Why self-publish a zine when you can upload it online? In 2017, Annushka Hardikar uploaded her design school project to Behance - a social media platform for creative portfolios. Shortly after it was featured in a magazine, Oh Nari So Sanskari went viral, The only print spotlight it ever received, translated into multiple daily requests to feature the zine or interview Hardikar about it. This snowballed into likes, shares, online chatter, and a quantum of coverage that would put paid marketing campaigns to shame, overcome by prohibitive strictures of any single network.
The inequity of social-media platforms opens opportunities for newer manifestations of art and inclusion outside virtual spaces, as sari researcher and entrepreneur Niketa Malhotra (aka Nikaytaa) discovered with The Fluid Sari zine in 2018. Dissatisfied with YouTube which limited her reach as a new creator. Nikaytaa teamed up with illustrator Ramaa Sahasrabuddhe to create a slim, how-to manual and colouring book that questioned gender roles and championed non-conformity, while teaching one how to drape the sari in five different styles. Co-opting the then popular (VanRy 2019) format of colouring books not only gave the zine instant relevance but also integrated Niketa’s participatory politics with its form. Mira Malhotra’s Unfolding the Saree (2016) had brilliantly accomplished this previously, with a zine in the form of a miniature sari on a hanger. It opened an exploration of how the garment plays a part in signifying and controlling women, how they desire and are desired, and in essentialising the idea of femininity itself.
Between these two zines and their trajectories, hangs a tale of how the format may be emerging as the site of a “digitally networked feminist practice” (Clark-Parsons 2017) in the Indian media landscape. Zines are versatile packets of pure expression that vary widely in form, content, dimensions, and aesthetics and can afford to throw caution to the judgement of the critical gaze of posterity. They help foster alternate publishing and readership networks that attempt to renegotiate conventional relationships with capital and patriarchy alike.
The driving frustration behind Oh Nari So Sanskari was how the Mahabharata limits the agency of women like Gandhari, Kunti, and Draupadi, by controlling perceptions of their strength, relevance, and desire. Having modern, vocal versions of these characters speak of this negligence and speaks to the zine’s ability to go beyond critique and rewrite the narratives of the past. The zine’s approach to the material stands out from narratives that take on similar projects- comics, mock advertisements, and listicles - that embrace and deliver a sense of socio-cultural immediacy. The present isn’t spared either, visual gags reveal contradictions that plague gender relations today where many equally discriminatory demands (having a disproportionate share of domestic work while maintaining professional lives, subservience to male partners and their careers, being slut-shamed for embracing their sexuality, etc.) are made of women under the garb of sanskaar (virtue or propriety).
The low barriers to entry in zine creation and publication allow for interventions by artists whose experience of gender, race, caste, age, sexual orientation, or generational privilege might fall outside the ambit of normative representation. This leads them to use the format to address questions neglected by mainstream discourse. One of these, as Nikaytaa explores in her own work, is the essential question about womanhood and the politics of who is allowed to claim the bodily and cultural signifiers that are associated with it. In fact, choosing to eschew narrative almost entirely does not mean that The Fluid Sari does not tell a tale. As an activity book, its politics is instead framed around the axis of performance. It redefines the sari as an unstitched fabric that is but a few pleats and folds away from becoming a universal garment that one might wear however they want. It advocates that readers and participants of Nikaytaa’s draping workshops move away from the constraints presented by petticoats and, regardless of what gender they identify with, embrace the boundless nature of the sari. This centering of inclusive, non-binary modes of experience operates with an intimacy that other artistic formats may not be capable of addressing with such immediacy.
The material fluidity that Fluid Sari advocates permeates through to the unassuming design of the zine, where Sahasrabuddhe’s drawings resist ascribing any particular gender to the free-flowing figures depicted in the draping process. The simplicity of creating one’s identity by styling one's clothes here, becomes as politically significant as the act of unveiling and disrobing are in the Mahabharata. Oh Nari So Sanskari highlights the transgressive unravelling of Draupadi’s sari by focusing on how dispossessed it leaves her, centering her experience even as the text acidly advises her to layer her outfits better next time.
Sahasrabuddhe’s numbered illustrations in Fluid Sari, start off from scratch, perhaps encouraging the reader to take similar elementary steps towards embracing their identities and using the sari as positive reinforcement in the process. Nikaytaa’s sparse instruction texts each end with some friendly advice from her and quote feminist icons like Madonna or scholars like Nivedita Menon, achieving a balance reminiscent of the comic book grid but not nearly as restrictive. Comics also form the backbone of influences that make Oh Nari So Sanskari a biting satire that formally plays at being a zine, diegetically announcing itself as the “first'' in a series put out by the three women - Gandhari, Kunti and Draupadi - directly takes charge of their narrative, answering the questions it raises.
The pop art aesthetic employed in its design facetiously plays off the classic Amar Chitra Katha and Panchatantra comics that define its framing and style. The visual language subverts the familiarity and the nostalgia it invokes as the women present an unapologetic and riotously funny assemblage of confessionals stacked together with dialogue balloons on the page. These are interspersed with gags such as the step-by-step guide to using the “Hymenum Restorum Mantra” that mock women’s lifestyle magazines and advertisements for their role in papering over the cracks of the status quo (Liddy 1995) with inane advice on hetero-normative femininity and consumerism.
Zine fests organised by collectives like Bombay Underground have been regular spaces for readers and creators to not only interact and share art but also kickstart follow-up networks on blogs and social media for these relationships to grow. Along with sales of The Fluid Sari, Nikaytaa’s own presence at these fests alsomeantinvolving readers in both the research and praxis oriented sides of her feminism. This included her draping workshops that directly engage with readers creating interest in the zine, leading to further support her channels of economic sustenance. Hardikar, however, decided to present a curated exhibit of the print form of her zine online from the very beginning, creating a demand that is still generating sales. The only reason the zine is not listed on her online shop at the time of writing is because it's out of stock until the next print run arrives.
Zines are growing as a culture (Kappal 2019), not despite but because of their organic embrace of the synergy between the printed book, real-life engagement, and social media or blogging platforms that many major publishers continue to struggle with. This is an art form that does not primarily project itself towards the future, making the radical choice to deal with the now. Oh Nari So Sanskari finding recognition and sales in literary festivals and Nikaytaa’s zine being listed on Amazon as The Fluid Sari “Book” feel like an acknowledgement of their success that veers on appropriation but does not seek to truly commit to the trail these works have blazed. Collections of older zines are still more likely to be found in archives - they rarely get indexed in libraries or receive ISBNs - and personal collections where they remain to be studied both as countercultural art and as critique of the political and publishing practices that they were created to oppose.
Agarwal, Anoushka. ‘Inside the Wild And Wonderful World Of Some Of India’s Best Zines’. Homegrown, 21 Nov. 2017, www.homegrown.co.in/article/801496/these-10-indian-zines-deserve-a-spot-on-your-bookshelf.
Clark-Parsons, Rosemary. ‘Feminist Ephemera in a Digital World: Theorizing Zines as Networked Feminist Practice’. Communication, Culture & Critique, vol. 10, no. 4, 2017, pp. 557-73, doi:10.1111/cccr.12172.
Hardikar, Annushka. Oh Nari So Sanskari. Self-Published, 2017.
Kappal, Bhanuj. ‘The Need to Be Zine’. Mint Lounge, 3 Mar. 2019, www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/the-need-to-be-zine-1551518693699.html.
Liddy, Susan. ‘Feature Writing in Women’s Magazines: A Limited Ideological Challenge’. Irish Communication Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 1995, pp. 27-35, doi:10.21427/D79H9K.
Malhotra, Mira. Unfolding the Saree. Studio Kohl, 2016.
Nikaytaa, and Ramaa Sahasrabuddhe. The Fluid Sari. Self-Published, 2018.
VanRy, Nikki. ‘What Happened to Adult Coloring Books? Charting the Boom and Bust’. Book Riot, 6 Nov. 2019, www.bookriot.com/adult-coloring-books-trend/.