Some rare books cannot be categorised by their intended readers’ age group. They are universally applicable and can be read, interpreted and enjoyed at different levels. Readers of The Little Prince and Jonathan Livingston Seagull will know what I mean, but the book I am referring to today does the same in a different genre. Written by Kancha Ilaiah and illustrated by Durga Bai Vyam, "Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land" successfully crosses the arbitrary boundaries of age to tell some true and heartfelt tales.
Kancha Ilaiah is an Indian political theorist, a writer and an activist for Dalit rights. He works as a professor of political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad.
Durga Bai Vyam is a Gond Tribal artist from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Born and brought up in a small village from Madhya Pradesh she has been trained informally by her family into this art. In her own words, she has “no training, just a madness to paint”.
The book is published by Navayana publication which publishes non-fiction, graphic books influenced by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s thoughts and ideas. As the title suggests, this book forthrightly urges us to inculcate a sense of dignity of labour – specifically of those communities which are oppressed by caste system in India. Over eleven splendidly detailed chapters, it takes us on a long and winding journey through the science, art and skill required to pursue the occupations of adivasis, cattle-rearers, leather workers, potters, weavers, farmers, dhobis and barbers. Each chapter simultaneously familiarizes readers with a different occupation’s history, social position and current relevance. The book also comments on the role of religion and gender in perpetuating these occupations over the years.
Though the language of the book is sombre and easy to understand, it conveys a strong message of how caste system has not only created a division of labour but also division of labourers which is perpetuated over centuries. The author, artist and the publishers believe in removing this antipathy (and apathy) of young middle class and upper class children towards the toiling class by illuminating the nuance, art and relevance of their work. Indeed an ambitious undertaking, and a notable work.
Yet I would not have picked up this book so quickly had I not got captivated by the magnificent illustrations by Durga Bai. The text and illustrations showcasing the occupational nuances of each community go hand in hand with each other. The richness of Gond art lies in its presentation of synergy surrounding human life in natural objects such as mountains, animals, tress, lakes, deities and so on. What is impressive is that this sense of synergy has carried over into Durga bai’s illustrations in this volume, brilliantly highlighting the author’s intention of demonstrating the relationships between caste, gender, social position and the occupation along with its craft and art. The combination of these two makes this book a collector’s choice.
How do you inculcate dignity of labour in young minds? The subject is at once profound, challenging, essential, and requires much more deliberation. But having this book at home within easy reach of a child can be a significant step.
Written by Prema Basargekar. May, 2020