Phule in Black Paint and Dry Pastels

Book: A Gardener in The Wasteland: Jotiba Phule's Fight For Liberty

Author: Srividya Natarajan

Publisher: Navayana

Price: Rs 220

Jotirao Phule's Ghulamgiri is not just a book, but a declaration of war. War against Brahminism. War against ignorance. War against injustice. Phule was a pioneering social reformer in Maharashtra, fighting against the oppressive terror of the caste system and standing up for women's emancipation. He strongly believed in the power of education — he and his wife Savitribai opened one of the first schools for girls in India in 1848.

Ghulamgiri (its full title can be translated as Slavery in the civilised British government under the cloak of Brahmanism) came out in 1873, a time of immense political ferment in India. The 1857 rebellion and its bloody aftermath had ended one epoch of Indian history and a new one was dawning. When Phule wrote the book, he had been fighting for more than 20 years for social justice. Ghulamgiri is a polemic, with the white heat of anger at oppression radiating from its core, and it should be read in the light of that white heat.

A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule's Fight for Liberty, written by Srividya Natarajan and drawn by Aparajita Ninan, has a unique approach, retelling, adapting and framing Phule's book in sequential art form. Every now and then, Natarajan and Ninan themselves appear in the narrative, discussing the book they are creating. This device cleverly mirrors the dialogue between Phule and his friend Dhondiba, which Ghulamgiri is structured around.

This is where I feel an opportunity was missed. Instead of challenging, examining and engaging with the text, Natarajan and Ninan offer a few of their personal experiences but don't go very deep.

For example, Phule repeatedly asserts that the "brahmans" are stirring up the shudras against the British, who offer a bulwark of protection against oppression. "The brahmans recite tall tales from the puranas, poison the minds of the shudras against the British, stir up rebellion," goes one panel. It would have been interesting to see what the authors make of this, especially as some theorists hold that the British codified the caste system, "fixing" it, from what was formerly a little more fluid. As for the alliance between the Shudras and the British (this is not as outre as it seems, right-wing Hindus also considered the British as liberators from "Muslim tyranny"), it could be argued that Phule fundamentally misread the entire engine of colonisation.

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