Building an Art Community in India Through Zines

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When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the world to go digital in 2020, a small team of artists, writers, and curators in New Delhi, India, started working on a dream project, prompted by the joy of print. The Irregular Times (TIRT), India’s first art and design newspaper, attempts to cultivate a community-driven culture around design and zine-making while building a platform to share fresh and interesting voices from the country on a quarterly basis. 

This DIY project spanning 52 pages of art, writing, photography, architecture, food, and interactive media was conceived after the success of the 2018 and 2019 editions of the Irregulars Art Fair, India’s first “anti-art” fair. In February 2020, the third edition of the fair was postponed, owing to the Citizenship Amendment Act protests across India, followed by the pandemic. 

“While it felt calming and soothing to not do another nerve-wrecking physical event, we felt that as an entity that solely thrived on community-driven art projects, we would start losing relevance. In the midst of the pandemic, everything experiential had started to move online already, and by the end of 2020, there was a certain level of angst plus exhaustion setting in around these online experiences. We couldn’t get ourselves to come to terms with working on an online production,” recalls Anant Ahuja, publisher of TIRT.

The Irregular Times page spread

After several discussions with Tarini Sethi, managing editor of TIRT and co-founder of the Irregulars Art Fair, the two decided to combine Sethi’s love for analogue printing with Ahuja’s obsession with newsprint, and experiment with the newspaper format. “It was simple: if people can’t come to our events and experience the art physically, let’s bring art to them,” says Ahuja.

Their initial market research through surveys and discussions with those still pursuing print publishing gave them the courage to start the newspaper, which has already sold over 1,000 copies and counting. The first issue, Please Wait For The Host To Start This Meeting, explores the impact of digital dependence in our recent lives. From an essay on rewilding in India by conservationist Cara Tejpal to dystopian imagery by visual artist Anpu Varkey, to a deep dive into Chiraag Bhakta’s art practice, the newspaper showcases a variety of interesting voices.

TIRT’s early success shows that print is certainly alive and well. “Print is definitely not dead and proving that is something that’s really important to us,” shares Sethi. “I ran a zine collective with a friend called Working Hours Collective for years and have a lot of experience in zine making and its history. All my work as a fine artist is also completely analogue in nature, so personally, I really do prefer things being in print. Anant has also made a lot of zines and designed print publications and we both really understand how vital it is to be able to experience art in person.”

The Irregular Times page spread

For the managing editor, the newspaper is an extension of the art fair. “We exist primarily to give artists a platform to showcase their work while educating them and showing them that something like this can be done by anyone,” she explains, adding, “With TIRT, we wanted to experiment with new ideas and make sure that this platform was not just for the artist community but had a wider reach and was both accessible and understandable to a more diverse community.”

TIRT is a labor of love, with additions like a DIY zine insert, a classified column for jobs in the creative sector, and Sheena Maria Piedade’s “Asking for a Friend” advice column. Discussing the ideation and curation process, Sethi says that they wanted to bring back an element of surprise in the form of columns and activities that older Indian publications used to have, while making it as interactive as possible. “We wanted people to WANT to hold on to the newspaper, and go back to it whenever they were looking for inspiration, ideas, or just to learn something,” she explains. 

The Irregular Times page spread

“The ‘Classifieds’ column makes sense because resources for artists and creatives are so limited in India and having a community of people to talk to and learn from is so important. The DIY zine insert is because we want people to be able to learn a new craft in every issue. We encourage our readers to cut the page out, fold it, and really go crazy. Similarly, we have an adult coloring page, ‘Adults Anonymous,’ to get people used to the idea of ‘sex’ without having to really talk about it. Sheena’s ‘Asking for a Friend’ column was another one that we knew we had to have. This takes us back to our childhood, where we would read advice columns in Cosmo magazine or Teens Today.”

The creators collaborated with Mumbai-based design studio BunxPav to create the visual identity and design language for the first edition. “Mayur and Yadna of BunxPav brought a strong sense of typography, grids, structure, and design layouts to the table. Since the newspaper had so many different features, articles, and interactive pieces, it was imperative we have a design language that gives us enough leverage to experiment and break rules, but at the same time binds the whole publication together,” notes Ahuja.

The two say that one of the greatest challenges was completing the newspaper during the lockdown and in the midst of so much pain and loss. “We had a limited number of options of paper because most paper stores in Delhi were shut, [and] we had to postpone working with two artists we’d announced, because of losses in their family, and had to put a pause on our screen-print partnership with Pulp Society because their whole team was locked down,” shares Sethi. 

The Irregular Times page spread

But these initial setbacks have only pushed them to work harder, and take stock of what they’ve learned to produce even more innovative future editions. Ahuja states, “We were constantly excited about the next issue and I think that’s probably how we knew that we were in this for the long run. Instead of making mistakes and feeling deflated, we knew we had learned from them and could use them to make the next issue even better.”

According to Sethi, The Irregular Times will be released quarterly until it becomes more sustainable financially. “Until then, we want to push boundaries in the art and design space, collaborate with interesting people from India and outside, and just build a culture around print media and zine making.”

The Irregular Times is available to read online or order in print.

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