Everyday icons Badal Nanjundaswamy in his Mysore studio. Photo: Narayana Yadav

THERE IS a recurring pattern to 30-year-old Badal Nanjundaswamy’s life – being dismissed has always ensured his success. At 20, he was told that the local fine arts college in Mysore was too expensive for him since he would have to pay for art supplies besides the usual tuition fees. He bought a beedi shop for Rs 2,000, turned it into a sign painter’s shop and paid his way through college.

At 25, he was told that his efforts to graduate from college with a gold medal would come to nothing. He was not a Brahmin, a college lecturer told him piously; only those with a sacred thread across a shoulder stood a chance. Badal won two gold medals —the only dalit so far to do so in the 27-year history of the college. Two years later, he was snapped up by Ogilvy and Mather and offered a position in their Bengaluru office as a visualiser. He was the third student from his college to make it to the top agency.

‘I BOUGHT A BEEDI SHOP FOR RS 2,000, TURNED IT INTO A SIGN PAINTER’S SHOP AND PAID MY WAY THROUGH ART COLLEGE’

Consider Badal’s childhood. “I studied in an ordinary government school in Kukrehalli in Mysore. People knew you were a dalit just from the name of your locality. The Brahmins and the upper castes lived three roads away. Though I had several friends from different castes, the discrimination was always there, just below the surface,” says Badal. But his involvement in the fight against the caste system is not tempered by personal experiences alone. “It is painful to hear of dalits still being burnt alive in this country, just as it is painful to encounter rich dalits who turn their back on the community,” rues Badal.

Throughout the conversation, there is no pretension in Badal’s voice and no denial of the pain. His clarity on several issues is startling. He has friends from different castes and his own wife is not a dalit. Ambedkar signifies an ideology to be lived every day, not an icon to be garlanded on special occasions. Mayawati is laudable for her journey despite being a dalit woman but nothing more. Entering every field and then rising to the top through perseverance is the only way to fight discrimination.

His parting shot? “We have not had a single dalit leader after Ambedkar. We need leaders who will unite people.”

This article was originally published in Tehelka, a leading independent news magazine in India, known for its investigative journalism. 

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