With an Indian perspective on local and international queer issues, told through photography, arts and culture, Gaysi Zine focuses on in-depth features and photo essays. Curating established and emerging talent with diverse genders and sexes, this annual magazine is a collectible, building a body of work around queer culture, arts and community. Gaysi Family has been spearheading the queer movement in India for nearly six years now, gently moulding itself into a veritable platform for works that reflect queer life in a broad, diverse and inspiring way. The third edition received overwhelming amounts of support in terms of funding and content for the magazine, making the current edition a true labour of love. One we could feel so inherently as readers on a journey with them.
We were privileged enough to receive a copy fresh off the printing press, and, having followed their upward trajectory over the last few years, we can say with full conviction that they have outdone themselves. Taking a step back from the norms of published visuals, this magazine incorporates elements like hand-written notes, torn out sheets, personalized sketches and previously untold stories among others, which lend a far more involving texture for readers. The content too showcases their painstaking efforts to ensure that the overall collection of stories is as inclusive as ever, in that they've covered content well towards the periphery of the queer umbrella as well, including gender issues that absolutely everyone can relate to. Being perpetual suckers for evolved aesthetics however, we felt compelled to dig deeper into the aesthetic conceptualization of this edition by talking with a few of the key people behind its creation, both visually and editorially speaking. Meet the maverick team behind the third edition of The Gaysi Zine because they're going to make themselves known whether you like it or not.
The Gaysi Zine is a collection of stories, poems, recipes and illustrations by Indian authors with queer sensibilities, capturing the essence of being different and celebrating it. The monochrome renders the feeling of timelessness to the black and white edition, almost as though whispering that queerness has been around since forever. Translation? The time has come to embrace it.
I. Priya Gangwani, Editor"The very first zine was all about preserving the greatest hits in a tangible format, certain stories that should definitely be archived," Priya reminisces. "The second one touched upon plurality and other aspects of queer lives. We wanted to bring forth a collection that spoke loudly and conveyed that being queer is more than one thing. It was important to view queerness beyond just sexuality and gender. Zine three created a space where visual elements were not just an accessory, but just as important as the content. We have also attempted to explore the idea of 'queer' art in this issue, and personal designs/visuals that are further stressing on the poignant thoughts of the author."
With the latest issue coming up, we couldn't help but wonder what they had in store for us this time. "What makes this issue special is the fact that it is funded by the community, which means we hit a chord with the previous issues," Priya says, her pride quite evident. "This issue is entirely laid down by hand - making it a pure labour of love. The content is very raw and delicate, a foray into intimacy."
Another highlight of this issue is that it is a collection of queer sensibilities, and not just LGBTQ writings. "Queerness is a sensibility, a political statement today, and this issue captures this aspect very well. The content reflects the intricacies of an innocent human mind, its likings, flaws, memories, and desires... It's a symphony of life in words and visuals."
When probed about the thought behind the visuals in the zine, Priya shares, "We wanted to create a personal journal - something that reflects the uninhibited, uncensored, sweet, dark, crazy, silly thoughts/scribbles/designs. And I think that's what we have tried to create here... One hears people say 'don't judge a book by its cover'. I would say don't apply that to our zine. The cover page was discussed about extensively with Fishead, the creative director of the zine. We wanted a cover page that captures the essence of the zine minus the frills and the exaggerations. Besides that, complete freedom was given to her. Gaysi believes in giving a space where the artist has a chance to put forth their work without restrictions."
There was a lot of back and forth between her and the contributors, her and the artists, the creative director of the magazine, the proof reading folks, Priya recalls. She explains that every piece was edited at least three times, and the authors sometimes changed their minds about the stories, their bios, editorial changes - she concludes that long and intense conversations with everyone to work things out finally brought forth 'this beauty of love'.
When asked about collaborating with Karishma on the layout, Priya goes on a little trip down memory lane, all the way back to 2010 - when Fishead and Gaysi Family were introduced for the first time, and it was love at first sight. They absolutely loved her work and she loved theirs. "She had a profound understanding of our predilections; be it love for bold design, outrageous colours or for illustrations that enhance the text and not distract from it. It is this sensibility that she has used in every page of the zine. Right from the inception of this edition, I have discussed every piece extensively with her and we have pushed each other to bring out the best content and visuals. There is a profound harmony between text and visuals for this same reason."
II. Fishead aka Karishma, Creative DirectorCiting Stories - 'Letters in Monsoon', 'I don't want to sleep alone' and 'Nightfall' as her top three illustrations in this edition of the zine, Karishma tells us about some of the challenges along the way, "To consistently remember why I was doing what I was doing was something that was definitely one of the challenges. There were so many elements that needed creative planning, from the page numbering format to the column system, to understanding how to provide a visual insight for each piece through the title – it became increasingly tempting to either standardize, or opt out of doing an illustration or an element. However, with enough support and scotch, the magazine is now finally here!"When asked about her involvement with the queer community, she says wryly that she tries to make strange visual content for them from time to time, and that they generally tend to humour her. Homegrown can confirm that this is an understatement because this is who has designed the intricate and detailed cover of this edition of the Gaysi zine.
When asked about the jars on the front cover and some of the smaller elements on it, she explains, "The cover as a whole is about finding queer in the most unexpected places. A kirana shop gave us an everyday setting where seemingly regular elements could be 'queered' without being uprooted from reality. The jars take a bit of a surreal route, with each capturing a story – The letter 'F' inscribed on a rock represents Nightfall, the hibiscus represents A Love Story from The Backwaters, the cloud represents Letters in Monsoon and more. Like the owner who displays his best goods in the front of the store, the jars are really an invisible feature list of all our stories. The rest of the elements, like Rabbit Habbit and Horse Power draw from a general queer language, which seems to have invisibly cropped up over time. As much as I hate calling them puns, they really are that - visual puns. Rabbit Habbit for example, is a popular vibrator among women, and here, it seemed interesting to interpret that on two levels – the availability of a sex toy in a kirana store, and the fact that it simply is not possible, hence making it literal and well, hopefully funny."
So what was the inspiration behind the cover? "A general wide-eyed grin from people when I ran the idea of a queer kirana store by them. After that, it was just a matter of getting the elements together. The cover simply tells us that there is no veil big enough to throw on gender and sexuality and its incredible dimensions as a subject, because it is an intrinsic part of who we are."
Taking us through the process of creating the magazine, Karishma contemplates that when it comes to magazines, she normally tends to first set the visual language, and then start with the cover. With The Gaysi Zine, however, she went the other way around, as she felt the cover would dictate the look and feel of the inner pages. After the cover, type system, column system and other standard elements were set, before she analysed each piece interpreted what each one of them needed. Lastly, the breaker illustrations were finalised.
"Working with Gaysi had its moments in the sun, and moments in the boxing ring. I've been working with them for over three years now and overall, we are a small bunch of people who are solely accountable and responsible for what we do, and that is a great, empowering space to be a part of."
III. Akshay Mahajan, Contributing PhotographerAkshay Mahajan is a photographic practitioner based in India, one we've been following closely for a while now, intrigued by his approach of restricting his practice to his immediate experience. His work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde Diplomatique, Bloomberg BusinessWeek & the Paris Review to name a few prestigious publications and he is also the co-publisher of blindboys.org, a community-driven space, which uses simple and effective ways to reach out to photographers and audiences alike. Blindboys is committed to exploring effective ways to bring these two together.
"If you had asked this question before I had embarked on this series (many years ago now) I would have given you a very different answer than I give you now," Akshay tells us, in answer to our question about his involvement with the queer community. "Like many people, I saw the world through a rather heteronormative lens - dividing the world into straight or gay. I didn't understand that the politics of queer have nothing to do with the mere labeling of sexual preference, and everything to do with how we see gender in the first place, and fluidity of gender, not marked by constant moral definition. In many ways, after the taking these pictures, I would, in fact, consider myself queer. In that regard, my involvement with the community is limited to the personal realm. All other involvement publicly would be through my work as a photographer."The project Akshay runs, Blindboys.org curates a photography exhibition that runs along the Bangalore Queer Film Festival every year. Other than that, he works on photographic essays, which sometimes touch upon queer life. Most recently, he's been working on a series in Bhopal, looking to re-creating in photographs the love story of a young transgender and her lover, to the words penned by her.
When asked about how the series fit in with zine, Akshay said, "Until recently the queer community has had very little space for open public discourse even though, ironically, members of the community are involved in all sorts of wide-ranging artistic endeavors. The Gaysi Zine is a step in that direction, bringing it out in the open. Art has always been a great way of connecting more people in the broader community to what it means to be queer. In that sense The Gaysi zine is a perfect home for this series of photographs."
Akshay confesses that his initial motivations for pursuing this series in 2008 were fairly naive in conception. "I thought of myself as a photojournalist then, and thought stories needed hooks - a who, when and where? - "Indian urban queer living in the post 377 world etc". I realized that if I pigeonholed the people I took pictures of, in the delusion that I am some purveyor of the truth; it would be such an oversimplification of the truth - that it would actually end up being far from it. So I abandoned the approach fairly quickly."
Akshay then went on to just concentrating on the storytelling, leaving people to decide their own truths. A re-living approach to photography allowed him to better understand who he was, trespassing the boundaries that he has set for himself.
"I met Joshua Muyiwa, a half Nigerian one-fourth Malayali, one-fourth Nepalese queer poet and dance writer," he recalls fondly. "The pictures are meant to be performative, though complex, only in way a love affair between a photographer and a poet could be. They (the pictures) do not concern themselves with the obvious - but then again, the obvious is the most boring. Over the next year — I made pictures of his friends (who were now my friends), rolls of film fed by curiosity."
"Lines blur when you immerse yourself in the thoughts and emotions of our subjects. At first you are a stranger, and the camera is viewed with suspicion, but people are naturally curious of you - so they let the strange kid with the camera be. After a while they don't even notice it. "Don't mind him he's a little weird, he takes pictures of everything." After a while, it’s hard to separate the self from your subject and in the end you yourself become indistinguishable to yourself."
There was a love there born out of a long-standing relationship between the observer and the subject, Akshay says wistfully. "It was one of those destructive loves that fed on the act of creation, I had my photographs Joshua had his poetry - once the pictures stopped so did the poetry and love lingered for a while and then slowly dissipated. At the same time, they are, simply put, pictures of my friends, lovers etc. usually at bars, mostly at night. The kind of ennui we all feel, perhaps - that is what I wanted to take photographs of. To be honest, I'm still not quite sure what my motivations were. Are they pictures of a community, or confused young love?"
IV. Sharmistha Ray, Contributing Artist
Sharmistha Ray is an artist, writer and curator living in Mumbai and New York. A pioneer in the Indian art world, she launched two dynamic concepts in 2014: BELLEVUE BRUNCHES, an Open Studio + Cultural Salon, and Politics of Art, an online blog for critical conversations about contemporary art. Renowned for her large abstract paintings that combine mythology, history and feminism into symphonic displays of color and brushwork, Ray has also shown considerable versatility with her drawings, watercolours and installations. She is the recipient of notable awards including a TED Fellowship (2009) and Montblanc Young Artist World Patronage (2012) and has successful solo and group exhibitions around the world under her belt. Ray was trained at Williams College (BA) and Pratt Institute (MS/MFA) and has degrees in art history and studio art. Her works are in global public and private collections including America, Europe, India, Southeast Asia & Australia.
"The most indispensable tool for any artist is always freedom," Sharmistha Ray says, elaborating on her process of creating the series. "Without the freedom to create, there would be no art. Whether this freedom is real or perceived, the artist has to believe he or she has it. The series, an intimate exploration of female pleasure, is her story, she confesses, 'one amongst many'. It depicts how a woman behaves and responds to being looked at and loved, and Sharmistha emphasises that it is important to recognise that our individual stories have credibility and power.""I wholeheartedly support the LGBT movement," she states, when asked about her involvement in the queer community. "People have the right to live their lives with integrity and freedom. Anything that goes against that right is an infringement of human dignity." When asked about whether the roadblocks she might've faced over the course of working on the project, she says,"There were no challenges in the project itself, as Gaysi was very supportive. While making the original drawings however, I may have had some misgivings about how they may be construed and I wanted to ensure the proper context for them."
Elaborating on why she is so certain about the series being a perfect fit for this edition of the zine, Sharmistha adds, "Gaysi provided the right medium for presenting the work to a sympathetic audience."
V. Maitri Dore, Contributing Illustrator
Maitri Dore, an architect by profession, always had a childhood penchant for cartooning and illustrating. She grew up in Bombay and moved to Bangalore for her first job, where she currently practises mud architecture. Apart from drawing lines, she illustrates for the Chennai-based children’s magazine, Gokulam, and also contributes work to Gaysi, an online space for the Desi Gay community. In March, 2014 she won first prize in the contest 'Pictures Against Prejudice' for 'The Fist', a depicted of homosexuality vis-a-vis societal norms.
In conversation about her illustration for the zine, she tells Homegrown, "This illustration captures a typical ancient marriage custom of the 'swayamwara', and turns it on its head. I attempt to show that the spectrum of possible relationships is beyond just heterosexuality. In an egalitarian society, Sita's choices for partner would be quite diverse and the 'Rama'yana would probably never have been."So far, she has been actively involved in illustrating for Gaysi, something she started doing after participating in the contest ‘Pictures Against Prejudice’ last year, the theme of which was “In and Out of the Closet” for which she won first prize. "Since then I have tried to get involved with organisations that stress on gender equality and inclusiveness. Through Gaysi, I have been able to showcase some of my views in the form of art and working with them has been a wonderful experience. I have had the freedom and space to explore my ideas in whatever way I choose," Maitri elaborates. "I appreciate this free reign and also the openness when it comes to bouncing off ideas and receiving feedback. I have really enjoyed engaging with Gaysi, and hope for many more future opportunities with them and other similar platforms."
[If all those words, and all those visuals didn't make you scroll back up to pre-order, we're a little shocked. But you can still do it here.]
Words: Rhea Baweja