in which this critique works is by conflating particular manifestations of, say, European Enlightenment rationality used to schematize racial difference, with all forms of rationality, including those that appear in non-European thought systems. As I outline in my book, such an argument does not just commit a logical fallacy, in doing so it also throws the baby (the general human capacity for rational thinking) out with the bath water (the way in which that capacity is manifested in, say, racialized science). Such arguments ignore the ways that particular universalisms are revealed and instrumentalized differently in various contexts, in different forms, undergirding emancipatory struggles just as often as they buttress oppressive social arrangements.

In this essay, I examine particular modernist contextual universalisms articulated as part of the legacy of Ambedkar. “Bhima” as his devotees call him, was a Dalit who earned his two Ph.D.s in economics at Columbia and the London School of Economics, and trained under the pragmatist philosopher of education, John Dewey.[4] Ambedkar sought a society where caste hierarchies were eliminated and where the French revolution’s ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” could be realized. He called this project a process of “reclaiming the human personality” (quoted in Keer, Dr Ambedkar, 351). This “human personality” was composed of various local universalisms that were brought into transnational engagement with each other in the context of the Dalit struggle in colonial India. They included: 1) Enlightenment notions of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” through which Ambedkar envisioned the Mahad tank satyagraha as the Dalits’ own “Declaration of Independence”; 2) Buddhist notions of equality, articulated through the idea that one’s responsibility for oneself was in actuality a responsibility for the entire sangha or community; 3) the medieval poet Kabir’s nirguna concept of equality realized through the insistence that “all of creation” contained the same essence of divinity within; and 4) American pragmatism’s notions of rationality as a tool with which to ensure human flourishing.[5] The idea of progress, defined as social justice, is central to this composite reimagining of the human and to Ambedkar’s image. His statues all over India point forward in line with this ideal.

Statue of B. R. Ambedkar at Parliament house
Fig. 1. Statue of B. R. Ambedkar at Parliament house on the first day of Winter Session of Parliament in New Delhi. Photo: PTI.

Bhimayana: Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a graphic biography of Ambedkar published in 2011 by Navayana, is an example of this kind of transnational yet deeply local modernism, pointing towards social progress by harnessing a lineage of rich contextual universalisms.[6] As I elaborate, the text refers to all of the above contextual universalisms of equality and freedom but centers one located in Gond tribal ontologies of the world.

The Cover of Bhimayana
Fig. 2. The Cover of Bhimayana.

Bhimayana has been hailed as one of the top five political comic books of all time and remains a graphic novel bestseller in India. It was created by tribal artists the Vyams and writers Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand. It depicts the experiences of caste discrimination and resistance that Ambedkar recorded in his autobiographical illustrations, later compiled and edited in Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches by Vasant Moon under the title “Waiting for a Visa.” Bhimayana is deliberately oppositional to the hegemonic Hindu social order, a stance that is apparent in its title, which is a play on the title of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The title implicitly and sarcastically compares the epic tale of Rama, which describes the ordeals of an "upper-caste Hindu male chauvinist" god, exiled from his kingdom and kept away from royal luxuries, to the life of a Dalit man permanently exiled from society and denied basic rights such as water, food, and shelter.[7]

The Bhimayana is not just oppositional in its themes, but in its aesthetic form, using tribal Pardhan Gond art to signify the experiences of social discrimination faced by Ambedkar. The Gonds traditionally painted motifs, tattoos, and images on the floors and walls of their houses to record and pass on historical knowledge and teachings. They incorporated various geometric shapes and patterns drawn from the natural world, including fish scales, drops of water, and seed shapes. They used vivid colors derived and extracted from organic sources such as colored soil, using chui mitti for yellow, gherui mitti for brown, charcoal for black, hibiscus petals for red, plant leaves and sap for green, and cow dung. But Gond art is not only different for its form and materials but for its aesthetic sensibility, which is apparent in the Bhimayana. As the writers Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand note, the Gond art in the book, defies the

conventional grammar of graphic books. Tiresome photorealism was out of the question. Nor would the Vyams offer cinematic establishment shots, close ups or extreme close ups (of tense hands, surprised eyes, furrowed brow), midshot, perspective, light and shadow, three dimensionality, aerial views, low angles etc. that have come to constitute the mise-en-scene of graphic books. (S. Anand, “A Digna for Bhima” in Bhimayana, 100)

The Vyams note that they used Gond aesthetic techniques to eschew those concepts and forms usually tied in narrative and graphic novels with a realist depiction of experience. This eschewing of realism was their choice despite the use of documentary details about Ambedkar’s suffering at the hands of the caste system, and despite their incorporation of biography, Indian legislation, letters penned by Gandhi, and newspaper clippings documenting atrocities against Dalits of the postmillennial period. Yet we can make sense of the statement above in the context of Berman’s argument that one way we can begin reconsidering modernism on the ethical-political axis is by engaging with the formal characteristics of its texts: “To rethink modernism’s role in imagining justice, we need to re-create the social and political implications of its refusal of verisimilitude, its blurring of fact and fiction, its disruption of conventions and genre or narrative structures of address, its display of uneven temporalities, its destabilization of the fact/value split, and other styles and attitudes as they arise around the world” (Berman, Modernist Commitments, 26). While Berman’s study focuses on the novel and not the graphic novel, all of these techniques are also apparent in Bhimayana as the text seeks to reimagine social justice for Dalits.

For instance, the Gond art form eschews linear narrative and temporal progress, refusing the boxed framing that depicts the flow of time within the plot sequences of realist narrative and other graphic novels. Instead, page division and plot sequence are created through the digna—the traditional auspicious design patterns applied to walls and floors in Gond homes. Take the following panel, which conveys the confrontation of a young Bhima with innkeepers. The latter have just discovered that Bhima is a Dalit who has lied to rent accommodation at their Parsi inn.

Bhimayana, p. 68, “Bhima is Denied Shelter.”
Fig. 3. Bhimayana, p. 68, “Bhima is Denied Shelter.”

The digna lines here do not use space to convey temporal progress. Rather, space on the page functions as a way of conveying how Bhima is prohibited from inhabiting land. The innkeepers are shown encroaching into the limited room Bhima has to stand while expansive white space on the right of the page lies empty, thus conveying the senselessness and cruelty of caste. Temporal sequencing is conveyed not through boxes but receding, disembodied legs on the bottom right-hand corner of the page, showing that the innkeepers have left after an altercation with Bhima. The Vyams explain their decision to eschew temporal boxes within which the characters speak and act in the following terms: “We’d like to state one thing very clearly at their outset. We shall not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe” (quoted in Anand, “A Digna for Bhima,” Bhimayana, 100). Space and time are conceptually linked here in an effort to reimagine the idea of progress in terms of social justice; there cannot be temporal progress if characters are confined spatially within social systems of segregation. Such a depiction scales modernism by discursively expanding the space for all groups of people, including Dalits, to breathe across the globe. In doing so, it suggests that the temporal progress that modernism tries to elicit is only possible when one scales it. Instead of insisting that modernism everywhere must look like it did in early twentieth-century Europe, or that it could be anything at all, the Bhimayana suggests that contextual manifestations of an aesthetic concern with social justice as they appear all over the world are what make modernism “modernism.” The local and particular, then, is implicit to the very definition of modernism in its concern with human flourishing.

Other aesthetic choices echo this reconceptualization of progress as a spatialized move forward towards social justice. The innkeepers are disembodied heads on sticks, suggesting that their full bodies take up more space than they are worth. This disembodiment also dehumanizes them in revenge for dehumanizing Bhima; it conveys that the innkeepers are simply wooden puppets at the hands of the caste system, moving around like pawns on a game board. In this sense, as Girish Rao and Gita Wolf write, Gond art “does not represent reality, it signifies” (quoted in S. Anand, “A Digna for Bhima” in Bhimayana, 102). In other words, it uses vernacular folk art to reexamine what constitutes human progress in the name of justice, and it does so oppositionally, by questioning the status quo. The graphic novel radically reimagines the world and the life of the people within it. Gond folk art becomes the vehicle through which this happens because of its radically different world view, one which concords with Bhima’s reimagining of justice and the human.

What, then, is this worldview? What are the conceptual contours of the sensibility that lends such oppositional force to the argument for caste justice that the Bhimayana makes? I approach this question through James Alexander’s The Human Eros, in which he draws on the category of experience in the Deweyan sense.[8] Experience is our shared cultural inhabitation of the world, to which art and the aesthetic are central. Human beings create meaning through their cultural environments, so that the latter become ecologies of the spirit, rendering environments meaningful, not simply in a cognitive sense, but in the sense of bearing deep value and importance. Alexander gives the following example to lend depth to this argument:

“Rain” for the Pueblo peoples is not a name for a meteorological event: it is life, it is a gift of the ancestors, it comes from a feathered sky serpent, Avanyu, a god who floats above the desert, clothed in clouds, with a tongue of lightning and great beards of falling water; it purifies and gives life to the world. The symbol is not a false representation, something that could be summarized in propositions. It is an expression of a whole way of life and the reverence a native dweller of the dry Southwest feels toward precious rain.[9]

The Gond art in Bhimayana is similar in that it is an expression of an entire worldview rooted in the category of “experience.” The Gond people believe that every element of nature, be it the hills, the sky, or the trees, is inhabited by a spirit. Recreating the forms of nature is therefore a mode of reverence and worship of their sacred essence. Thus, even when dealing with urban subjects in Bhimayana, the artists represent freefalling animals, birds, and trees in landscapes without a horizon. The train that transports Ambedkar to shelter becomes a snake, the intimidating fort where he is denied water is a lion. The happiness of the people of Chalisgaon who receive Ambedkar as he campaigns for Dalit rights is not conveyed through smiling faces but a dancing peacock.

This is a fitting worldview through which to represent Bhima’s struggle for social justice given his own penchant for reimagining the human in spiritual Buddhist and nirguna terms. The contextual universalism at play here is that all forms of life are equal, and deserve the same dignity, because they are all infused with the same sacred natural spirit that runs through the universe. Significantly, then, such a spiritual conceptualization of equality works in synergy, following Alexander, with a Pragmatist rationality that values all thought systems in relation to their practical effects in the world. Even though cultural binaries often pit rationality and spirituality against one another, both contextual universalisms are harnessed within Ambedkar’s thought for the same emancipatory ends.

In line with this Gond spiritual ontology of equality, the human Dalit is sacrosanct as are the animals and trees they live amongst. Even the objects that serve humans are not alienated possessions or commodities but imbued with meaning depending on what they are used to do. Thus, the book opens with a bench on which two conversing people wait for the bus. The bench is a woman, providing shelter through arms outspread in protection and support.

Bhimayana, p. 11, “A Bus Stop in an Indian City.”
Fig. 4. Bhimayana, p. 11, “A Bus Stop in an Indian City.”

The bench and the cover she provides are the reasons why the conversation about caste between the two people she shelters can take place. An earthmover used by a Dalit, who is killed for digging a well on his own property, sheds tears as two cows bear witness (Bhimayana 46). We can understand Bhimayana as a modernist text in Berman’s sense, then, because of the “social and political implications of its refusal of verisimilitude.” The Bhimayana’s Gond art eschews realism because it posits spiritual connections that render environments full of sensibility and meaning, and this meaning-making is only discernible through an aesthetic signification of particular, locally grounded universalisms rather than by what is “objectively” there.

The Gond insistence on a universal spirit of nature that inhabits all of existence does not just explain why all humans are sacred, or why inanimate objects are sacred, but also why animals are. The Bhimayana conveys this by portraying the human and animal form as interchangeable. A thirsty Ambedkar, denied drinking water at school, is portrayed as a fish.

Bhimayana, p. 17, “Bhima Asks for Water.”
Fig. 5. Bhimayana, p. 17, “Bhima Asks for Water.”

If Bhima is a thirsty fish, the water pump he asks to drink from, also infused with the same sacred natural spirit, becomes an elephant’s trunk. The sacred essence that ties Ambedkar to all of existence explains why Bhima is represented not just through the animal form but also through the forms of nature and objects that he fights for. When he launches a struggle for access to water on behalf of all Dalits, he becomes water. Ambedkar’s historic Mahad speech on the Dalit’s basic human right to access water reaches the audience through loudspeakers that act as sprinklers. His words about the right for Dalits to have access to water are transformed into water.

Bhimayana, p. 48. “The Mahad Satyagraha.”
Fig. 6. Bhimayana, p. 48. “The Mahad Satyagraha.”

The Vyams’ symbolic imagery conveys that Ambedkar and water are one because Ambedkar’s struggle insists on reconnecting Dalits with the natural spirit that runs through both them and through water. This is not just a spiritual bid for reconnection but a literal one; Dalits need to be reunited with the environments, including water bodies, that they have been forcibly removed from, and Ambedkar’s struggle at Mahad is one more step towards doing so. Similarly, in the next chapter, when a homeless Ambedkar ruminates over his fate in Baroda’s Kumathi Garden, the Vyams draw the outline of the park as the outline of his face, conveying that Ambedkar’s struggle for social justice is the basis of the provision of shelter and succor to future generations of Dalits (68). This representation marries the Gond contextual universalism about the divine spirit that connects all beings to one another and their environments to another contextual universalism within Ambedkar’s thinking—to Dewey’s Pragmatist emphasis on education as a tool through which to create democratic citizens. The speech bubbles seek to educate both the upper-caste character within the novel as well as the readers that make up its metatext, noting that the Indian educational system has long ignored anti-caste struggles like Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha.

The use of the aesthetic sensibility of Gond art to convey the Dalit struggle is a local form of modernism, constituted through folkways, as it articulates the grounds for an oppositional struggle for social justice. Discrimination against and segregation of Dalits is unacceptable because such discrimination denies human beings a natural connection to their environments. Such an argument tallies with the life experiences that defined and shaped Ambedkar’s political engagement because he, like other Dalits, was consistently denied access to water tanks, water bodies, places to rest, and shelter. In this sense, the Gond universalism about the sacred spirit of nature that runs through all existence adds one more strand to Ambedkar’s own composite humanism. The novel harnesses the spirit of this composite humanism by representing the complex ways that contextual universalisms such as Deweyan pragmatism and Gond spirituality speak to one another, play off each other, and interact and intersect with one another. Indeed, the novel gestures towards a just universality partly in the way that it marries multiple disparate philosophical traditions to one another. In the process, the Bhimayana’s composite universality scales modernism otherwise. It does so, first, by suggesting that to think of modernism globally is to explore other aesthetic modes, the other ways of thinking and being that they express, and the other ways of organizing human life that they depict. The novel thus encourages us to begin with the local and specific as the contextual sites through which a just universality may be achieved. Second, the novel scales modernism by framing it as an aesthetic response to a universalizing quest for social justice, thereby turning modernism’s scalability into a prerequisite for its very existence. In these ways, the novel testifies to how modernism’s local forms change what we mean when we think about how modernism scales.


[1] Ambedkar quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Third Edition (Bombay: Pupular Prakashan, 1971), 351.

[2] Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 9.

[3] See, for instance, Pheng Cheah’s Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), or Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), for variations of this critique. See the introduction of my book, Literatures of Liberation: Non-European Universalisms and Democratic Progress (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2017) for a more detailed treatment of each of these arguments.

[4] Ambedkar studied with John Dewey while he was at Columbia and became deeply immersed in Dewey’s ideas to the extent that he told his friends, “If Dewey died, I could reproduce every lecture verbatim.” Quoted in Arun P. Mukherjee, “B.R. Ambedkar, John Dewey and the Meaning of Democracy,” in New Literary History, 40, no. 2 (2009): 345-70, 347. Ambedkar distilled his own egalitarian social vision and world view partly from Dewey’s ideas of active inquiry and formal education, seeing these as necessary vehicles for realizing democracy, fraternity, and the Buddhist perception of respect and reverence for life.

[5] The Mahad Satyagraha or Chavdar Tale Satyagraha was a satyagraha, or “movement for truth” led by B. R. Ambedkar on March 20, 1927 to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad.

American pragmatism is a philosophical school that contends that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge or being—are all viewed and judged in terms of their practical uses and successes. Ambedkar was most influenced by Dewey’s version of pragmatism, within which democracy was the highest form of ethical being, and all propositions were to be judged in terms of their consequences—particularly in terms of their efficacy in advancing democratic forms of life.

[6] Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam, Srividya Natarajan, and S. Anand, Bhimayana, (New Delhi: Navayana, 2011).

[7] Anvi, "Bhimayana: A Tongue-In-Cheek Graphic Novel Confronting Our Caste-Bias," Feminism in India, November 19, 2020.

[8] Experience, according to John Dewey, was the interaction between the human being and the world, which in the pragmatist conception, was to form the basis of all philosophical speculation and social organization.

[9] James Alexander, The Human Eros: Eco-ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 12.