I always carry a sketchbook-journal with me. Whether noting down observations through drawing or writing, or allowing imaginations to manifest through line, the act of putting pen(cil) to paper becomes my way to interface with the world. In a way, it is the screen, the barrier I put up between my self and the outside. Particularly when in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations, I can extract myself and become a fly on the wall, claiming time and space by entering a bubble in which I draw.
For two weeks in December last year, I walked along the Betwa with Ishan Gupta from Ganj Basoda to the river’s sources in Jhirri (Madhya Pradesh), on the Moving Upstream fellowship by Veditum. With an intention to experience and document the life, landscape and culture along the river, we set off on foot. The only certainty throughout was our desire to reach the source, and every other necessity from food, to toilets, to having a place to rest was a chance we took each day.
What this required, was an immense amount of openness, and to go forth despite incredible amounts of vulnerability.
I had gone into the fellowship quite confident that I would be able to capture much through drawing. But just two days in, I found all confidence slipping. My lines were broken and jagged, forms turned mushy. The scale of this endeavour and the required openness with unfamiliar people and places was pushing through my screen. By having to be vulnerable, Life, Landscape and the River tore through my skills as an artist, impressing themselves directly on my page. It feels obvious to say this in hindsight, but when I look through my drawings from the fellowship, they look like what the land and people felt like: fragmented, intimate, weathered, raw.
It certainly was difficult to find uninterrupted moments to draw people and human activities. As a result, a lot of my live sketches were of the quiet river banks, and many scenes were drawn out of memory. By this time, we had already spent a few days walking by the river. Always, it was only boys or men whom we encountered at the river, bathing, fishing or just passing time.
On this day we were making our way through a village and found ourselves at a public handpump where there were a few women and children, fully clothed, fully lathered and enjoying a very social bath. The scene was so distinctly unusual that I really wished I could have dropped everything and drawn them live. Of course, I didn’t want to come across as a gawker and so instead sheepishly walked upto the hand pump under the pretext of filling my water bottle, all while committing the scene to my memory.
Once we got back, Ishan and I began trying to process all that we saw and experienced. Post-its were bought, memories arranged and rearranged. We tried to organise our experiences in an attempt to structure stories about the river. However, we quickly became overwhelmed with the number of narratives that emerged and the complex ways that each issue and anecdote connected with many others.
Working as a graphic designer I have designed several formal reports for different research organisations. Each time, I wondered about the possibility of creating a report in a visual medium. So when Siddharth from Veditum put forth the idea of a zine, I became excited at the chance of trying out the possibility.
A zine is a small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via photocopier. Zines are the product of either a single person or of a very small group, and are popularly photocopied into physical prints for circulation.
A zine, short from magazine, is a low-cost, locally produced form of publication. Often containing highly specific ideas, manifestos or niche cultural thought, it has a history of being a medium of choice for varying grassroots movements. Since it does not require a specific linear or narrative structure, it is also popular as an expressionistic tool and as a gathering space for flitting ideas.
Since I work best with tactile mediums, I started by taking prints of my photographs and drawings made during the walk. Then I started cutting out and arranging images from just the riverbanks. Like an organic jigsaw puzzle, the pieces began to group together in a way to tell the story of life along the river. This was followed by a layering of memories and observations from the ten days along the Betwa.
By erasing the river itself with white paint, it became the quiet spine that runs through these stories. The zine so made, ‘From edge to edge’, is a multi-medium record of my impressions as I walked along the river.
Another sight that had really fascinated me was of switch boards and meters for irrigation pumps that were regular features along the river banks. Assembled on weathered pieces of wood, made up of several mis-matched parts and held together by bits of string, fabric and scrap. I was thrilled by its chaotic energy. As a tribute, I used the left-over printed material from the first zine and worked with them to make a collage-painting of a switchboard, which triggered the idea for the second zine ‘Switches be crazy. The zine itself, is an acknowledgement of the changing relationship between river and agriculture.
This frenzied and excited time of making, painting and printing all happened in March last year, just days before the Covid related lockdown across the country. I had already gone ahead and created copies, hoping to send it out to friends and interested people. With the lockdown restrictions, it was impossible to post them out, and the copies have been sitting with me for almost a year now.
Looking at these prints now as we finally release the zines, I once again feel that raw sense of being exposed. Requiring me to open up something I have made from a very personal experience directly to hundreds of people!
This time too, I remind myself, I must carry forward despite the vulnerability.
Update: A limited number of these zines were available on request earlier, but we’ve reached the limit for the number of copies available.
We’ll update this space again when we have new copies available.
Kabini Amin is one of four fellows who went to walk the River Betwa, part of our second Moving Upstream fellowshipin collaboration with Out of Eden Walk. To read more about our Moving Upstream project, click here.
Kabini is a designer and illustrator who has been working in the field of conservation, ecology and education and is interested in the intersections of culture and environment.