In the early ’70s, artist, publisher, and activist Raja Dhale published a pocket-sized magazine called Chakravarty for thirteen consecutive days.
It was one of the most seminal publications that celebrated Dalit literature — a writing movement produced by people belonging to the lowest stratum castes in India — and it marked the intersection of the Dalit Panthers Movement and the country’s avant-garde and modernist Little Magazine Movement. On Chakravarty’s cover, Dhale set the name of the magazine in a circle, and drew beams of light radiating from its center. Between each ray, he placed the name of an editor or publisher who was part of the Little Magazine Movement.
It was a telling piece of design. The circle, with no definite start or end, nodded to ideas of equality, which the Dalit Panthers were fighting for. It embodied the sense of community that they were striving to nurture, and it posed an antithesis to the pyramidal structure of the caste system that they were bent on tearing apart. As with many other publications from the movement, this simple design was laced with the Dalit Panthers’ deeply non-hierarchical spirit.
Publications like Chakravarty were thought to be lost over the years, and understandably so: the members of the Dalit Bahujan community didn’t have the economic resources to preserve and archive these little, yet revolutionary, magazines. But in 2016, after years of rigorous research and knocking on countless doors, illustrator and visual artist Shrujana Shridhar found a few well-thumbed copies of Chakravarty. Since then, she’s been spearheading the Dalit Panthers Archive, meticulously documenting the radical resistance movement that washed through the state of Maharashtra in India in the 1970s.
“Dalit writers and poets were not being published anywhere else, and were denied a place on mainstream publishing platforms,” explained Shridhar, “so these pocket-sized magazines became a medium for them to share their anti-caste literature.” Almost all social systems at the time, including literature and publishing, were heavily directed by members of the upper caste. And so as Shridhar said, the Little Magazine Movement became a way for writers to publish non-conformist and non-populist writing in a cheap, small format, and to break away from the literary establishment, which was seen as bourgeois, upper caste, and orthodox.
The ’70s were a time of political unrest in India. The country went to war with Pakistan (leading to the birth of Bangladesh) and was mired in rebellions and turmoil. The Dalit Panthers were one of the most important resistance groups that emerged during the decade, leaving a deep impact on India’s history through their defiant fight against the spiralling pattern of oppression. Their poems and prose called on their own community to recognize their oppressors and their right to fight against the system, while the form and the design of their publications reflected the urgency and visual voice of the writers and makers leading the movement.
The Dalit Panthers modelled themselves after the Black Panther Party in the US, more specifically the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, formed in the city of Oakland, California in 1966. Dhale first read about the Black Panthers in Time magazine: “The Panthers entered my conscience, and they came there to stay,” he once said in an interview. The Dalit Panthers would eventually adopt the Black Panthers’ iconic logo, placing it in their manifesto, with other versions used across flyers and posters.
This history is one Shridhar was familiar with since childhood; her father, a poet and activist, belongs to a generation who deeply admired the Dalit Panthers. She initially co-founded the Dalit Panthers Archive with musician Nayantara Bhatkal, but has since been heading the project herself. When she formally launched and went looking for these little-known magazines at the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, a library dedicated to Marathi literature, she could only find other publications that mentioned the little magazines, but not the original magazines themselves. “So we started looking for people who might have copies of these magazines at home,” said Shridhar. And soon, they struck gold.
Their search led them to the collections of J.V Pawar, one of the founders of the movement; Ramesh Shinde, a bibliophile “who has been preserving and collecting all Ambedkarite literature in Maharashtra for decades”; and Satish Kalsekar, an editor and publisher in the Little Magazine Movement who had copies of some of the magazines carefully preserved at home.
Shridhar began documenting these finds in situ with a small setup and battery-operated lights (“in case the power went out wherever we were documenting,” she said — a possibility due to frequent power cuts in Mumbai) and then began the meticulous task of translating the texts. The magazines included various elements — from commentaries on language, literature, and art, to satirical “gossip” columns and advertisements. One issue of Chakravarty included an excerpt from the The Guardian, noting the debut of Avant Garde magazine in New York alongside news about the launch of a Telugu little magazine.
“The language in these magazines was extremely colloquial, and some of the references are very specific to that time or setting,” said Shridhar, adding, “I had to rework some of the translations with my father, because sometimes even the translator didn’t entirely understand the text. It was often like decoding a puzzle. The format, poetry, or language wasn’t simple either; it’s experimental, which was the point.”
In 2019, Shridhar received the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation and Asia Art Archive in India research grant, which helped her channel funds to translate more texts. She also began placing translated texts into original designs, adding light-handed touches to echo the hazy, washed-out quality of printed text that’s aged over decades. “There are a lot of folks who are from Dalit Bahujan or non-Marathi speaking communities who are not from Maharashtra,” she said. “I wanted them to be able to experience these documents the way they were designed to be read.”
An unfettered spirit of experimentation and a devil-may-care attitude laces both the literature and the design of these magazines, which were deeply influenced by the lack of budget and resources. While little magazines by the Dalit Panthers like Comrade Ani Octopus, and Samuh retained a simple, monochromatic palette, publications like Vidroha, Ata, and Rava show a minimal use of two-color treatments, as four-color printing was costly, and hence, out of reach. At times, the title would be in a single, bold color — such as oxblood red, as seen in Ata, or a rich blue, that appears in one of the covers of Rava — while the text was printed in black. Color was used frugally, but cleverly, often to create maximum impact. This is especially seen in one artwork, transformed into a magazine cover — where the words “Dalit Panther” in a rugged lettering in bright red is juxtaposed with an illustration of an enraged panther.
“They challenged existing design sensibilities, even something as simple as page numbers would be mentioned as letters instead of numerics. They would have something like ‘the next issue will be published as and when we goddamn please’ on the back cover. Existing formats would be turned on their head,” Bhatkal said in an interview in 2019.
The covers themselves reflect diverse illustrative styles. Each cover of Rava unfurls fascinating artworks: a bucolic scene of a hut, a tree, and a bird flying in the sky; an evocative illustration of stone carvings, perhaps seen in a temple or an ancient cave; folk-art inspired geometric compositions; and even an illustration akin to a political cartoon, of a prisoner drawing crosses on the wall to keep a count of passing time. Typographic flourishes set each cover apart from one another: the word “Rava” was at times written in a bold, calligraphic style, then adapted to rounded, geometric forms, and in one case, the syllables were split and repeated on the four corners of the cover.
“All of the aesthetic choices were influenced by restrictions of money or printing methods,” said Shridhar. “The Panthers were using paper that was discarded by printers and bigger publishers, because it was cheaper.” The use of off-cuts and waste paper resulted in unusual shapes and sizes of the zines. “Ata magazine is in an accordion fold, as it was way cheaper to produce. By accordion folding a piece of paper, you get more sides to play with, and also forgo any cutting costs. So they were always trying to make the most of what they had.”
Some members of the Dalit Panthers chanelled their passion, time, and love for the cause into the making of these magazines, such as Dhale. “He was truly obsessed,” said Shridhar. “He was the one who knew where to find the best deal for paper, or the one trying out the most innovative typesetting, while also creating illustrations for the magazines, alongside writing, editing, and publishing, and even drawing cartoons of his friends from the Little Magazines Movement. In one of our interviews, illustrator Vasant Abaji Dahake recalled what a pleasure it was just to go looking for paper with Dhale.”
These sporadic “unperiodicals,” as they were often called, were printed in small runs and distributed amongst friends and the community. Countless issues — and along with them, the details of publishers, writers, artists and illustrators who were deeply involved in the making of these rebellious magazines — were then gradually lost to time.
“The ability to preserve something is also a privilege,” said Shridhar. “Most people from marginalized communities, especially in Mumbai, don’t have enough space to preserve this material. So the act of safe-guarding and archiving this material becomes extremely challenging, especially when it’s made of paper that’s just not meant to last. Which is why the archival process is very important. It is pivotal for a young artist or writer from a minority to have access to material that has been published before them, so they can learn from and be inspired by it.” In a sense, Shridhar’s fight to save these magazines from being lost from design history is unique, too: these publications, which were launched to challenge systemic oppression, were themselves oppressed by the continual marginalization of communities, which pushed them to the edge of obsolescence. In rediscovering the literature and the resistance, Shridhar herself continues the fight by archiving one magazine at a time.
Due to ideological differences, the Dalit Panthers were disbanded in 1977, but the work they did in the short span of five years feels just as relevant today, in a country that still struggles with caste-based violence and rampant discrimination. The Dalit Panthers, with their activism and their literature, raised fundamental and critical questions about the meaning of freedom, liberty, and justice for the marginalized. Today, exactly fifty years after the Dalit Panthers first huddled together in a room and launched their movement, what remains is their invincible spirit, along with some precious, dog-eared magazines brimming with legacy.