In the exhibition “Crafting Subversion: DIY and Decolonial Print” (which ran from April 28 to September 3), Pragya Dhital, an associate lecturer in English literature (University College London, or UCL) and research associate in the history department at SOAS (University of London), presented fascinating elided histories of some subversive print cultures that emerged in India both before and after Independence.
The show had material drawn from the Asia Art Archive, the British Library’s collection of pamphlets banned in colonial India, the University of Göttingen archives, Bruce Castle Museum’s Gestetner archives, the UCL’s collection of small-press and samizdat literature, little magazines edited by the renowned English-language poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and an animated work by Raqs Media Collective.
Dhital’s research focusses on transnational networks of underground South Asian printing and publishing and highlights colonial-era and modernist forms of anti-institutional information dissemination. Bypassing or tactically navigating “official” or organisational constraints, these “solidarity publications” were often dedicated to the spread of liberal/revolutionary/anarchist thought and in multiple strategic ways shaped political and artistic concerns into resistance narratives both within right-wing and imperialist regimes and within established democracies.
Brunei Gallery of SOAS
The works on view signposted the rapid technological advances in printing that enabled presses to innovate and expand their output, especially through duplication machines such as the Gestetner Scope, also known as Stencil Lightbox, invented by David Gestetner in 1879. Such devices enabled a dynamic low-tech print revolution, each edition of a work often distinct because of manual interventions and through the inclusion of editorial notes, commentary, and marginalia.
The exhibition was displayed along a narrow staircase in the Brunei Gallery of London’s SOAS leading up to a corridor on the first floor. The unexpected placement heightened the sense of encounter and surprise. As one ascended the staircase, some striking documents came into view.
Post-Independence material included reproductions from Ezra, a zine founded in 1968 by Mehrotra, who allegedly distributed copies from a blue overnight case in Bombay cafes. The Ezra Fakir press, as he called it, was established as part homage to the American poet Ezra Pound and presented a spectrum of modern poetry, including by Pavankumar Jain, and, to counter what Mehrotra dismissed as “archaic Anglicisms”, fresh, colloquial translations of verses by Kabir.
“Have you ever paused to think why? Why have Gandhis and Nehrus, Sarojinis and Urmilas, Patels and Bajajs, Alams and Tandons, Mahmuds and Vidyarathis, Rajendra Prasads and Sunder Lals, and scores of others, each more prominent than the rest, sacrificed their physical freedom and lives of peace and staked their all?”—Hindustan Seva Dal, Bulletin No. 9, 1931 (India Office Library records)
The exhibition also invoked other flourishing cultural initiatives of the 1960s, supported by progressive figures such as the Baroda-based artists Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, founders of the arts/literary magazine Vrishchik (Scorpion); and the Bombay-based poet Arun Kolatkar.
Show me the road/ Lead me till there/ Or between two rivers/ Make me a little hu/ Or leave your face/ On my body’s parchment…—Kabir, from the Bhakti Special Edition of Vrishchik, 1970.
The section titled “Eccentric Modernism” connected Indian publications with radical Western DIY efforts of the time. In 1962, the American poet-activist-rock singer Ed Sanders, based in a bookshop on New York’s Lower East Side, produced the zine F**k You: A Magazine for the Arts using a mimeograph, with an average print run of 500 copies at a time. He mailed these to eminent artists, writers, and public figures worldwide, including Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Fidel Castro.
The Village Voice
Mehrotra, then in Allahabad, learnt of this zine through a copy of The Village Voice, one of America’s first alternative arts newsweeklies. He was inspired, along with Alok and Amit Rai (grandsons of Munshi Premchand), to launch the zine damn you in 1965, using the Gestetner copying machine and charging a donation fee that was “anything commensurate with your dignity—and ours also”. damn you also republished content from F**k You, countercultural literature from across the world, and, as Mehrotra noted, “could now be reachable via a bright red letterbox nailed to a neem tree”.
A powerful example of a banned anti-colonial text in the exhibition was the Hindustan Seva Dal’s appeal that all Indians come together to oppose the British Raj: “Hindus and Musalmans rise unitedly and decide once and for all the fate of your country; for if this opportunity is allowed to slip by not a single way will be left open to the people even to preserve their lives…”
Another example was the Rashtriya Mahila Samiti’s audacious proposal that the police force join the mass agitations of the freedom struggle or at least refrain from harming women during political demonstrations.
Writings by socialist politicians
Examples of political DIY production in the 1970s focussed on writings by socialist politicians such as Jayaprakash Narayan and other targeted anti-Congress figures who, in response to the atrocities of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, persisted with demands for sampoorna kranti (total revolution) and, in many cases, suffered imprisonment. On display were writings/archives of Ram Dutt Tripathi, a Lucknow-based BBC correspondent jailed for criticising the Emergency; he eventually represented himself in court.
With electricity supply to Indian newspapers cut off, draconian media censorship in place, and radio coming under state control, Tripathi and his comrades from the Yuva Sangharsh Samiti mass-produced anti-government petitions on a cyclostyle duplicator and distributed these as widely as possible.
As Dhital said in a conversation, a quixotic feint within the spectrum of materials on view was the WikiLeaks post about the fervidly anti-American trade union leader George Fernandes reaching out to the Central Intelligence Agency for support of his resistance activities during that time. In a presentation made at the “BBC and the World Service: Debts and Legacies” conference in 2017, Dhital said: “By looking at how news of the assassination of the President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975), was disseminated via foreign radio broadcasts and written about in the prison diaries of politicians arrested in connection with the Emergency in India, I worked towards a different understanding of the movement of power and information within and across national boundaries.”
The exhibition also traced the contribution of international zines that spoke truth to power, enunciating the struggle for human rights and civil liberties, pointing to a seamless global network of resistance literature.
Such publications included the Fluxus-influenced Schmuck, initiated by the artist couple Martha Hellion and Felipe Ehrenberg, who left Mexico for England following the army’s execution of student demonstrators in Mexico City in 1968. With the art historian David Mayor, the cartoonist Chris Welch, and his partner Madeleine Gallard, they founded the avant-garde Beau Geste Press in Devon. Their printing techniques included mimeograph, offset lithography, and letterpress, and they produced works cheaply, in small editions. They focussed on marginalised artist groups outside the prominent art centres of Western capitals, concentrating on Iceland, Japan, Latin America, eastern Europe, and Canada.
“The exhibition also traced the contribution of international zines that spoke truth to power, enunciating the struggle for human rights and civil liberties.”
Different editions of Schmuck featured work by regional artists and were each edited by an artist from the region. The group’s editorial manifesto reiterated a commitment to collaborative production as a critique of the power of mainstream art institutions, consumerism, and establishment politics.
Another example was Solidarno (Solidarity) from the Polish workers’ movement, produced with offset technology during the martial law of 1981 to 1983, when the population was brutalised by military control, surveillance, curfews, media censorship, and the active crushing of political dissent. The police seized approximately 3,40,000 books and 73,000 leaflets at that time.
Interestingly, in London I also visited another themed exhibition, this one at the Photographers’ Gallery, that showcased material about “the Partisan coffee house (1958-1963)” in Soho. It was proclaimed as the first socialist “anti-espresso bar” and was associated with influential letterpress publications such as New Left Review. The first editor-in-chief of this journal was Stuart Hall, the British Marxist activist and communications scholar/cultural theorist, who reiterates that “far from being an obvious, overused platitude, questions of multiculturalism, properly understood, contain the seeds of a major disruption of our normal common sense political assumptions and are calculated to have disruptive effects on all sides”.
“Multiculturalism... can’t just happen. It has to be seriously, actively, put in place and interrogated.... This subaltern proliferation of difference... still significantly inflects, deflects and translates Western imperatives from below... it does prevent the global system from stabilising itself as a fully sutured or stitched up totality and it continues to explore it at a level often below the visibility of the global media, the interstices, the gaps, the discontinuities as potential sites of resistance and intervention” (: “The Multicultural Question”, The Political Economy Research Centre Annual Lecture, Sheffield, May 4).
And it was precisely in this way that the distinct yet interconnected works featured in Crafting Subversion proved that it could unsettle and reorient viewers.
Rahaab Allana is curator, Alkazi Foundation, New Delhi, and fellow, Royal Asiatic Society, London.
- An exhibition called “Crafting Subversion: DIY and Decolonial Print ”was held from April 28 to September 3 in the Brunei Gallery of London’s SOAS.
- The exhibition presented elided histories of some subversive print cultures that emerged in India.
- The works on view showed how rapid technological advances in printing enabled presses to innovate and expand their output, especially through duplication machines such as the Gestetner Scope.
- On display was content from zines such as Ezra and magazines such as Vrishchik (Scorpion) and writings by socialist politicians such as Jayaprakash Narayan.
- The section titled “Eccentric Modernism” connected Indian publications with radical Western DIY efforts of the time such as the zine F**k You: A Magazine for the Arts.
- The exhibition also traced the contribution of international zines that spoke truth to power, such as the Fluxus-influenced Schmuck and Solidarno (Solidarity) from the Polish workers’ movement.
- Material for the show was drawn from the Asia Art Archive, the British Library’s collection of pamphlets banned in colonial India, the University of Göttingen archives, Bruce Castle Museum’s Gestetner archives, the UCL’s collection of small-press and samizdat literature, little magazines edited by the renowned English-language poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and an animated work by Raqs Media Collective.