In 1956 millions of India’s former Untouchables became Buddhists. The leader of this movement was Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) or simply “Babasaheb”, whose pictures are today omnipresent and are the normative decorative item for every (neo-) Buddhist ritual and ceremony in India. In fact he gave the former Untouchables a new religion and identity and is the most important icon of the so-called “Dalit Buddhism” in India.
The paper explores the relation between the “classic” Buddhist art and the contemporary representations of Ambedkar. Can we conclude that contemporary Buddhist creativities stem directly from ancient Buddhist art? I’ll argue that while contemporary Buddhist imagery corresponds to ancient traditions, certain symbols like the stupa, the dharmacakra, and the Buddha image have actually been reinterpreted and have now become incorporated into a repertoire of contemporary popular visual traditions such as Hindu devotional images or political posters.
In addition, I will be shown how democratic Western (that is, European and North American) “values” and status symbols have now become incorporated into a standardized representation of Ambedkar as a modern Bodhisattva.