Roger Thorp, Publishing Director at Tate discusses his team’s thoughts behind the publication of a new graphic novel, Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice

1 of 3
  • Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice Front Cover

    Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013

  • Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice

    Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013 

  • Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice

    Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013

We’ve made it a major ambition within Tate Publishing to take risks and break boundaries. For a while we’ve been looking to choose the right title to take us into a new area and explore new ways of visual communication - we decided upon the graphic novel. What first drew me to Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice is its visual approach. Its striking beauty and treatment of word and image are characteristics that adhere too to its political message of emancipation and equality. To combine in an affordable book visual innovation and humanitarian import is a rare opportunity and one we were delighted to work with Navayana, the book’s Indian publisher, to realise.

S. Anand who co-created of the story of Ambedkar with Srividya Natarajan shares his experience of the creative process behind the graphic novel.

During one of the first sessions I had with the artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam in June 2008, they browsed the books of the masters of the graphic book genre, western and manga - Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and Osamu Tezuka. They also looked at Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and the work of some Indian graphic novelists. In these graphic texts the Vyams counterposed their own philosophy of art to the visual imagery:

We’d like to state one thing very clearly at the 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.

This was a defining moment - we were onto something that would defy 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 for example), three dimensionality, aerial views, low angles etc. that have come to constitute the mise-en scène of graphic books. Why, the same character might not even appear similar through the book.

Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice Fish

Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013

The art of the Pardhan Gonds, a tribe from Central India, is as contemporary as anything can be. Some 500 kilometres east of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, we have the districts of Mandla and Dindori where Gond art manifests itself as ‘digna’- the traditional auspicious design patterns applied to walls and floors in Gond homes. Here’s a sample from a cowshed in Patangarh, the epicenter of Pardhan Gond art:

Pardhan Gonds tribe wall art, India

‘Digna’ art on a cowshed in Patangarh, by the Pardhan Gond tribe in Central India

Photograph: S. Anand

 

Pay close attention to the inverted triangles and the little cloud-like semi-circle patterns. These will soon morph into spaces where the story and images of Ambedkar will be set. Before that a closer look at wall art:

Pardhan Gonds tribe wall art, India

Pardhan Gonds tribe wall art, India

Photograph: S.Anand

  

And the woman who did all this is 16-year old Rameswari.

Pardhan Gonds tribe wall art, India 16-year old Rameswari

16-year old Rameswari of the Pardhan Gonds tribe from Central India

Photograph: S. Anand

This is how the geometric patterns adorning these walls framed the graphic book:

Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice

Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013

The ecology of Pardhan Gond art is such that even when dealing with urban subjects we see freefalling animals, birds and trees in landscapes without a horizon. The train becomes a snake, the intimidating fort a lion.

Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice

Ambedkar by Tate Publishing 2013

On several occasions Durga and Subhash would introduce narrative elements, situations and characters not provided for in the storyboard. So much that close to forty percent of the text and dialogue was generated or re-edited to suit the drawings.

Each time you view a page in this book, you will discover new ways of seeing, new meanings, new pleasures, fresh insights.

Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice is available to purchase at the Tate shops, in the galleries and online.

An extraordinary book
John Berger

Unusually beautiful  … unforgettable
Arundhati Roy

Beautiful, compelling documentary
Paul Gravett