Comic books: Creativity sans frontiers

The death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, in 2016 was a poignant story of ‘caste-based discrimination’. However, an excerpt from his last note became an inspiration to 17 artists, who created a single-page web comic, also called ‘situation comics’. A one-of-its-kind attempt by BlueJackal, a Delhi-based platform for creating and publishing visual narratives, comics and picture books through interactive programmes, each comic opened a unique window to everyday struggles within a complex socio-political fabric.

Comic books, long perceived as a form limited to creating superheroes, are now revealing their manifold possibilities. “It is no light-hearted narrative but engages critically with varied aspects of life and less intimidating format for starters. Situation comics have a one-page format and are very effective in communicating social and political concerns that we wish to explore beyond our immediate circle,” says Delhi-based artist Shivangi Singh, who co-founded BlueJackal in 2015 with Shefalee Jain and Lokesh Khodke.

Several collaborative project-based publication platforms like Offset Projects and Reliable Copy are throwing light on an exponential growth of artist publications in the past decade with new modalities, aesthetics and materials behind these practices. It is also clear that many visual narratives in web and print are now going beyond the traditional confines of artistry. Apart from comics, there are many other curatorial propositions including research, criticism, picture or photo books and zines that are initiating dialogue in multilingual format for all age groups.

New forms emerging

Art writing, book-making practices and self-publishing by artists have expanded over the years. “We have come a long way since Ed Ruscha’s self-published mass-produced artist books in the 1960s that made the works so democratic and accessible to the audience. In the Indian spectrum, publishing houses like Reliable Copy, started by Nihaal Faizal and Sarasija Subramanian, Mazhi Books by Indu Antony or self-published books by Shubigi Rao are worth a mention,” says Mumbai-based Mansha Chhatwal, whose works focus on the subject of book burning, narrating stories of writers and cultural genocide.

From a web comic by artist Shromona Das set on Covid-19 lockdown and Shaheen Bagh protests to multilingual print projects like OCTA 2021: Two One Za Two, Two-Two Za, BlueJackal’s collaborations focus on graphics and stories that respond to social realities in the contemporary scenario. “Rhymes and proverbs have made language and learning accessible and imaginative to us as children, but they have also carried deeply disturbing and regressive world views that served as models for a future that many of us question. Through workshops and publications, we bring this rethinking with artists who make images and stories for children around us,” says Singh, who shares examples of rhymes by Seema CR and Parul Sinha.

Seema CR, who grew up in Kerala, looks at popular misogynist and casteist proverbs/ rhymes in Malayalam including ‘Even if she dies on the day of the birth, she must simply birth a boy’; and ‘A womb that has birthed is like an udder that has been milked.’ She introduces Thithiri, a spunky young girl who dances and stamps across this violently discriminatory landscape.

Sinha uses commonly used proverbs from three different languages, Hindi, Malayalam and Marathi, to define problematic standards for beauty. These include ‘Lose weight in order to bag a suitable boy’ (Hindi); ‘You are really talented but not as beautiful’ (Malayalam); and ‘Dark skinned people always tell lies’ (Marathi).

Curated sessions in photography books now include activities associated with popup libraries. Delhi-based Offset Projects offers diverse visual voices from the South Asian region (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) via festivals in different cities, community centres and schools with the idea of making photography libraries and photo books accessible to all age groups. An open interpretative format created by Offset Projects with Pro Helvetia is a publication titled Guftgu 2020 & 2021. It’s a de-constructed book comprising 10 authors capturing their intention in a zine format.

“The popup conversations are part of curated reading rooms and collaborative exercises. For instance, the Guftgu Talk Series has conversations with young contemporary photographers in South Asia. The focus is to expand education in photography, not just via established names but to create circles of learning where the book becomes a facilitator for conversations,” says Delhi-based Anshika Varma, photographer and founder, Offset Projects.

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Publishing a photo book has immense power, feels Varma. As creative mediums have undergone great changes in access and form in the last decade, independent practitioners through projects allow for interdisciplinary ideas to be woven together through books. “Such publications allow us to understand books as a medium in its own right and have a huge impact in how we address the act of reading and looking at imagery. A 5-inch or a 15-inch book can be experimented with so much ease in terms of its physicality, tactility, textures, colours and text, something that cannot be replicated on the web. A book demands absolute attention to detail, and scale. It’s a different experience to open a double spread that screams at you,” says Varma in a conversation with Sunday FE.

Many curatorial practices engage in text to show different mediums, formats and content. Bengaluru-based Reliable Copy, an indie publishing house co-founded in 2018 by Nihaal Faizal and Niharika Peri, has so far published four projects—A Memorial for the New Economy, Flexing Muscles, Still Life – mirrors and windows -, and The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook. Flexing Muscles by artist Ravikumar Kashi illustrates photographs collected by him over six years and the essay in Kannada and English locates a portrait of the changing city of Bengaluru— one increasingly attuned to aggression and vulnerability. Another collection of recipes from the community kitchen of 1Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery titled The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook is compiled and edited by the studio’s founding director, Suresh Jayaram. It features recipes from over 70 contributors, including artists, curators, patrons, residents, and the extended family of friends of 1Shanthiroad (Bengaluru’s longest running non-profit arts space and residency). The cookbook is a portrait of an evolving cultural community.

Nevertheless, traditional galleries have found artist publications as not just an accompaniment to the idea but an artwork itself. This year, Delhi-based gallery Art Alive brings its first illustrated publication on Indian art published by Thames and Hudson showcasing the history of Indian art across the subcontinent and South Asia from the late-19th century to the present day as seen through the eyes of prominent Indian art historians. “Artist publications go beyond the mere documentation of art and provide insight into the creative depths of any artist to become a collectible. It becomes an extensively documented form of art for collectors, academicians, researchers,” says Delhi-based Sunaina Anand, director, Art Alive Gallery, known to publish books and catalogues like ‘Art Alive Masters Series’ with monographs on the life and art of SH Raza, Thota Vaikuntam, Laxma Goud and Sakti Burman; ‘Faces of Indian Art’, ‘Sakti Burman: A Private Universe’, ‘Paresh Maity: World of Watercolours’, among others.

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Online freedom

Be it pre- or post-pandemic, artists have always thrived online to create an endless range of possibilities. Reliable Copy’s first free digital publication, A Memorial for the New Economy (2019) by artist Chinar Shah, is a collection of photos of embroidered handkerchiefs of the names of individuals reported to have died as a result of the government’s demonetisation debacle.

“Since our first digital publication, the digital space has become yet another and very important medium to circulate information and ideas. During the pandemic, the Propositions: Methods and Materials modules in collaboration with Gallery Ark in Vadodara opened up a range of possibilities in the digital space with a series of educational programmes in workshops, seminars, and lectures, which would have otherwise been inaccessible,” says Sarasija Subramanian, editor, Reliable Copy.

Moreover, the meaning of accessibility has changed in the past two years with the hybrid model of working. “The publishing experience pre- and post-pandemic has changed not only in terms of dissemination of information, but social media has transformed the way any information is consumed. Twenty years ago, the documentation and archiving of art were not paid much attention. Over the years, critical analytical text, intensive documentation and research have created awareness and interest in Indian art,” says Anand.

It’s in the zines

Zines are a great medium to publish art, poems, writings and musings. Today, these small circulation and home-made publications have evolved into online community-led art works, and gone beyond the confines of art galleries, which serve as places of learning and creation.

While these are original, appropriated texts and images, and can be reproduced using a photocopier, printing press or just paper and pen, the intention to create them is clearly because of its unique character. “The dissidents and members of socially marginalised groups have published their opinions in leaflet and pamphlet form for as long as such technology has been available. But the intent is usually for purposes other than profit as these draw inspiration from a DIY ethic and be one-of-a-kind, collectable art,” says Aqui Thami, who has co-conceptualised the Bombay Zine Fest with Himanshu S, the first in the Indian subcontinent, now annual since 2017.

Tate Britain in the UK and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi and Noida organise zine workshops, besides various online courses. But what was called a non-commercial and a sub-genre in the much more diverse world of self-publishing and low budget publishing, zines now cost from Rs 50 for single piece and can go up to Rs 1,000. “Zines began as a non-commercial mode of creation but this is not the case anymore; rather this has made them sail through the mainstream,” says Benguluru-based zine artist Renuka Rajiv.

“In the US, zines can typically be sold for anywhere from $1 to $20,” says illustrator Shreyas R Krishnan, assistant professor, Washington University in St Louis. Krishnan makes perzines (a genre where “per” means “personal”) like Don’t Leave the Meeting, about the experience of Zoom-teaching, or information zines like Alphabreasts (in collaboration with multidisciplinary designer Akhila Krishnan). Alphabreasts uses the structure and format of an ‘A-Z’ list of all things related to breasts. The zine reframes what the idea of ‘breasts’ can mean, beyond mere sexual objectification, and creates a space for discussion and conversation.

A powerful medium

While most online communities are bringing zines through a very co-opted version to suit the mainstream and making it sound cool, simultaneously taking away the potency of the medium.

“Zine making is not about making pretty looking things but a way of surviving independently, about creating community spaces and independent structures of production and distribution and sharing of resources, and different from the mainstream processes of production and distribution,” says Thami, who also runs Bombay Underground and Dharavi Art Room. Bombay Underground has reading space, libraries; indulge in self-publishing, and interventions in public and private spaces as well as participatory community projects.

On the other hand, the pandemic hasn’t fully disrupted offline production and dissemination. Rajiv was inspired to work on a short offline series of zines involving different contributors who are primarily non-zine makers.

Peer-to-peer network

Besides personal expression, zines offer peer to peer sharing as it is an interpersonal medium with huge potential. “The format and working is infinite: print on request, greeting card format. The process is about finding one’s voice and connecting in a personal way,” says Akansha Rastogi, senior curator, KNMA, who is building a library of zines to be launched in the near future. In fact, KNMA launched its first artist book in February by Mochu, a Delhi-and-Istanbul based artist who works with video and text arranged as installations, lectures and publications. It’s titled ‘Nervous Fossils’ and co-published with Reliable Copy, covering different genres, from speculative fiction, conversation to autobiographical and creative curriculum thinking and writing.

“What’s interesting is that many people choose this form to share their work, without having to go through traditional publication processes. Zines can seem less intimidating than books (even if they are just as powerful) because of their sizes and the way they are produced. They are an approachable medium for zine-makers and zine-readers, which makes it easier to embrace them. It brings people together to describe and narrate shared experiences and create communities. A zine can physically bring people together at events, or within its pages,” says Krishnan, who assigns zine projects to her students, encouraging them to collaborate and make collective decisions.

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