now let us chop the ingredients finely, be
careful while using sharp objects
Pain is certain, suffering is optional.
I read the last line again and let its import sink in before I turn the page of Nom Nom Momo: Feed your soul , a little zine by Aqui Thami. Made with rice paper and illustrated very thoughtfully, it was one of the first zines Thami, an artist and a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, had created. “That was eight years ago, when I first met Himanshu,” she tells me, sitting behind a desk displaying zines at the 2020 India Art Fair in Delhi. Her partner S Himanshu, founder of Bombay Underground — an open collective of artists — manages the booth where they sell zines and hold workshops as we talk.
Himanshu formed Bombay Underground while in college in the late 1990s. “I grew up in a single-parent, financially stressed household in the suburbs of Mumbai. But I saw a whole new world when I started going into the city to study at Ruparel College. On one side of my college was Dharavi, and on the other was a remand home for juveniles. I gravitated towards activist groups that worked with messes similar to mine. Because I could draw and write, I made posters and pamphlets for them. I wouldn’t call it ‘the’ beginning, but it was ‘a’ beginning of the Bombay Underground,” says Himanshu.
He isn’t sure when he started calling what he does zine-making. “It’s a Western term but the concept itself is not new to India,” Thami explains. Zines are self-published and self-circulated printed matter which put forward an idea not available in the mainstream. One of the most famous Indian zines would be BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste .
Much of the zine-making in India — called locally as parcha (pamphlet) or basti akhbaar (colony news) — is politically driven, and that’s how Himanshu took to zine-making too. “At some point, I realised that there are an equal number of battles to be fought within, that our revolutions will also have to be tiny, internal ones,” he says.
Himanshu and Thami also run the not-for-profit organisation Dharavi Art Room and a number of Bombay Underground’s zines are made by the children of Dharavi. “Dharavi has always been in the spotlight with photographers, journalists, researchers all coming in and documenting it. But we don’t hear or see what life in Dharavi is like from the point of view of its residents,” says Thami.
The zines made by the women and children of Dharavi fill this gap. “Zines can act like archives. For instance, Nom Nom Momo for me is, in a way, about the history of the North-East, because food involves memory and history,” says Thami, who hails from Darjeeling. So, what does life in Dharavi look like to the women and children? “Most of the women make zines about their bodies and mental health. And because these are such intimate themes, they are not circulated beyond a closed group. The kids in Dharavi make fun zines about all the spaces they like to play in,” Thami says.
“When you make a zine or any such non-commercial thing, you exercise agency. It’s very important for everyone, not just slum-dwellers, to understand that they have agency, that another kind of world is possible,” says Thami. She explains with an example. “One of the projects we do under Dharavi Art Room is the mural project. In many slums, you see big artists coming in and making beautiful, giant murals. It’s great, but it also disenfranchises those living there. It’s not their mural. In our project, we take the kids of Dharavi and let them make murals elsewhere. It’s about driving in the idea that they too can do these things,” says Thami.
“You see this question of agency playing out very clearly with the girls. As kids they are fearless and will do anything, but as they grow up, they are told how to behave, told that their education is not as important as that of their brothers. The girls begin to internalise this sense of ‘worthlessness’, especially because they see that the women around them are treated like that. This is why we began a fellowship programme called Working with Savitri. We introduce girls to feminist philosophy. But it’s not enough just to tell them that another way of life is possible. We also give them money to pursue a college education,” says Thami. The team supports itself by selling zines and taking up teaching jobs.
In the past few years, as zines have grown in popularity with art and design school students, Bombay Underground has found itself invited to conduct zine-making workshops at the India Art Fair and the Jaipur Literature Festival. “It’s an odd space, you know,” says Thami. “Zines are not about aesthetics or perfection; it is about putting your voice out there for someone to find it and, hopefully, you. It’s about questioning the norm, the very capitalist idea of ‘success’, and here are these kids trying to make pleasing, beautiful objects... Our workshops with people outside of spaces such as Dharavi are mainly about the ethics of zine-making,” says Thami.
During the workshop at the fair which ended on February 2, Himanshu holds up a zine titled UNF UCK YOU and says, “You have got to stand by what you put out in the world.”
Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi