The Khoj Way

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Twenty years of curation and experimentation

IN DELHI, A young team at Khoj, the international artists’ association, is currently experimenting with food. Rustom’s, a catering business that ran the quaint Parsi café on the south Delhi plot, had to move out, and the team, comprising 11 members, has taken over the café. And it’s exciting, says Radha Mahendru, a member of the Khoj curatorial team. “We’ve been working with food and art since the mid-2000s via residencies. We all come from different parts of the country, and we want those influences to reflect on the menu. This allows us to keep it experimental,” says the 29-year-old. The workshop room is stocked with cooking paraphernalia as they try out recipes for Tahini—a sesame seed paste which is a staple of Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cooking.

This off-beat approach has led to some bizarre sights in south Delhi’s Khirki Extension, where Khoj is based—from a dance piece titled It is likely the house will be dismantled piece by piece with a large crane and a scaffold to support the remaining structure by performance artiste Nikhil Chopra, Japanese Butoh dancer Yuko Kaseki and French artist Romain Loustau; to an ecology-based project in which trucks full of filth were brought in to grow grass on; to, of course, the Recharge Shop, a current favorite.

The Phone Recharge Ki Dukan is a temporary shop that does exactly that. Last year, architect Swati Janu took over a small space in an existing shop where she encouraged the local immigrant population—comprising Afghanis, Somalians, Ugandans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Nepalis and Bangladeshis— to share music and movies from their phones. In return, they got whatever there was on her laptop. Soon, they were playing Nigerian films with Bhojpuri music. The project was so successful that Khoj allowed it to continue.

Another project that’s come out of Khoj’s community work is a graphic novel with a Somali Muslim as its protagonist, who is dealing with life in India. Pages from this novel are serialised in Khirkee Voice, the quarterly newspaper that another set of grantees— Malini Kochupillai and Mahavir Bisht—come out with.

When a group of artists came together in 1997 to form an experimental space for themselves, steering clear of what commercial galleries stand for and with a chance to establish international networks, the art practice in India was very different. As Manisha Parekh, one of the founding members, puts it, there was no platform for installations, site-specific works or even sound installations. In that context, Khoj became the hub for a series of trials and errors. It was an initiative for artists by artists. In its 20th year now, Khoj has changed beyond recognition. “What surprises me is the young people hanging out at Khoj. What brings them back?” she says.

Parekh is not just referring to the curators, artists, dancers or documentary filmmakers who’ve made Khoj a part of their lives. She’s also talking about the young people of Khirki Extension. Young Afghani girls, who would usually not dally outside their homes and school, use the Khoj premises as their home away from home. Serendipitously, Naina Bhan, a choreographer and dancer, was roped in by the creative team to give the youngsters dance classes in a curriculum-free manner. “We try to give the community what they want. The flipside is that they appear whenever they want to. So we can have 30 kids or no kids coming in on any day,” laughs Mahendru. “We are fortunate to have funds that allow for flexibility in our grants. It allows us to keep our projects open ended. We keep surprising ourselves.”

A large reason for Khoj’s creative vision is its director Pooja Sood. “It’s grown into a baby that’s gone all over the place. It’s Pooja and her tenacity that have taken it so far,” says Parekh.

Sood was a curator and administrator at the Delhi-based Eicher Gallery when Robert Loder, the founder of UK-based Triangle Arts Trust, suggested the idea to her. Sood, along with artists Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Manisha Parekh, Anita Dube, Prithpal S Ladi and Ajay Desai, got together in 1997 with a two- week workshop in Modinagar. “The gathering of 24 mid-career artists—half local, half international—resulted in a dynamic explosion of energies, a crucible that catalysed and configured new imaginings. Working together, drinking, dancing and debating, the workshop encouraged experimentation, stimulated conversations, threw up discomforts and differences, but nevertheless forged contacts that extended well beyond the limits of time and place,” Sood writes about the process in her essay in Khojbook.

Over the next four years, artists from across the world participated in the annual workshop in Modinagar. Invitations went out to artists from the Global South-who had rarely held a conversation but were part of Triangle’s networks in Africa, Cuba and Europe. Artists from mainland China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan joined in. Since Khoj was based in the same city as Ford Foundation, that was funding the South Asia Network for the Arts, Sood shared resources, budgets and knowledge with South-Asian artist collectives such as Karachi-based Vasl, Theertha from Colombo, Britto from Dhaka and Sutra from Kathmandu. “For three to four years, my job was to land up at workshops and residencies and see who the interesting artists were,” says Sood.

“We’re not an activist organisation. We’ve come together to create a space for a practice that was not acknowledged by public or private institutional models” Pooja Sood, director, Khoj

In 2002, based on the need to reinvent Khoj and support autonomous collectives working at sites that held local significance, the workshop started travelling to different parts of India— Mysore, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata and Kashmir. In Kashmir, this was the first international art project since 1947.

As the programme developed, it began to use a media-based focus to curate residencies—ceramics, photography, collaborations with environmental activist, or a public art project in a university complex. In 2003, the first annual residency for students was launched for emerging artists fresh from art school.

Over time, Khoj has taken up complex multi-disciplinary approaches. In 2012, Khoj became the first Indian gallery to collaborate with Tate Modern, London, for “Word. Sound. Power”, a project that used the voice as a means of protest and a metaphor for self-representation, with artists such as Amar Kanwar, Mithu Sen, Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar.

The same year, architect Ambrish Arora refurbished Khoj’s work and exhibition space pro bono. Art patrons were invited to fund various sections of the building, an approach that continues for its projects. The Khoj website lists over 120 supporters till date.

Khoj’s long-term engagement also includes its interaction with the local community of Khirki. And they’re taking it slow, but steady. They stalled community art projects two years ago because, as Sood says, “We had to make ourselves comfortable in the community. People were wondering who the hell we were— these white, black, yellow foreigners walking into a lower middle class locality. People came and went, but didn’t do anything. We wanted to build a relationship with the community”.

In 2015, a controversial raid on the African community in Khirki Extension prompted the Coriolis Effect Project, which looks at the socio-economic and cultural relationship and historical exchange between India and Africa. “They were thrown out of their country, and are waiting to be expatriated from here. In the meantime, they were being made to slink in the shadows,” says Sood. More initiatives came up around racial bias and the public gaze. In one work, the newspaper headline “Congolese youth beaten to death in Delhi” is embroidered on a printed cloth in blue, yellow and red–the colours of the Congolese flag, taking off from the 2016 incident where three men killed a Congolese national.

If Khirki remains Khoj’s canvas, it’s only because of its microcosmic representation of India, where glitzy malls stand cheek by jowl with the very labourers who built them. Artists have created sculptures, even for the local mandir. They organise events in Jamun Park and the Agaaz Theatre Group, a youth community group from the Nizamuddin basti, employ storytelling, dance, music and theater to connect with the people.

But what will become of Khoj after Sood and where is its future? Sood, who is also the director general of Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, says she would like to move on in a couple of years so that Khoj doesn’t become a personality-led organisation. The team is very young. Parekh feels that the board, with the business perspective of Savita Apte—the Singapore-based historian and Sotheby’s consultant—and the knowledge of Amar Kanwar and Urvashi Butalia, is a fantastic space to bring in new perspectives. “Pooja works tirelessly for Khoj. The younger people running Khoj are historians, critics and curators. The organisation is constantly growing and the board is very hands on,” adds Parekh.

“We’re looking at digital archiving, research and knowledge-building as the way forward,” says Sood. “There’s a constant struggle with funding. We have 35 per cent overheads and we need to raise this kind of money without compromising ideals. One of our main grants ends soon. We’ve tried many methods of fund raising–from dinners and galas to campaigns and auctions. We don’t want to sell works. That’s a conflict of interest,” she adds, “Inlaks funded the Peer Residencies and their rules don’t allow them to refund. Similarly, Ford Foundation is limited to funding a project for 5 years. We are aiming to build a significant corpus, which will allow us to be self-sustainable.”

That the Khoj team is at it tirelessly is evident when I meet Mahendru, who had been up till 8 am, filling in a proposal for an international funder. “We’re not an activist organisation. Khoj is more like a non-aligned movement with a multitude of interests. We’ve come together in order to create space for a practice that was neither supported nor acknowledged by public or private institutional models,” Sood and Parekh say proudly.

Perhaps the best example of this overreaching attempt to make a difference is a hearing organised by Khoj in Delhi’s Constitution Club called “Landscapes as Evidence: Artist as Witness”. On April 7th, three artists, represented by real High Court advocates, took part in a mock trial in front of a retired High Court Judge and argued for the role of artists in protecting the environment. The judge finally ruled against retrospective evidence, but relented that artists should be allowed to give evidence in the future. It was a Pyrrhic victory.

And that’s the role Khoj has chosen for itself over the past 20 years. For a non-profit art collective to survive for 20 years and train a whole generation of art historians, critics and curators is itself an achievement anywhere in the world.