If you were a regular visitor to the Chemould Prescott Road art gallery in Mumbai around the turn of the decade, it’s likely that you would have walked past the young shaven-headed man who would occasionally set up a table in the courtyard of Queens Mansion, the building that houses the 56-year-old gallery. Arranged on the table would be a collection of small booklets, cheaply printed on coloured paper, with titles like ABC’s Of Anarchy and There Are No Dirty Words, Only Dirty Minds. If you had opened up one, you would have found anything from stunning black and white illustrations to deeply personal stories and ironic political screeds.
Each booklet—called a zine, shortened from fanzine—was an art exhibition in miniature, and that little table was a street art gallery all on its own. The deliberate cheekiness of selling these little works of art—priced ₹50-200—outside a prestigious art gallery where artists showed work that sold for lakhs of rupees is characteristic of Himanshu S., one of India’s pioneering zine-makers, who runs the public art and zine-making collective Bombay Underground with his partner Aqui Thami. It’s also representative of the stubbornly independent and do-it-yourself spirit that drives India’s small but rapidly growing zine scene.
Zines are generally defined as inexpensive, self-published, small-circulation booklets that are customarily hand-made, usually by creating collages of text and images that are photocopied and centre-stapled. They first emerged in the 1930s and 1940s in American science fiction circles, but interest in zines really took off in the 1970s, with the emergence of punk rock. The punk scene’s strong ties to the DIY ethic and its belief in the need for an alternative, anti-consumerist ecosystem meant that it needed to build alternative media to accurately represent it, and zines became the format of choice.
Zines would also go on to play a key role in the development of the Queercore and Riot Grrrl movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the international zine culture is incredibly diverse and multifaceted, with zines focused not just on music and activism but also art, graphic storytelling and documentary work. They vary widely in style, frequency and target audience, though they are most attractive to marginalized groups or radical political or creative movements. What unites them is a commitment to challenging the status quo and creating alternative communities.
“Zines are this space for people who may not otherwise find space to share and disseminate their ideas anywhere else to celebrate their histories, their struggles, and create solidarity between different groups of people who might be working in silos otherwise,” says Thami. “It’s not just about making zines but also the personal connections you form with people as you distribute your work.”
“Many scholars and zinesters, myself included, would emphasize the creative communities that form around the ideas and networks of zines,” adds Jeremy Stoll, a folklorist, scholar and comics creator who heads the science and social science department at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio. Stoll has spent the last few years conducting research on the comics culture in India, and suggests that this holds true for the Indian zine scene as well. “People (in India) seem to care deeply not just about getting their work into the hands of readers, but, often more so, about forging connections with creators and readers alike. The goal seems to be to create an alternative, more ethical ecosystem—where people share stories, images, books, words and ideas.”
From pamphlets to zines
In India, the precursors to contemporary zines lie in the political pamphlets of social justice and grass-roots movements. Himanshu points to the small books brought out by the left-wing Lokvangmay Griha printing press—founded in 1953 and still active—as well as the Ambedkarite pamphlets about the teachings of B. R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule as inspirations for his own work. But zines, as we know them, first emerged in the late 1990s when Himanshu, along with a group of fellow student activists who would go on to become Bombay Underground (you can find them on Instagram.com/bombayunderground), started creating small zines that they handed out at protests, rallies, even traffic signals (independently, the Mumbai-based LBA collective LABIA also came out with the annual Scripts zine, which ran from 1998-2015). The early Bombay Underground zines were simple affairs that focused on a range of issues, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the forced displacement of slum dwellers.
“We also made Hindi booklets about how to work around police laws in some cases,” he says. “They were specifically made for people from the bastis (slums), because a lot of the time when demolitions would happen, things would be very difficult for people.”
As time went by, the Bombay Underground zines shifted to exploring the intersections between personal narratives and political concerns. One of the catalysts for this change was the Dharavi Art Room, a project they started in 2006 to empower the children of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, by enabling access to art and creative resources. “Because we started working with kids more often, I kind of found it more comfortable and simpler to work with more personalized content,” says Himanshu, who often incorporates the children’s artwork in the Bombay Underground zines while encouraging them to make their own. “The kids really enjoy it. They love being able to tell stories about their lives and their neighbourhood.”
At around the same time, he was exposed to the wider zine culture, as friends took the Bombay Underground zines to the UK and Europe and swapped them with the publications brought out by international zine-makers. As he made connections with this international network of zine-makers and consumers, he found both inspiration and ally-ship. Soon, the Bombay Underground table at street corners and art pop-ups displayed not just their zines but also those made by friends and collectives from across the world, such as the UK-based The Chapess, which publishes writing and art by women from all over the world, and Free Water vs Bottle Water, a zine critiquing the bottled water industry, made by Michelle Doh for the Small Science Collective.
Finding a community
For the longest time, Himanshu and Thami were lonely flag-bearers of the zine culture in India. But recent years have seen a surge in the number of people who have adopted and adapted the zine format, especially within the art and design communities. In 2013, LGTBQ+ online platform Gaysi brought out the first issue of the Gaysi Zine (available for sale through Gaysifamily.com), a professionally printed, magazine-format publication that focuses on both queer narratives and queer-oriented visual content. That first issue collected some of the best writing on the Gaysi website, and the company sent copies out to NGOs and support groups across India.
“We were just trying it out as an experiment,” says Gaysi co-founder Sakshi Juneja, when I meet her along with the Gaysi team at a flat in Juhu. “But after two months we started getting emails from towns and cities where we hadn’t even sent the zine. It had somehow travelled and landed up in libraries down south and things like that. It was a very exciting feeling to see how it had travelled to people in smaller places where we didn’t have a reach.”
The Gaysi Zine is now an annual affair, and its five editions have not just garnered appreciation from the press and the art fraternity, but also international book stores and zine review sites. Some of the people who work on the Gaysi zine are also independent zine-makers in their own right.
Then there’s the Kadak Collective (Kadakcollective.com), a group of South Asian women spread across India, the UK and US, who use graphic storytelling to explore narratives that move between the personal and the political. Their zines address a wide range of largely—but not exclusively—feminist issues, including the taboo around menstruation, the experiences of being a woman in misogyny-infested online spaces, and overcoming sexual abuse. One of their most popular zines, created by Mira Malhotra, is the very distinctive Unfolding The Saree zine, which mimics a folded sari on a tiny hanger. Inside, she uses images and text to explore both the history of the sari and its associations with the “madonna/whore complex”.
“As a graphic designer, we are trained to do what the client wants or service them for their needs,” says Malhotra, who is inspired by the raw and brazen gender politics of 1990s Riot Grrrl zines. “From a formal career point of view, the only space for our voices in visual arts is in the elite, exclusive and mostly impenetrable fine arts network. So zines are a way for me to have a voice outside these two stifling spaces that are often dictated by money.”
The number of zine-makers in India has grown exponentially over the past two-three years, mirroring a broader global trend. A recent creative trends study by Shutterstock highlighted the resurgence of “zine culture” as the core mainstream trend for creatives, with the raw home-made collage aesthetic of zines as the key driver. But in India, unlike the West, there were no events or physical spaces where the zine community could meet and congregate. So collectives like Bombay Underground and Gaysi have set out to create their own.
In 2017, Bombay Underground organized the first Bombay Zine Fest, held at the Underground Bookhouse, a now defunct independent book store in Bandra run by the duo, which focused on zines and alternative literature. The first edition showcased zines from India and abroad, and gathered a lot of interest despite minimal promotion (“we hate advertising,” explains Thami). The second edition, in 2018, allowed Indian zine-makers to set up tables and sell their own work, and the duo is currently putting together the third edition, scheduled for 8-10 March.
Last year, Gaysi organized the more large-scale Gaysi Zine Bazaar in Mumbai and Delhi, which featured over 50 exhibitors at each event. Other events like the Indie Comix Fest—dedicated to independent comics—are also welcoming zines and zine-makers. Events like these not only allow the zine community to connect with each other, they also introduce more people to the idea of zines, and inspire them to make their own.
“At the Delhi Zine Bazaar, we had a lot of people coming in who would come to us at the first table and ask what zines were,” says Gaysi’s Siddhi Surthe, a visual artist who makes personal zines, such as the simple but beautifully effective Morning Routine, based on her reflections during her daily morning bus commute. “And then they would go around and come back to our table with a bag full of zines, and they were so happy that something like this existed. They never knew they could pick up self-made books, art, posters that weren’t commercially produced.”
To DIY or not to DIY
However, this swell of interest in zines, especially from relatively affluent design and art school graduates, has also led to tension within the community. There are concerns that zine culture’s anti-consumerist and DIY roots will be diluted with the rise of glossy, professionally printed zines that are priced too high to be accessible to the common reader.
“Suddenly, in the last two-three years, if anyone makes anything, even if it’s actually a magazine, they call it a zine,” says Himanshu. “So that is kind of a little bit tricky, because similar things have happened with a lot of other street cultures, be it graffiti or other things that have been co-opted by the mainstream.”
The willingness of some zine-makers to collaborate with brands and companies is another sore point. But Gaysi, which has produced zines in collaboration with Tinder, and whose Zine Bazaar was supported by both Tinder and Penguin, would disagree. They argue that in the absence of the strong and vibrant zine communities that are present abroad, it’s necessary to seek external funding for zine-making and zine fests to be economically viable.
“DIY culture is a big aspect of zines, but they are also about being able to find space to voice your concerns, and that’s what we’re really trying to achieve,” says Gaysi contributor Anushka Jadhav, who also worked on the programming for the Zine Bazaar. “There are so many voices out there that it’s hard to find a platform, and we’re trying to make that platform available. And to make that possible, it has to be viable for us. So to make sure that these voices can find a space, we find other means of making that possible.”
Despite these differences—which are also reflected in the broader international zine community—the zine community is happy about the growing interest in the format, and the potential for collaborations to help it grow.
“There’s so much happening right now and it’s very exciting,” says Himanshu. “I think it’s time for us festival organizers to sit down together and think about creating more permanent spaces for zine culture, spaces where we can produce zines collaboratively, as well as libraries where more people can access this content.”