Aspects of an extraordinary life;

A new book presents everyday details about Dr BR Ambedkar’s personality including his passion for book collecting, his gruff humour, and his love of dogs and sherwanis!

Salim Yusufji
Hindustan Times
BR Ambedkar

Rajagriha, Bombay, February 1934: (L to R) Yashwant, BR Ambedkar, Ramabai, Laxmibai (widow of Ambedkar’s brother, Anandrao), Mukundrao, and (in the foreground) Tobby. The little girl on Laxmibai’s knee is unidentified.(From the collection of Vijay Surwade)

Dr BR Ambedkar invites and deflects biographical curiosity, both together. ‘You have not cared to inquire into my past,’ he wrote in February 1948 to his fiancée Dr Sharda Kabir. ‘But it will be available to you at any time in the pages of many Marathi magazines.’ Offering up his past as a matter of public record was a cheeky remark in the circumstances, but it did give precedence to the published report of his life over a more private sense of it. The popular account of his struggles and accomplishments is certainly momentous and varied enough to deliver a characterful portrait. Crowded with incident, it reflects his drive and intellect. We see the goals and adversities that shaped the scholar, teacher, lawyer, writer, politician, founder of colleges, newspapers and parties, flayer at large of Hinduism and the Congress, and prime mover in drafting India’s constitution. This is also a life that belongs no longer to itself but to the headlines, to masses of people and to history. Its dynamics infuse institutions and statuary, household shrines, personal and communal aspiration, music and campus politics with an urgency that has intensified over the decades since Ambedkar’s death, making him ever more vivid.

Ambedkar: The Attendant Details

This is entirely as it should be, for his personal and political lives did fuse together to a remarkable degree. It happened by his intent and also, not infrequently, because of societal prejudice. The rebuffs and slights never did cease, even at the height of his public eminence. In 1945, visiting Puri as the Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Council, he was refused admittance to the Jagannath temple, and, in Calcutta the same year, was boycotted by servants at a home to which he had been invited. The fusion of his public and private lives could also occur in some amazing ways: in another letter of February 1948, he complained to his intended brahmin bride of how the passage of the Hindu Law of Marriage Bill was held up by a packed legislative calendar. The delay grieved him — the bridegroom-to-be, who would have loved to be married under its provisions, as much as the Law Minister in charge of steering the new Bill through parliament. Wearing both hats, he proceeded to guide her through the salient points of the Civil Marriage Act — the fallback law that would apply to their case.

Given this extraordinary level of coincidence, why seek another Ambedkar beyond the public account? When we look at a statue of him, say a plaster cast figure of cherubic aspect in an electric blue suit, it is both unmistakably him and recognizably not. The posture recalls the prophet Moses, clutching the law tablets of God’s command to his side, his free arm raised to wag a hectoring finger at his feckless charges, the Israelites. Does this allusion reinforce Ambedkar’s persona, or is something of him lost to a visual rhetoric that evokes Bronze Age Semitism? Would the stiff and suited figure relent to admit the historical Ambedkar’s love of the sherwani, kurta, lungi, and dhoti? Or his sudden paean one morning to elasticated underpants? This book is an attempt at intimacy with Ambedkar in his hours away from history and headlines. It seeks intimacy through the admirers and companions who have shared their memories of him and his impact upon their lives. If history is what survives the death of the subject, this book aims to recover the ephemera that attended Ambedkar’s life and died with him; such as his pleasure in his library and passion for book-collecting, his vein of gruff humour, the sensation of seeing him in the flesh for the first time, or of stepping out of a summer storm into his house and hearing him at practice on his violin. Here, we get to meet Ambedkar the ambidextrous writer, dog lover, proponent of sex education and contraception, anti-prohibitionist teetotaler, and occasional cook. We recognize the readerly solitude that made up the greatest part of his waking hours, and kept him awake till all hours. We also notice a strain of Maharashtrian pride, edging towards chauvinism, that surfaces in his pronouncements from time to time.

Bombay, November 1951: Finding himself without a seat at a public function to welcome Ambedkar, Raobahadur SK Bole is invited to seat himself on the Chief Guest. In 1907, social reformer Bole had called a meeting to honour young Bhimrao upon his matriculation from Elphinstone High School. It was at this meeting that Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar gifted Ambedkar with a copy of his new book, Life of Gautama Buddha. (From the collection of Vijay Surwade)

The book draws on ten published works for its material: five of them by companions and intimates of Ambedkar’s household (Nanak Chand Rattu, Devi Dayal, Shankranand Shastri, Bhagwan Das, and Namdeo Nimgade); two by Vasant Moon, his biographer and compiler of the first sixteen volumes of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches; the autobiographies of Urmila Pawar, Daya Pawar, Shantabai Krishnaji Kamble and Baby Kondiba Kamble; an interview between Ambedkar and the writer Mulk Raj Anand; and the reminiscences of a variety of people who had the chance to interact with him. Additionally, “Waiting for a Visa”, the only extended text of reminiscences Ambedkar published in his lifetime, is reprinted here.

The extracts appear as fragments selected for their immediacy. Hence explanatory notes are kept to a minimum and we do not make a study of our raconteurs’ motives. It is to be assumed that the accounts are not disinterested. An extended reading of our principal sources will reveal a pronounced stylization of Ambedkar’s personality in keeping with the individual writer’s sympathies: Rattu and Shankranand Shastri, for instance, detail a frequently lachrymose man but recall little of the wit that we encounter elsewhere. The occasional overlap occurs when the same aspect of his life draws the attention of several figures. But the register of observation varies, just as some among them find it reassuring to intone the alliterative, mantra-like formulation: Bodhisat Bharat Ratna Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, followed by the full complement of his educational and professional credentials — which serves them as a talisman of liberative promise. Others find that ‘Babasaheb’ by itself captures their affection and reverence perfectly. Still others plump for a plain ‘Ambedkar’, while expressing a no less genuine warmth or engagement.

New Delhi, 2 May 1950: Ambedkar attacking the concept of god and lauding Buddhism in a speech delivered on Buddha Jayanti. (From the collection of Vijay Surwade)

In its shifting tones of respectful formality and candour, this collection shares the qualities of a photographic album: diffuse and discrete while appearing precise. Recording miscellany rather than proposing a concerted narrative, it captures its subject in the midst of workaday life. These verbal snapshots are the more necessary as Ambedkar was not photographed with the same zealous attention to minutiae paid to several of his prominent contemporaries. If the text is in part a visual aid, the photographs featured in this volume are not mere appendages to the text but sources or voices in their own right, drawing us into worlds often not anticipated by the writing. Even their assemblage and preservation, through the indefatigable efforts of Vijay Surwade, makes an epic story on its own…


“Waiting for a Visa” is itself episodic and vivid in its recall, so the collection has a synergetic form. The different pieces are complementary also in being taken entirely from material composed towards publication, with private papers deliberately kept out of the ambit. The object here is to foreground the readily visible and available that yet remains neglected.