About a year and a half ago, peaceful protests broke out across India against the discriminatory government policies–specifically, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)–that targeted non-Hindus, especially Muslims, and jeopardized their right to Indian citizenship. The announcement of the two laws, which underscored the rise of neo-fascism in India, triggered the country’s longest period of unrest. It also became the backdrop to the launch of Akademi Magazine, a digital publication and space for socio-political commentary, reflection, and critical engagement.
The magazine was founded by Charu Pragya, a research and communications associate at Tandem Research, and Aarman Roy, a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and currently a design intern at Apple. Over the past year, it has become home to longform articles, photo essays, and imaginative, unconventional stories that dissect and analyze the current social and political moment in the country. As it’s gained momentum as a space to engage in the most consequential issues of the day, it’s also become known for its sharp, focused and sensitive artworks that help unpack critical commentary: from pieces that dissect data privacy and the global vaccine divide, to typographic works that highlight rising hate crimes against Dalits, a minority community in India systematically oppressed by a dominant upper-caste society.
“We both belong to socially and economically privileged ‘middle-class’ urban households, where you’re encouraged to watch politics play out on the TV screen, but never engage beyond your vote,” says Pragya. “Starting a media project that took critical positions in the post-NRC/CAA India, which at the time was becoming increasingly hostile towards independent press and dissent, was akin to painting a bulls-eye on your back.” Despite, and maybe even because of that, Akademi felt immediately important, both to its founders and the readers who discovered the publication.
Building the foundations of the magazine called for months of winding research. The pair studied independent Left publications based out of the U.S.—such as Jacobin, The Baffler, Current Affairs, Dissent and The New Republic—and searched through book fairs in Delhi (where Pragya is based) and New York (where Roy lives). They took inspiration from the art direction at The New Yorker, The Atlantic and the New York Times, while also finding ways to apply the medium to an Indian context.
“Starting a media project that took critical positions in the post-NRC/CAA India was akin to painting a bulls-eye on your back.”
Akademi also found its roots in The Public and its Problems, a book by American philosopher John Dewey. “Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation,” wrote Dewey. “This quote by Dewey is one that I hold very close to me,” says Roy, Akademi’s art director. “It is almost like a comforting guidance, and also one that has radically changed how I view the role of art and the artist, especially when we are living in such turbulent and divisive times.”
With a measured mix of typography, illustration, photography, and 3D design, the art in Akademi functions as a vehicle for storytelling, firmly establishing the magazine’s graphics-forward approach. “In the initial days, the art helped us gain credibility,” said Pragya, in a recent talk at Typographics 2021. “It was interesting to see how we place more importance–or feel something is more legitimate–if it looks ‘more designed’,” notes Roy, adding, “but my intention with the art was to focus on our unique point-of-view, make our stories more accessible, cut through the digital noise and bring some clarity.”
For Roy, the publication has become a visual sketchbook where he distills his learnings from art school and his surroundings, while also creating a visual language that shuttles between digital and analog. For an article titled “Caste and Gender: A Systematic Obliteration of Justice” by Dalit feminist and legal scholar Santvana Kumar, Roy created golden, melting scales of justice as a visual allegory to judicial injustices. “It’s not as harsh or direct as, say, shattering the scales, but it’s the slow disintegration of the structure of justice (and hence the inaccessibility of justice) that was the crux of the essay and the illustration,” says Roy. In another artwork for the same series, he found inspiration in the postage stamps for the Sapporo Winter Olympics in 1972 designed by Kōhei Sugiura. Translating Sugiura’s use of circles to create human figures, Roy used small fists of resistance to create the scales of justice, alluding to the strength of resistance against systemic barriers to justice.
Learnings from a typography class by Pablo Delcan at SVA filtered into an artwork accompanying activist and filmmaker Ronny Sen’s essay on India’s broken, archaic drug laws, and into another typographic work–punctuated with botanical illustrations of marijuana from the 1800s–for a second installment of the article. But the one that perhaps best reflects Roy’s stylistic maturity is a dark and sensitive illustration made for deeply personal essay by Tabish Mir Rafiq about life in Kashmir, a state that has been battling internet wipe-outs and constant lockdowns.
“Occupied-Kashmir is the world’s most militarised zone, and looking at images of the area, what struck me were all the barbed wires that I spotted everywhere,” says Roy, who chose it as the main element of the artwork, compositing the shadows with the text, so that both felt like a part of the same world.
Roy’s nuanced and striking illustrations have augmented the stories that find a home in Akademi, and carved out a solid niche for the publication in the digital ether, helping it inch ever closer to the next goal. “From day one, print has been a dream,” says the duo. Coming up later in the year is a thematic, annual print publication–brimming with long-form commentary, and packed with illustrations and photo essays–”created in New Delhi, and read across the world.”