A couple days ago, as my best friend and I were rushing to catch a train back to the city, we witnessed an auto climb up on a divider. The driver must have fallen asleep, and shaken awake quickly after, because the auto returned to the road and continued along its journey as if nothing had happened. Later, my friend asked me if the auto had overturned, would I have stopped to help. I looked around, and said, “I am sure someone would turn up to help. With a train to catch, I probably wouldn’t.” While I felt a twinge of guilt even as I said it, the sad reality is that this is exactly how the majority of the world functions.
The bystander effect suggests that the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. We are all guilty of it. Being part of a large crowd, makes people feel as if they are not obliged to take responsibility in case of an emergency. However, how does this effect translate when it comes to issues of social, political change and progress? In any situation, one has to be privileged to be able to simply stand aside and watch. The lax attitude that others would do the needful simply arises when one personally feels unaffected by the situation. It is precisely these ideas that the Kadak Collective hopes to answer with their latest project, The Bystander Anthology.
We spoke to Arathi Parthasarathy and Shreyas Krishnan, two of the artists with the collective about their upcoming project. “Kadak has been wanting to do a publishing project large in scope and imagination. Earlier, Akhila and Mira wrote a concept note on women and public spaces as a pitch for a grant. This became one of the central themes of the anthology. The editorial team then identified that a lot of the subjects we were talking about (gender, power, navigating spaces, marginalisation, displacement) all circled around a central idea: the bystander. We realised that the notion of the bystander necessarily goes beyond the first read of simply someone who doesn’t act,” they share. They spend time pondering over the idea of the bystander. “Is being a bystander a choice? Can one be a bystander to identity? To politics? To the environment? How does policy affect Bystander behaviour? How do disability and mental health impact Bystander action? In these ways (and many more), we’re examine the concepts of action and inaction through rich visual storytelling. In the subcontinent, the word bystander carries many tensions and meanings, in culture, language, behaviour. With everything that is going on in the world right now in politics, the environment, intersectionality, oppression, allyship, LGBTQ rights, mental health, immigration and displacement… breaking down what it means to be or not be a bystander becomes all the more critical.”
One of the intentions of the project is to somehow reclaim the term, and subvert the idea of the bystander effect. “The term ‘bystander’ typically connotes inaction. Yes, in an incident, the distressed person’s fear is much greater than the bystanders’, but we also realised that people may be bystanders for a number of reasons – past trauma, power hierarchy, disability, mental health, loss of faith in legal and police systems etc. We’ve examined so many things in the research for this anthology – how bystanders are represented, how the design of cities and towns affects bystander behaviour, how legislation affects bystander intervention, how surveillance changes your response etc – and this has been a truly mind-opening process. We’d love to be able to share this insights through some rich, beautiful visual storytelling and open out this discussion.”
It was in 2016 that eight artists across Europe and Asia came together to create work that would shed light on issues that they felt passionate about. One of the key factors that drove this decision was the glaring lack of South Asian representation at Comic Cons and art festivals. Women, for some reason, seemed to be completely absent. It was when Janine Shroff (based in the UK) pointed out to the rest, the lack of women nominees in that year’s prestigious Festival d’ Angouleme shortlist that they decided to come together and do something. Friends and ardent admirers of each other’s work, they had been contemplating a collaboration for a while and when the opportunity presented itself in the form of the East London Comics Arts Festival.
What could possibly be a better platform than an art collective made of, and for, brown women. Over the years, they have worked to not only share the stories of brown women, but also bridge the gap in terms of representations of brown artists on various prestigious platforms. The collective is feminist, diverse, queer-friendly and inclusive. It is a big claim to make, but they have worked very hard at living up to each one of these tags. Their works focus on exploring varying issues and ideologies than run through the veins of India. “The stories and narratives move between the personal and political, question culture and examine subculture,” explains the website.Inspired by a matchbox that had been in Aarthi’s possession, their name is a metaphor that alludes to India’s affinity for a strong cup of tea. We must add, their work is also ekdum kadak. Since their inception, they have continued to curate and create work that are not just fresh, but also forces new perspectives. Best known for their The Reading Room, a travelling library that carries in-house titles, collaborations with artists outside the collective that allows people to come together and enjoy the work put together by the group. While they have made all their work available online, the Reading Room is very important to Kadak. “There are many distractions online,” said Parthasarathy. “Here, the idea is that you just sit with a book, which is becoming extremely rare these days.” Since the artists are scattered across different cities, several members have never met. The physical and virtual nature of their work is symbolic of the relationship between these eight women as well.
The Bystander anthology is a part of an effort to create an anthology that is quintessentially Indian. The crowd-funded project is the child of a team of six editors and 47 contributors — artists, designers, illustrators, writers, filmmakers, animators. The long list of contributors comprises women, trans artists, queer men and non-binary creators from South Asia and the diaspora across 13 countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Canada, the UK and USA, among others. “We reached out to our contributors with our initial concept note for the theme and almost like an academic call for proposals, posed to them several questions that they might consider in their response. Of course, they all went above and beyond, and opened us up to an expanded set of inquiries into the theme. The main discussion we’re hoping to get out of all this is simply opening up the floor to talking about these experiences. We’ve had many of our backers express that simply our first step of articulating the relevance of the bystander in our Kickstarter pitch and video, has made them introspect and reflect on their own relationships with the idea. In that sense, the potential impact our contributor’s pieces will have on readers cannot be underscored enough. The anthology’s biggest strength is that it brings together all these wide and varied narratives around the same issue – this is also why it’s a necessary project,” they added. They have taken great care in ensuring that they are as diverse and inclusive as possible.
The members of the collective themselves, work across different time zones, making use of technology such as Google Drive, Whatsapp groups (in fact, some of them have not yet met in person), while also working separate day jobs, because they hope to create larger conversations by spreading their work and making them more accessible. It is probably because of how much they rely on the digital world for their day-to-day interactions that they have found an affinity towards the “possibilities that digital publishing offers to content creators.”As a result, the Bystander anthology is “comprised of both a print and a digital component, which live alongside a series of on-ground workshops,running across continents.” The print component includes the book, a set of zines and associated artworks, while the web component includes art, comics, animated comics, films, animation, sound design. “We also are planning a workshop component – so we would run workshops on Bystander action, intervention, guilt, fear – something we feel is very necessary now. So the scope of this spans across mediums and spaces.”
The Bystander Anthology is an extremely exciting and unique initiative, not just for the conversation it hopes to create, but also for how diverse and inclusive it is. However, because of the large scope of the project, the collective has been crowdsourcing funds through a Kickstarter campaign. “We are seeking to pay all contributors irrespective of where they are – international rates for their work. This is very, very important for us – we have seen many examples of certain artists not being paid enough versus their peers in other regions, and some of us who have worked for almost nothing. So we want to change that culture, and this project is a way to do that,” they share. However, crowdfunding this project would help them in other fronts as well. It would give them the editorial and design wheel, allowing them to direct the project and publish it, the way they envision it. “It is a challenging process, and entails a lot more work and nerves, but the results are worth it. The Kickstarter platform also makes international distribution for a small publishing project possible.”
Is it an ambitious project? No doubt. However, what they hope to create is extremely important. It is an effort that can impact discourse, and help rewrite the narrative. “Since the campaign is in its last week and we’re so close, it is really nerve-wracking for us. But the last week, we’ve got a few publishing partners lined up, including Point of View, a Mumbai based NGO and the iconic Blossom Book House from Bangalore. Their belief in us really strengthens our resolve – we must be doing something right. If the theme, the artists, the intent, the approach, the intent – any of it resonates with anyone reading this, we request you to please make a pledge towards this project. It’s not a donation – you get a reward, including the digital book, print book, zines, artworks and more!”