The editors, designers and curators behind this expansive crowdfunding project talk about its inception and their ambitions.
Kadak is a collective of South Asian women, non-binary and queer creators who work in graphic storytelling. Their newest work, Bystander, is an anthology that will bring together contributions from over 50 writers and artists from 13 countries. A multi-disciplinary project that aims to be published in both print and digitally, Bystander will feature a diverse range of narratives that examines the implications and applications of its title.
We spoke to Akhila Krishnan, Shreyas R. Krishnan, Aarthi Parthsarathy and Mira Malhotra, who are four of Kadak’s members and part of the team behind the anthology.
Why Kickstarter, why crowdfunding
Ink: What are this project’s aims and where did it originate? Have you always intended to publish in this way? How does crowdfunding and self-publishing suit this project and the goals of your collective?
Akhila Krishnan: This project has multiple aims. As a collective, Kadak has always sought to create a space for new work that amplifies new voices and new modes of authorship. We’ve received commissions from the Goethe Institute and the Gaysi Zine in the past and as a team we were ready to take the next big step in this direction. This anthology represents that step. We’re excited it has both a print and web component; since we do all of our work in online spaces, the web anthology was an important component of the project because it reflects our practice and also because it represents a new approach towards authorship in the publishing space.
As a collective, we say that we are from South Asia and our work is representative of that region. In opening up to voices from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives etc. we are now actively and truly representing a greater diversity of work from this region.
In terms of the themes of the anthology, we wanted to offer a prompt to our contributors that they could all explore something that was contemporary and relevant in their own voices. With the current political climate and the #metoo movement in India, the idea of participation and allyship is a big question in the subcontinent now. This was on our minds. Aarthi Parthasarathy, one of our co-editors came up with the idea of the bystander as a theme and a prompt; we felt it was a complex and nuanced word that would prompt a richness and depth of responses from our contributors and we have been blown away by their concepts.
We never really thought we would publish in this way and this is a big step forward and a leap of faith for us. We came together as a collective in 2016 and since then we’ve received growing support for our work and our practice. Several of our members at Kadak are hugely successful practitioners in their own right and over the past few years we’ve seen cuts to the grants that artists like us can apply for. We also were invited to attend a workshop on crowdfunding for comic anthologies at Kickstarter London, thanks to an invite from the wonderful Nicola Streeten at Laydeez do Comics. So a lot of things aligned at the right time and in this situation, we decided to turn outwards to our networks and supporters to help us realise this dream project.
Ink: How are the contributors being compensated for their work?
Shreyas R. Krishnan: Yes, of course. One of our biggest commitments in this project has been that everyone gets paid fairly. If we reach our funding goal, the money goes towards producing the book and website that will house the anthology’s narratives, paying every contributor at a per page rate, compensating the design team for designing the book and website and overseeing production, compensating the editorial and managerial team for their work, and covering administrative expenses. If we surpass our funding goal and get additional funds, the extra funds go first toward bumping up what our contributors get by increasing the per page rate everyone gets paid, and then possibly toward increasing our print run of the book.
Ink: Tell us about some of the rewards you’re offering people who pledge. How did you choose them?
AK: We developed the rewards with a lot of care, because we have supporters spread across the world in the UK, US and India backing the project and we wanted to appeal to all of them.
We also wanted the rewards to build on and extend the core idea/theme of the bystander, and we wanted to showcase interesting printing methods and processes as far as possible. The specific rewards we are offering were developed with these ideas in mind, over a long process of discussion among the editorial team.
The Lost in Translation postcards for example were developed from one of the ideas for the cover design of the book that we loved and wanted to somehow keep as a part of the overall collateral for the project. Priya Dali, who’s part of the extended Kadak Network, offered to work with us on it and we were are grateful for her talent and generosity.
We were all fans of the Indian Feminist Alphabet by Kruttika Susarla (who’s also part of the extended Kadak network) and she kindly offered the nine letters to us to create this sticker set for the project.
Pearl is also a big supporter of our work and she’d been developing a version of the Pre-Occupied zine, which we loved and asked if we could print it as a poster zine for the campaign. She was super-excited and open about collaborating with us to do it. The themes and ideas in the work resonate with the overall idea behind the anthology.
And finally, The Space Between is our unique reward developed especially for the project, written by Gopika Bashi, one of our editorial team members. She’s going to bring her knowledge of the intersectional feminist space and create these zines in collaboration with Mira Malhotra, another one of our editors. We think they are going to be such an important resource in this discussion around participation and allyship in India and the subcontinent today.
We’re also about to announce a very special rewards tier that collects all of the bespoke Bystander contributor portraits that Shreyas R. Krishnan is working on (as part of our social media strategy) into one print. And we have original drawings/prints donated by four of our contributors Jasjyot Singh Hans, Aleesha Nandhra, Janine Shroff and Shreyas R. Krishnan up for grabs as well.
Ink: Once the campaign is finished and the book is (fingers crossed) published, are there longer-term plans for the Bystander project?
AK: This edition of the Bystander book will only be available to buy during the campaign. That’s the plan for now. The web anthology will live online and be available from January 2020.
We’re looking into how we can run a series of on-the-ground workshops as a part of the process and thinking behind the anthology in a few cities around the world. This is a part of the larger development of the Bystander Project and hopefully this could continue beyond January 2020 (the launch of the book) if the response is positive (we think it might be).
We’re also interested in putting out an open call for a section of the book itself and this will be something we will look into after the campaign is finished, but before the launch of the book.
If the overall response to the campaign is positive, we could look into publishing a second volume of Bystander stories as well, as well as pushing ahead with other Kadak publishing projects for the future. A lot of things are riding on this; we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
The Indian comics scene
Ink: Can you give us an idea of what publishing in general looks like in India, and how comics fits into that?
Aarthi Parthsarathy: Publishing has generally been the domain of established companies, whether it is newspapers, magazines, books or comics. Larger establishments dominate the industry because of their scale as well as their ability to market and distribute their publications. It is generally difficult for comics and graphic novels to find publishers, as there are numerous constraints such as printing processes, editorial guidelines, assumptions about audience expectations, sales and revenue etc.
However, the internet and self-publishing have changed the landscape quite a bit, and many creators are sharing their work online and getting recognised. The flip side to that is comics online have led to the expectation that content will be free. This becomes a tricky line to navigate, and it’s not very sustainable for the artists and writers involved.
Self-publishing is gaining momentum; people are selling their publications independently at zine fairs and comic fests that are mushrooming all over the country. They cater to smaller, niche audiences, but the demand is growing, quickly at that.
Ink: How have comics developed in India both separately and in relation to the rest of the world? How might we define an Indian comic; are there any specific elements or trends that contribute to their identity? Is this something that is important to Indian creators?
AP: Visual storytelling in India has a long history, from the Pattachitra to the Kaavad, there are many forms accompanied by a narration, which is often oral. Comics as we understand it is more recent; it can be traced back to the British colonisation of India. Punch, a British magazine of humour and satire, was popular here in the 1800s, and it led to a number of publications inspired by this format, all carrying the same name, almost as a homage: there was an Awadh Punch, a Parsee Punch, a Delhi Punch, a Lucknow Punch among many others.
To cut a long story short, these magazines and many others at the time made the format of the political cartoon immensely popular. It became a way to disseminate the activities of the Indian Independence Movement, and provide different perspectives. Post-Independence as well, cartoonists like Shankar Pillai and R.K. Laxman had an eagle eye on the workings of the government and did not hesitate to critique through their wry humour.
Comics existed in many forms: in children’s magazines like Sandesh, Bal Sakha and Chandamama. In the 1960s, Indrajal comics launched Phantom, which became immensely popular here, which was followed by characters like Mandrake and Flash Gordon. Later, in the 70s, Indrajal launched Bahadur, an Indian vigilante, which was created by Aabid Surti.
Anant Pai, through Amar Chitra Katha, created a series of stories of Indian mythology and history told in comic form. Meanwhile, many other publishing houses such as Raj Comics, Diamond Comics started publishing comics with Indian characters such as Chacha Choudhry and Nagraj.
In the 90s we saw Orijit Sen’s River of Stories, the first graphic novel, which was followed by Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Amruta Patil in the 2000s.
An Indian comic: that depends on how you define both ‘India’ and ‘comic’. There’s no unilateral reading of either word, so that makes this phrase nearly impossible to pin down. For some creators, it’s about the content of the stories, and for some, form plays a crucial role.
Amar Chitra Katha tells exclusively Indian stories, but has been criticised regarding the portrayal of women and minorities; many practices, like Sati and Jauhar are presented without sufficient context. Also, the very western influences in its illustrations have come under scrutiny; women have impossible hourglass figures, men have six-pack abs.
Amruta Patil’s Kari refers to the art of Frida Kahlo, Da Vinci among others, but her story of a young queer woman living in Bombay is uniquely Indian. Her later works, especially Adi Parva, is an interpretation of the epic Mahabharata, told in a uniquely feminist manner.
In Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana, the Ramayana is retold through Sita as the female protagonist. This is accompanied by Moyna Chitrakar’s rich and earthy illustrations which come from the Patua tradition.
Indian creators of present day are telling stories that relate to their context, and in sensitive ways. The landscape of stories and visuals in comics is now beginning to reflect the diversity of the region itself.
Ink: In the UK, comics aren’t seen as very culturally valuable in relation to other types of literature and art. How are they received in India? Are they read widely, and who by? Is there a canon of Indian comics and, if so, what sort of comics are on it?
AP: Comics are still largely seen as a medium of interest for children, though graphic novels and the internet are slowly changing that understanding. This perception has been built by the popularity of Amar Chitra Katha and the comic magazine Tinkle, which are read widely by kids here.
Comics are not yet seen as cultural artefacts. There is no dedicated archive or museum, and there are very few researchers and historians working on Indian comics. But that is also slowly changing.
Ink How are comics distributed and sold in India? Do they appear in regular bookshops or are there specialist stores? Do you have a big convention scene? Do you know if they provide much economic value in India and South Asia in general?
AP: Comics are sold at regular bookshops, as well as online. Comic conventions have been around since 2011, and are immensely popular; they are attended by thousands of people across five Indian cities. Though that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales of books; movies, television, gaming enjoy more popularity at the present. Books are still a smaller space, albeit growing fast.
Ink: Given the colonialist history between the UK and India, what is the relationship between the comics industries in both countries? I know there have been some cultural exchanges taking place between some of the Laydeez Do Comics team and Indian creators. Can you talk a bit about some of these collaborations and what we might offer each other?
AP: There’s a lot of exchange, dating back to the days of Punch. In present day, yes there’s been a lot of cultural exchange—Laydeez Do Comics and artists like Priya Kuriyan who participate in these exchanges, as well as the research and curation of Paul Gravett—which has brought attention to a lot of work in India, and artists such as Aleesha Nandhra and Akhila Krishnan who are based in the UK, but make uniquely Indian stories.
These opportunities provide for a lot of learning on both sides. Being able to see an artist or an industry abroad is eye-opening, and gives one a lot of inspiration for ideas back home. It also opens out possibilities for collaboration, which is how this Kickstarter came to life. Hopefully we can realise, and make this book a reality.
Self-publishing and printing in India
Ink: What is your personal background as a designer and producer, and what have you brought from your wider career to this project?
Mira Malhotra: I am a graphic designer and illustrator, and I run a small independent studio called Studio Kohl as my day job. I am heavily involved in publication, brand design especially for mental health and gender, but I also love working on lifestyle projects, where I get to play around with form, aesthetics and trends.
I like to merge the two and bring more attention to the above areas of interest by making communication around them (which, in India, is largely dry and unappealing) more engaging and relevant to audiences that are typically disinterested. I do several small self-initiated projects on the side such as publishing my own zines and other products.
Shreyas R. Krishnan: I am an illustrator, designer, and educator. My primary interests are the intersections between visual culture and gender, and the ways in which personal and collective memory behave. I make non-fiction comics, zines, editorial illustrations, and documentary drawings. I believe in the power of visuals, especially comics and graphic narratives, and their ability to break down and communicate complex ideas in accessible ways.
Apart from my own practice which tackles these areas, I also teach full time at Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, working with students at various levels on how images are made, what it means to make images, and how to effectively and responsibly communicate through visual narratives.
Ink: What are the advantages and disadvantages of crowdfunding and self-publishing this particular project from a design point-of-view? Your Kickstarter campaign says that the web version in particular will include ‘experimental’ elements. Can you tell us more about this and the differences between the print and web versions?
MM: The uncertainty of crowdfunding is nerve-wracking. However it’s the most democratic approach to getting a project out there, completely independent. Most of the time funders do come with their own agenda and mandates, understandably. Sometimes these conflict with design goals, especially since design is so often commissioned by non-designers, and funders rarely, if ever, have designers on board. Crowdfunding offers us a unique position to put out something that is rich, beautiful and most importantly, fully independent.
Print is a medium I love but we want to explore the skills of all kinds of creators in communication. It leaves out filmmakers, web developers, musicians etc. The digital version allows for video, audio and moving image, and possibilities with code to allow for more interactive and experimental modes of communication.
SRK: I agree with Mira: the biggest advantage of crowdfunding a project like this is the ability to be fully independent and true to the vision and direction we set out with. At the core of our project is our commitment to paying all of our contributors fairly and at international pay standards.
Crowdfunding in that sense also puts on the table the issue of fair pay in creative industries; we are simultaneously trying to name the problem and actively address it. The disadvantage of course is that Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, so either we make the full goal or we get nothing and the project doesn’t move forward unless we can secure alternate funding within a short window of time. We are not asking any of our contributors to work unless we know we have the funds to compensate them.
One of the interesting decisions we’ve made with this project is to account for separate web and print pieces. I am all for comics and the ways in which they invoke multi-sensory experiences through just visuals (as Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics), but if we are to look at an expanded notion of ‘graphic narratives’, then that requires a platform that allows for more than what print can do, whether that means motion, sound, sequence or interaction.
How have you approached this project in terms of design in the context of printing options available in India? What would you say makes the anthology South Asian in its look and feel?
MM: The South Asian printers I am acquainted with often use machinery and tools in a rather unique way, sometimes limited by costs. They have their own informal methods and tools which they use just as expertly to get results. While we cannot give too much special instruction to our 51 contributors on print methods, we will play around with the pages in between, possibly using—if budget allows—custom handmade papers, woodblock printed papers or screen printing. All of which are widely used in South Asia and feel distinctly from this region.
SRK: I would add to this also from the standpoint of every contributor’s work – all of them, by virtue of the kind of content they invoke in their work, and the kind of influences they pull from, automatically make their work South Asian in very distinct and unique ways.
Ink: What were the criteria for people to be able to submit work for the Bystander project?
MM: South Asia is a very diverse and complex location and this reflects in its politics. We curated individuals on the basis of how communicative their past work was, their proficiency in the medium of storytelling, and their ability to use their own unique vantage point to talk about issues pertaining to their theme.
We wanted to present as complete a picture of South Asia as we could, through pictures! We looked at what opportunities we could offer storytellers considering identity across religion, gender, sexuality, caste, class, geography, and disciplines within communication arts. These are persons who already engage with this subject matter, and we hope to set up this platform to broadcast their work out to as much of an audience as we truly can.
SRK: We spent several months arriving at our final list of contributors, based on their work and the kind of content that they regularly tackled. Some of that involved the editorial team trying to forecast the kind of concepts our contributors might delve into in the anthology, and every single one of them went above and beyond our expectations for the ways in which the term ‘bystander’ can be responded to. Importance was given to including emerging names and voices that are not amplified enough, especially in comics and graphic narratives anthologies. Kadak as a collective has a foot in the door (visibility, access to opportunities), and the larger intent for this anthology is to hold that door open to let more people through.
This interview has been edited for clarity.