In search of Ambedkar

Vijayashanthi Murthy, assistant professor from the Department of English, St Joseph’s College of Commerce speaks to CE about her quest for Ambedkar in the streets. 
Vijayashanthi Murthy finds Ambedkar’s photos in small stores, roadside shops, big posters on walls and stickers on autorickshaws and clicks them on her phone camera.
Vijayashanthi Murthy finds Ambedkar’s photos in small stores, roadside shops, big posters on walls and stickers on autorickshaws and clicks them on her phone camera.

CHENNAI: For many of us, Dr BR Ambedkar, political leader and the father of the Indian Constitution is a glimmer of hope and a strong symbol that lights up our consciousness. In Dalit writer Yogesh Maitreya’s recent interview with the ‘Asymptote’, he recalls how Ambedkar’s words and ideologies came to him.

Vijayashanthi Murthy
Vijayashanthi Murthy

“Before we began to read Ambedkar, we heard him in songs. He came to us as the sound of someone who is talking about us, for us, and speaking loudly against the forces that intended to humiliate us, subjugate us, and eradicate us,” he says. For Vijayashanthi Murthy, her childhood was filled with conversations about Ambedkar and Thanthai Periyar.

This assistant professor from the Department of English, St Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bengaluru, keeps searching for Ambedkar and hopes wherever she goes. She finds Ambedkar’s photos in small stores, roadside shops, big posters on walls and stickers on autorickshaws and clicks them on her phone camera. ‘Streets and Stories’, she titles the series of photographs on her Instagram page @neelavaanam_vs.

“How one composes the frame in photographs is the way one looks at the world itself. I feel that the people and places need to be portrayed in a very dignified way,” she says. Vijayashanthi, who has roots in Tamil Nadu, speaks to CE about her quest for Ambedkar in the streets. 

A personal connect

Vijayashanthi admits that she wasn’t a social media user while growing up as it wasn’t accessible to her. “My father, Krishnamurthy was an auto driver (He passed away in 2019). Even though we were living in the city of Bengaluru, we had our own limitations. Photography is, whether we want to accept it or not, an art that is easily accessible to a certain group. So I started clicking pictures on my phone, Motorola E (an earlier version) in 2014. I started posting them on Instagram in 2018,” she says. As she was able to move from one profession to another and fund herself, she moved to different phones and very recently got a DSLR camera. 

Her interest towards Ambedkar connects to her personal life. “I am a Dalit woman and my father introduced me to Ambedkar when I was a young child. I still remember those moments when my father would see the photograph of Ambedkar and tell us that he was our first law minister. For me, this iconography is very interesting because in retaining the iconography, we are also retaining certain history. That’s exactly what I am doing through Ambedkar’s series,” she says.

On the difference in the iconography of Ambedkar in Chennai and Bengaluru, she says, “In Chennai, self-respect and anti-caste movements have flourished for a while. Statues of Periyar and Ambedkar are predominant to a great extent. Bengaluru, surprisingly, is very much divided on the caste lines. Most of the slums and the working class have retained Ambedkar’s iconography. Even though the case is similar to Chennai, due to the existence of Neelam’s work and filmmakers like Pa Ranjith or Mari Selvaraj, it adds more to the iconography, not necessarily confining it to the realm of political groups.”

Clicks from the streets

Vijayashanthi’s lens also captures people, celebrations, small shops, patterns and anything that catches her eye. This might not be conventional enough for certain people but she never fails to capture life in the frames. “Most of the women on my mom’s side of the family have been vegetable or fruit vendors,” she adds. There is more life to people we see in photographs than the identity or stereotypes they are often stamped with, she notes. “Autorickshaw drivers are often seen as the people who charge more money. They are often people who have a greater understanding of politics and they are in a way sources of knowledge in a city. During their breaks, they discuss issues like the budget,” she says, adding that she hopes to make a documentary on the same in future. While clicking pictures, she often interacts with the crowd, seeks consent and even sends a few photos to a few. 

Reflecting on how her photography has evolved, she says, “When I started, I really didn’t know that I was actually archiving a city space. I was doing it because I enjoyed doing that process, and it felt interesting and therapeutic. There would be days when I just felt low and I would just take my phone and go. Most working-class people won’t have access to elite spaces. So for me, markets, small streets, and small lanes were the accessible ones. Over a period of time, I have grown to become a person who also consciously frames.” She takes inspiration from photographers like M Palani Kumar and Jaisingh Nageswaran. Her works were recently exhibited at Vaanam Art Festival, Chennai titled ‘Nagarathin Neelam’. 

To everyone who asks her how she frames the city’s stories, she says, “Look at the people. Look at the nuances. See how the skin is wrinkled or there is beauty in unkempt hair. Look at their toes, feet, and body. From raw life, we can derive beauty and art.”
 

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