Dalit History Month: An Indian Artist Captures Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Life Through His Art

Dalit History Month: An Indian Artist Captures Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Life Through His Art
Illustration by Siddhesh Gautam

As a child, Delhi-based artist, Siddhesh Gautam would hear of several wonderful anecdotes about the Dalit hero, Babasaheb Ambedkar from his grandfather. He recounts a story about the ordeals young Ambedkar faced while travelling all night from Satara to Koregaon with his brother in a bullock cart. It is an agonizing story about young Ambedkar’s (lovingly called Bhim) tryst with casteism when he was forced to pull the bullock cart himself on account of the driver’s refusal to ride with them due to their caste status. The artist, who was a little boy then, was in awe of these stories. In fact, he believed that Bhim and the mythological character Bhima who is famed for his superhuman strength and capabilities were one and the same person. And quite rightly so! Both were, in fact, in possession of similar kinds of attributes.

So, when his father’s friends used “Jai Bhim” to greet each other, he would enthusiastically reply back with a “Jai Bhima”. It was armed with these fond memories of Ambedkar that Siddhesh Gautam grew up. However, it was not until he was faced with an onslaught of racism during his time as an art student at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy, that he looked back to gain a greater insight into what Ambedkar stood for, and what his struggle with casteism in the erstwhile Hindu society meant. Besides, as a child, he claims to have seen his father reading a lot of Ambedkar, although he maintains that the rest of the family was never pressurized to do so. They were given full liberty to explore anything they wanted to - from theatre, dance, drama to music and the arts. He also claims that contrary to what one might think, there were hardly ever any drawing-room discussions around the struggles their community faced. In his words, it was a “privileged” upbringing.

However, despite any overt conditioning, the thoughts and ideas of Ambedkar would be ingrained in his mind for years to come. As the nation went into lockdown due to COVID-19, he took the opportunity to reflect back upon his readings on Babasaheb who is hailed as the pioneer of the Dalit Movement in India. He captures his indelible impact through illustrations depicting various anecdotes surrounding the leader. He says, “I thought it was important to bring out some of the stories as to why he is called the voice of dissent.” Moreover, its importance is now greater than ever because of a similar kind of discriminatory communal feeling that has swept the nation in the last few years, and which is something that needs to be looked at through the same lens.

Siddhesh has evoked these feelings of shared amity through a series of powerful illustrations which are minimalist and post-modernist in nature. He uses a post-modernist style in order to subvert the Brahmanical grand narratives of casteism and caste-based superstitions that are inherent in the Hindu community. He says, “I am a post-modernist because the ideology serves to break the grand narratives and value system that have been built and presented pompously by the earlier eras. As a post-modernist artist, my work is my most honest expression on any subject that is well understood.” On the other hand, minimalism is a tool that he picked up from Modernism in order to communicate with simplicity and produce faster. He identifies with minimalism as an ideology and an aesthetic choice since it releases art from the shackles of non-functional, ornate attributes, redirecting the spectator’s attention back to what is actually important. By employing these techniques, he challenges shackled notions of beauty and aesthetics through his art and extends his gratitude to a man who has been at the forefront of the battle against caste discrimination that India has faced since the Independence.

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