A few weeks ago, as we celebrated India’s 72nd Independence Day, the country began once again to pay homage to the freedom fighters, protestors, and heroes that helped India rid itself of British rule. But as the likes of Bhagat Singh, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Jawaharlal Nehru were being celebrated across India, the names of India’s Dalit and lower-caste heroes went unspoken. Even outside of the freedom struggle, the names and stories of caste heroes and activists are often excluded from the mainstream dialogue.
Keralan veterinary student Amruta Valiyaveetil set out to rectify that with her latest project, a zine titled ‘The Real Heroes’ that tells the stories of these Indian heroes through old Bollywood-inspired film posters. “I am from Kerala and grew up in a very different family setting. The names Ambedkar, Namboodiripad, Nangeli, Umar Khalid are ever present and perhaps more than some mainstream Independence heroes like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru,” Amruta told Homegrown. “I realised that important figures that fought the caste system mattered so much within my household because of my parents’ own context but were ignored in conversations I had outside my house. I wanted to create this zine to share my own thoughts about history and important figures.”
She chose the medium of movie posters to tell the stories of these ‘Real Heroes’ in order to make the stories more accessible and less verbose. She was especially inspired by the art of old hand-painted Bollywood posters. “They had to give you a glimpse of the movie through the poster so they would reduce important parts of the movie into small pieces on the poster. This is a very interesting reductionist thing where the little boring yet important parts of the movie are eliminated, just like the stories of so many of the heroes. I tried to resonate the same through the posters and the description that followed. It was very reductionist in its approach, slightly satirical too.”
She hopes that the simple and eye-catching posters of the zine will motivate people to learn more about the people she mentions. “I want us to actually pick up Annihilation of Caste by Ambedkar and read it, to think about the Dalit lynchings happening in our country and pull out pages not just from our mainstream history textbook, but also books that have been hidden from us by the system. I also just want us to look at people who are fighting this caste, religion battle right now and think of them as heroes and not as hurdles. It upsets me when people like Rohit Vemula have been painted in a bad light. This was because caste is not always seen as a bad thing, not like the British rule was, so the fight against practices of the caste system is not really looked at as a battle.”
Each of the pages of art is followed by another with details about the life, struggles and achievements of these people. Some of the those included in the zine are Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Nangeli, E. V. Periyar and Charu Mazumdar. The last page is called the ‘next generation’, and features modern activists such as Rohith Vemula and Gauri Lankesh. Amruta is also currently in the process of adding more heroes to the zine, including Perumal Murugan, Umar Khalid, and E. M. S. Namboodiripad, among others.
Her zine is as educative as it is a tribute to the unsung heroes that gave their lives and voices to bring us to where we are today. These are people that we should know about, talk about and learn from as we navigate our way to a more inclusive future.
You can find more of Amruta’s artwork on her Instagram.
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