Kadak Collective wants you to think about what it means to be a South Asian bystander

The Bystander Anthology is the fruit of two-year collaboration between 50 artists from 13 countries.

By Fiza Jha | Dec 15, 2020

“How do you feel like a bystander, in another country, in your own country, in your home, in a relationship, in your own body, in your mind?...What causes it? What do you do?”

For the past two years, more than 50 artists from 13 countries have been trying to dissect the question of what it means to be a bystander. The result is a vivid compilation of diverse personal and political visual narratives centred around the South Asian experience, called The Bystander Anthology.

Kadak Collective, The Bystander Anthology
The Bystander Anthology by the Kadak Collective

Divided into four sections — borders, bonds, bodies, and beliefs — the web and print publication complicates conventional assumptions of a bystander being someone who stands back as a passive onlooker because of their privilege, selfishness, or lack of empathy. Why choose the theme ‘bystander’? “We just landed on it, or rather it landed on us,” explains Aarthi Parthasarthy, a Bangalore-based filmmaker and comic book artist who is part of the ‘Kadak Collective’, which is the backbone behind the ambitious project. “Right now, especially for me, it encapsulates how I’m feeling with respect to everything.” 

Aarthi and her fellow Kadak collaborators started mulling over the idea of creating a South Asian graphic anthology — of a kind that did not exist up until then — in October 2018. In the two years since they decided upon the premise of the anthology, the world has seen large scale political and economic upheavals, countless protests, and the start of a whole new way of life brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. All these events sparked a new set of questions and triggers for the diverse set of contributors. The incredible range of reflections, critiques, and imagined utopias drawn up by the artists in this collaboration are testament to how universal, yet viscerally distinct, the experience of being an outsider is. 

Kadak Collective, Bystanders
Top Left Image: Beyond the Model Minority by Sabba Khan [Borders], Top Right Image: She Was My Sister by Varathas and Sindu [Bonds], Bottom Left Image: Nodkonthini by Aravani Art Project [Bodies], Bottom Right Image: The Routine by Zara [Beliefs]

The anthology places personal histories, like Priya Dali’s mixed-media essay ‘The horrors of watching your own movie’, and Sindu Sivayogam’s tale of an Tamil Eelam refugee family in rural Germany, alongside abstract works like Sana Nasir’s illustrated depiction of of the song Ikiswi Sadi (21st century) by the Pakistani pop duo Biryani Brothers. It includes searingly honest works like Valentino Vecchietti and Kruttika Susurla’s exploration of abusive relationships in ‘Being the good girl’, Kritika Trehan’s everyday observations of familial gender structures in ‘Eve’s dropped’, and ‘Nodokonthini’, a deeply insightful tableaux of trans life by the Aravani Art Project collective.

But perhaps the most urgent and explicit way in which the anthology examines our participative and non-participative roles is with respect to our current political moment. This is seen most strikingly in Priyanka K’s narration of the gap between her admiration and her parent’s dismissal of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, and Aarthi Parthasarthy and Shreyas R Krishnan’s look at what makes a viral image, right from the 2002 Gujarat riots till the 2020 Delhi elections.

The brainchild behind the anthology, Kadak Collective, first came to appreciate the potential of strong collaborations when they themselves came together in 2015 as a diversely skilled feminist art collective spread across India, UK, and the US. They went on to collaborate, conspire, and create through several different projects and events — mostly virtually; many members have never met each other in person — such as Gender Bender, and ELCAF (East London Comic Festival). The therapeutic sense of community they discovered was the impetus for further interaction with like-minded practitioners from the subcontinent. “For years, we defined ourselves as a South Asian collective, but in reality we’re just a bunch of Indians,” says Aarthi. They then reached out to other artists with the ‘bystander’ prompt and invited them to contribute to the anthology.

Kadak Collective, Bystander
Image via Kadak Collective

Considering the breadth and scope of The Bystander Anthology — the 266-page long book and web edition has enough to dig through and process for days — it is hard to imagine that it is an independent, crowd-funded project. But from the time of its inception to its final launch, a dedicated team has helmed its ultra-organised campaign, which took more than six months to plan and execute, along with a rigorous editorial and design process.

London-based creative director Akhila Krishnan was the driving force behind the Kickstarter campaign, convincing the team that crowdfunding was the way to go if they wanted to be creatively independent and agile, while paying artists fair international rates — 80% of the total budget went towards contributor fees. In the end, their 40 day Kickstarter campaign collected more than $40,000 from 1,503 backers spread across 47 countries. After almost 104 weeks of editorial team calls, 200 hours of figuring out shipping and logistics, and months of anxiety of working through a pandemic, they are finally gearing up to ship the print editions to backers.  

At a time when diversity has become an empty buzzword for many, the care and intention with which the anthology has been designed to represent artists across a wide spectrum of regions, genders, ages, experience levels, and artistic styles is evident. There is a generous sprinkling of Tamil, Nepali, Kannada, Urdu and various other languages, along with a combination of short comics, visual essays, digital and hand drawn art, poetry, and photography. All of this has been expertly tied together in the publication and web design by Kadak member and graphic designer Mira Malhotra, founder of the Mumbai-based Studio Kohl. “I’ve stayed away from South Asian visual stereotypes in this book, hoping to create an experience that’s bold, colourful and unapologetic, that doesn’t fit anything you’ve quite seen before, because the content presents a South Asia we rarely have the chance to witness,” she explains in the book.

Kadak Collective, Bystander
 Image via Kadak Collective

The Bystander Anthology’s success is not just in its evocative storytelling, but also in the way it has reinvented rules of how creative projects can be brought to life. “Large publishing houses in India don’t take a lot of risks,” says Aarthi, explaining that the difficulty of pitching to editors, assumptions about what audiences like or don’t like, and restrictive conditions like only being able to print in black/white have made big publishing companies inaccessible to most graphic and comic book artists in India. “Many then turn to the web to build an audience, create a particular style, which eventually leads to an audience expectation that content is free. It’s a strange loop,” she says, pointing out how she, and most other comic book artists have other day jobs as illustrators, graphic designers, filmmakers, etc.

What Kadak has done is bypass a traditional publishing model, organise their own funding source, and take on the task of designing, editing, marketing, and distribution. All the while ensuring that their passion project is realised to its fullest potential, with everyone being ethically paid and credited for their time and labour. It was no easy feat, but working in a supportive group helped. “When it became too stressful for one person, someone would offer to step in and take over. That was the special thing about the group editorial process,” says Aarthi.

With pandemic-related anxiety, and a large group of contributors spread across various different continents to coordinate with, there were constantly shifting deadlines, changing concepts and expectations. But Kadak worked with its contributors patiently, letting the narratives evolve over time to become direct manifestations of their personal and political experiences. “We have had to trust the process, and processes take time”.


Learn more about the Kadak Collective here and follow them on Instagram.



About the author:
Fiza Ranalvi Jha is a Delhi-based culture writer, who is currently trying to mash up her love for art, design, and words.You can follow her at @fizznootini on IG, and @FizaRanalviJha on Twitter.

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