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July 28, 2017

Pooja Sood On Her Decades-Long Tryst With The Arts

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Spearheading Khoj in New Delhi, she embraces the new, while as director general of the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur she is focusing on the local culture

Destination One, Jaipur: The Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK). The multi-arts centre located in the Pink City was built — and is nurtured — by the Rajasthan Government with the intention of preserving the state’s arts, crafts and culture. Adapting and applying concepts from ancient architectural principles, the property — designed by renowned architect Charles Correa — is infused with local hues, feel and flavour.

Destination Two, New Delhi: Khoj, the not-for-profit arts organisation in the country’s capital. Started humbly in 1997 as an annual workshop, Khoj completes two successful decades this year. It has built a powerful reputation, both nationally and globally, for being an alternative incubation space, with a focus on exploring the new and experimenting with interdisciplinary forms of creative practices.

The one person who plays an important part in both these organisations is curator and art management consultant, Pooja Sood. The founding member and director of Khoj International Artists’ Association, she was appointed two years ago as the director general (DG) of the JKK.

Having walked through the colourful spaces of JKK while I was in Jaipur in March, a few weeks later when I travel to the capital, I head out to Khoj for a morning meeting with Sood. I drive across several main roads and narrow by-lanes to reach the appointed address — and walk swiftly into the white-washed building, whose rooms are attractively set at different levels, and head up the steps to Sood’s cabin. And we are soon in conversation about her life’s trail that is dotted with so many artistic discoveries and explorations.

Interestingly, as Sood herself is quick to admit, she is not an artist. A mathematics graduate and an MBA in marketing from Symbiosis, Pune, her entry into the art world was the result of a personal passion which made her complete a course in art history from Punjab University. “I decided to study art history after I got married and had kids. And I was hooked.”

In this creative domain, her first big assignment was with the capital-based Eicher Gallery where, playing the dual role of curator and administrator, she learnt a great deal about successfully managing an arts space, especially a not-for-profit one. Sood mentions that she put together much-talked about shows at Eicher — to name a few, one on film actor Meena Kumari by Sheba Chhachhi; a retrospective of ceramic artist Gurcharan Singh of Delhi Blue Art Pottery and an exhibition of works by Indian and Pakistani artists, Mappings: Shared Histories…a Fragile Self. And her experience at Eicher stood her in good stead in her years at Khoj.

The idea of launching Khoj took genesis in a hall in Eicher and it was all due to the British art collector Robert Loder, and took shape with talents like Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and more. For the first couple of years, Sood ran it from her own home. The address where it is currently housed was acquired later and it evolved over the years. Diverse artists supported the fledgling organisation through its tough days — and even later, when the crunch of financial resources gnawed at their heels. For example, in 2011, 40 leading artists donated works which were then sold to raise funds. And an auction at Sotheby’s at another time saw works by 10 artists go under the hammer to raise a corpus of around two crore rupees for Khoj. “This was possible because of our reputation and the relationship we share with artists, not just in India but globally as well. As an experimental, non-commercial space, we have lived up to our reputation and delivered,” Sood underlines.

Experimentation was then — and continues to be — the order of the day. Sood, states, “When we started, we faced many challenges. People thought we were mad. They wondered what kind of crazy art we were doing. Anything that is new is niche. But there was also an excitement in the art world.

At that time the conservativeness in galleries was really strong. When we started off with ceramics, I think apart from Pheroza Godrej’s Cymroza in Mumbai and Art Heritage in the capital, nobody did ceramics. Now, it has come of age and is very much in demand. Many artists are now working with it. Even Bharti has done some beautiful work in porcelain.”

Her thinking at Khoj has led Sood to embrace the unusual and sees her participation in events like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and India Art Fair. And Khoj’s journey has been dotted with several events that have caught the eye of not just the connoisseurs but the world-at-large as well. The Khoj Marathon, public interviews of 26 artists conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist, is but one case in point. And when the collective completed its first decade, a voluminous tome, The Khoj Book, edited by Sood, presented the artists who had been a part of its journey.

From Khoj’s inception, Sood has evolved, steering new programmes. She has worn multiple hats — some of these include posts like regional coordinator of the international artists’ network facilitated by the Triangle Arts Trust, UK and directorship of the project ARThinkSouthAsia, a fellowship programme sponsored by the Goethe Institut, are but two of her many roles over the years.

As the DG of JKK, she says smilingly that she has her fair share of files to sign — and admits that she initially expected only to be a consultant to the organisation. Sood gave the ongoing renovation a new direction. “The galleries and libraries at JKK are amazing,” she states. “Within a few months we updated the services in these spaces. The coffee shop was given a facelift. And since I came from the visual arts, I said the galleries had to have simple, clean walls, with good lighting and double walling to create museum quality spaces.”

On the vision behind the architecture, Sood says, “Correa’s blueprint was inspired by the fact that JKK is in Jaipur — the city when it was constructed was built around the nine planets. Since there was a hill, one planet was off. Correa has created nine spaces of which one — the library — is slightly off. The space is kind of like a bhool bhulaiya — you can get lost in it. But, exploring the red stoned area is very enjoyable. It gets a lot of sunlight and the amphitheatre is gorgeous. We held an overnight classical music performance there with many great artistes like Gundecha Brothers. By the time Rajan and Sajan Mishra took the stage, it was dawn. There were birds flying in the sky and it was a magical experience.”

To promote awareness of art and culture, it is important to have a space like the JKK. Sood points out, “We have lost many public spaces. At JKK everyone feels comfortable walking in, wearing their chappals. Even though it has been spruced up, it is not intimidating. It is not a glass and chrome corporate structure; it is a public space that invites you to come in and explore.”

At JKK, she is also trying to — as much as possible — introduce diverse elements, even while celebrating the local and the traditional. Sood, emphasises, “We cannot take art or artists for granted. We often invite even those who are not trained artists to show their work for it pushes you to think. There was a great leap of imagination when Brave New World came out, but now everyone is going back to it and Aldous Huxley.”

Sood believes that a curator and gallerist also needs to be a good arts manager, who knows the importance of planning and budgets. She says, “Though we do not use the term arts manager so often — lest it be interpreted as being less than a curator — we actually manage art, speak to the world and help an artist to sell. I am not embarrassed about not being an artist; I love working with them on platforms like Khoj and JKK just so that people can see fabulous work. New ideas and cultural developments teach us to respect ‘difference’, if nothing else.” In all her roles, her MBA has helped — and her attitude of roping in specialists where she feels the need for informed decisions in domains beyond her core competency.

Art often reflects and drives social trends and issues. For instance, Sood believes that at Khoj the connection between food and art came about because they were looking at ecology. “When we looked at food as art it was more about expanding the idea of food and its politics. Then we looked at light — through different technologies and mediums. We looked at migration too because a few years ago there was a huge influx of Africans in Khirki Extension. Post Brexit, it has become even more important. You can sense social issues if you have an ear to the ground.”

When I ask her how she spots talent, she states, “I look at the person’s attitude. The basic skill is necessary, but it is his questioning attitude, what he is thinking, and the kind of questions he asks in his work that makes it all so exciting. We have a programme called Peers and Peers Share — young artists, some of whom may not be fluent in English interact with established names like Parekh and Gupta. We bring two generations together. The older one gets to know what the younger one is doing, and the latter learns from the comments of the seniors. This kind of interaction keeps art alive and flourishing.”

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