Faint memories from childhood linger on an afternoon phone call with zine-maker, and artist, Himanshu S. As we communicate through distances and shared experiences, Himanshu fervently talks about his library of approximately 2,500 hand-made booklets, which have been created, acquired, and exchanged across a span of twenty-two years. The artist reminds me of the stack of A4 sheets I’d glue/staple together as an eight -year-old, that were covered in stencilled drawings of dinosaurs, colourful animals, scientific names of plants, and ways to say ‘hello,’ in twenty different languages. Tucked-away in a folder titled ‘books,’ with a ‘z,’ the adult in me now classifies the collection as a fanzine- a small hand made circulation, which is often non-commercial, personal, political, and usually anti-establishment. While my childhood scrawls are barely revolutionary, Himanshu’s insights into the ethos of a zine are significantly different.
Along with his partner Aqui Thami, Himanshu is the co-founder of Bombay Underground, an independent collective, and informal publishing house that began in 1999, and stands for creative social change. While the two artists are full time members, they are backed by on-going support from friends and peers who believe in their cause. The artist effusively recounts his early days of zine-making with a group of fellow grassroot activists while studying as an art student in Bombay. Himanshu’s tryst with researching counter culture artists/ activist movements made him realise that the schools themselves didn’t encourage zine-making activities, even though they were significant to community movements. It pushed him to aid the grassroot activists who were creating small booklets that they handed out at protests, rallies, and traffic signals. Ranging from movements such as the Great Bombay Textile Strike (1982), Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (2004), and Hindi booklets on how to work around police laws in unfair circumstances- the leaflets were often sold to raise money for the causes they supported.
As a 17-year-old, Himanshu was also largely inspired by Ambedkarite pamphlets that compiled the teachings of B.R. Ambedkar, works by Savitribai Phule and Mahatma Phule, and small books published by the active left-wing Lokvangmay Griha printing press-founded in 1953. Their simplistic styles, and basic binding had a profound impact on the artist’s own creative practice, which is apparent in two of his zines, namely, ‘drop out!’ (1998), and ‘how to be,’ (2016). While the former is a manifesto followed by Himanshu that looks at everything from religion, to education, to media, to counter culture; he terms the latter as a gentle reminder to to live by for the remaining of his life. The artist also speaks of the cheaply printed children’s books housed by the National Book Trust (NBT) that are adaptations of Russian and American stories such as Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, and tales of Johnny Appleseed. Since its inception in 1957, the NBT was envisioned as a bureaucracy-free structure that would publish low-cost books that have inspired his own zine-making aesthetic. “This is precisely the mood we usually lean towards ourselves, single-coloured pages, made with basic material, and hand-made.”
Much has changed from when Bombay Underground pioneered the way for zine-making in India through the late 90s. In the new age of independent publishing, the abbreviated term ‘zine,’ is often fashionably used for glossy publications backed by large publishing houses such as Penguin Random House for example, specially trained design students,
and discourse prevalent in a certain privileged class. “The zine culture has traditionally existed in the grassroots. But now it looks like a very finished product that might distance anybody and everybody trying to make one. When we started off the creators weren’t artists, or funded by big publication houses. The old-school definition of a zine is now being manipulatively used for the wrong purposes,” says Himanshu. The collective’s narratives are still steeped in the antiquated versions of a zine that speak of personal stories such as women’s periods, personal politics devoid of party politics, and community histories that are often ignored.
In contrast to Bombay Underground’s traditional approach to zine-making, we have independent publishing house Offset Projects who have recently launched a “zine-box,” which they describe as a curated collection of zines on photography from South Asia and its diaspora. The zines are carefully designed with bold typefaces, professionally bound, and are devoid of the hand-made element attached with the medium, but they still hold the playfulness and chapter-styled stories that can be categorised as zines. While the artists might not be working with communities themselves, the zines are still exclusively donated to
educational institutions and libraries. It seems to be their own way of engaging with
communities who might not have access to photography in galleries or art spaces.
Coming back to bridging the gap between societal hierarchies of making a zine, and the commercial aspects of publishing, Bombay Underground started the Dharavi Art Room in 2006- a project to empower the women and children of the largest slum in Asia to creatively document their histories. Aqui encouraged six-seven children in the neighbourhood to interview their grandmothers and draw their journeys of settling down in the neighbourhood which she later compiled into a zine titled ‘Aesthetically Yours.’ In another publication from the community known as ‘Meow,’ children from Dharavi documented their interactions with various cats that are significant to their everyday realities. “It’s so fascinating to see the way kids imagine basic observations. In ‘Meow,’ the cats are colourful, plastered with various designs, and funnily shaped. I’m always interested in art by children, mostly because it questions the whole idea of what we think is acceptable in design,” says Himanshu. It’s also a financially viable option to distribute books made by children for children, since there’s a definite dearth of the genre in the mainstream market.
Bombay Underground’s community efforts also extend to zine-making workshops across the city. Over the years, Himanshu and Aqui have encouraged fleetingly explored stories from the city’s easten suburb, Mankhurd, the slums of Malvani, PDP Chawls, and municipal schools around Worli and Lower Parel. The two artists are conscious of working with the community, and not for the community, to tell stories in the form of a zine which is often distributed within the neighbourhoods for free. Their distribution networks largely exist within these communities, apart from hanging-out by the quintessential footpath booksellers at Fort and Fountain, outside Jehangir Art Gallery, setting-up tablesinthe compound outside the Chemould Presscott Road art gallery, or street selling in the by lanes of South Bombay and Bandra.
The zines by Bombay Underground are typically priced at Rs.100- Rs.150, and sometimes can range upto Rs. 300. When asked how easy or difficult it is to sell zines in public spaces, Himanshu comments on how Aqui faces a lot more flack, than he does. “Since our inception, we strongly believe in the distribution of your own work, since it dismantles the privileges that artists and writers have been abusing for ages.” One such example of group distribution is apparent in the collective’s on going series of anarchic zines known as A5. The sets are a culmination of original work and appropriated text and images done by various artists after an open call. “ Here’s why I reiterate that Bombay Underground isn’t the sole publisher of any collaborative zine. We all come together right from ideation, to creation, to costing, to distribution, to sale. We are not publishers we are all zine-makers” explains Himanshu.
With the rise in online blogging, digital content, the reality is that zines are no longer the only means of independent opinion. The collective is now in a continuous quest to find new ways of distribution and funding that doesn’t dilute the product itself. “There are now two types of zines created by two classes of people. Do they get to exist in the same space? The polished publications will be sold easily, while the raw works may not have an audience. We want to at least cover project costs between Aqui and me to sell a body of work which is great and wouldn’t make it in the mainstream circuit. Plus, it also gives us the capital to direct into more work created by us and the communities we work with,” says Himanshu.
In 2016, the collective also hosted the first edition of The Bombay Zine Festival, which paved way for independent zine-makers (especially in Asia) to have their work showcased on a large scale. Himanshu recalls the struggle to curate zines then, but how word-of-mouth, support from a growing community of artists, and social media has now prompted a rise in the popularity of such events. In 2018, self-published comic artists came together to form the Indie Comic Festival, which has travelled across Pune Bangalore, Delhi, and Chennai, till date. Comic artists displayed work ranging from anime, dark humour, city-centric quirks, gender, and mallu puns amongst other things.
Apart from re-establishing a connection with tactile form and allowing people to spend time with thoughts beyond a screen, Bombay Underground also strongly believes in building temporary/semi-temporary reading spaces in different parts of the city. Other than the community built Chota Library in Dharavi, Aqui has founded The Sister Library (2015)- a feminist space with works of women writers, artists and zine makers. Aqui, who is a self-identifying indigenous artist and storyteller from Darjeeling, found the need to create a space for women-specific works when she examined her own collection and found glaring discrepancies in the gender balance. In 2018, Aqui travelled with 100 works of women, zines, graphic novels, academic writing, non-fiction, movement-based writings and artist books to Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Goa, and Cochin. In 2019, she set-up a permanent library space in Bandra, where women from various socio economic and caste backgrounds can find solidarity in the stories of over 1000 feminists.
Through our conversation, Himanshu circles back-to a recurring thought that speaks of the newfound privilege that exists in the zine circuit. “It’s more and more imperative that we encourage community stories to exist, especially because the people who are now occupying this space have the facilities to be seen and heard,” he says. Through the course of the pandemic, Bombay Underground has been working tirelessly to keep their community spaces alive through fundraisers, collecting ration, support from regular contributors, and running campaigns to aid women who have lost their jobs owing to the lockdown. While Himanshu himself hasn’t been in the mindspace to make a zine through this time, his scrawls, notes, and drawings are testament to this period in history. “Perhaps someday, in another time, we’ll sit down and find a way to make them into something,” he says.