When the artists community at Khoj was established in 1987, Indian art was still a conservative arena. There were few galleries and artists rarely travelled, meaning Khoj represented an exciting and important development for the domestic art community.
A carefully selected group of artists settled into the studio in Khirkee Village, New Delhi, where they occasionally drank and danced into the small hours. They also debated their practices, formed networks and exchanged ideas. In the words of one of the founding members, Pooja Sood, Khoj ‘existed for artists by artists’.
Khoj, which holds artist residencies, workshops and acts as a communal space for artist communication and exploration, now stands in the vanguard of the contemporary Indian art scene. Here, Pooja Sood speaks to us about the current position of the international artists’ association, offers her insights into the wider Indian art scene and her recommendations on where to go and what to see.
What’s happening at Khoj now?
Pooja Sood: ‘In the last seven or eight years we have done some blockbuster shows. Working internationally with institutions such as Tate Modern has helped build our profile for a wider audience. One of our mandates now is to work across audiences, to get more people interested in different kinds of practices. In a situation like India’s, where we don’t have many not-for-profit spaces, where we don’t have a rich museum culture, it is often the market that is the tastemaker.
‘The kind of work Khoj does looks at cross-participation, at new technologies such as video art, sonic art, gaming and ecological art, which are all exciting for the art world. It begins to inform a wave of art-making, questioning, discourse, knowledge and production. Over a period of time, the more adventurous collectors are beginning to understand that. They are being adventurous and going to art fairs across the world and realising that contemporary work sells.’
Could Khoj be described as a taste maker?
‘It has been in the vanguard, in some ways. Much of India’s early performance art happened at Khoj; now it is a genre. We are now in our 17th year. Khoj works at different registers, very locally in Khirkee, across India and also internationally through residencies and projects for young and mid-career artists. Established artists also return. We have open calls for our projects, decide the themes, and do our own programming. That is a distinction that we like to make; it means we retain our own curatorial voice.’
Has the success of artists such as Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta inspired other Indian artists?
‘Definitely. Subodh’s rise has been meteoric. These artists were able to do something completely mad; Subodh’s first performance and his work with cow dung made everyone take notice. Once you’ve been noticed and come into the orbit of the art world, you begin to get group shows and solo shows. Subodh came from a very small town in Patna, made it in Delhi and now, of course, internationally. He has inspired a lot of young artists. They think: if he can do it, so can we!’
What are the significant artistic centres in India?
‘Several places have come up across India. In the private realm we now have the Kiran Nadar Museum which is collecting significant pieces of contemporary art and holding exhibitions. There is the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi. In Mumbai, the galleries are very strong and have fabulous spaces. There are also not-for-profit spaces, such as Cona and the Clark House Initiative. In Bangalore you have 1ShanthiRoad, plus there are smaller initiatives and artist spaces like Jaaga. Artists have been taking the initiative for many years but sometimes it’s short-lived, often due to lack of funds.’
If we were to do an art tour of India, where should we go?
‘In Delhi, you’d of course go to Nature Morte, you’d go Espace, and all the galleries in Lado Sarai. You would definitely come to Khoj, of course. You would go and see the Kiran Nadar Museum and you’d visit Devi Art Foundation. In Mumbai, you would go to Chemould, Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Chatterjee & Lal. Project 88 is doing brilliant work too. In Bangalore, there is Gallery Ske and in Kolkata you have the gallery Experimenter which is great!’
What is the history of artist-led initiatives in India?
‘We used to have a fantastic artist community near Chennai [formerly known as Madras]. It held utopian ideals that artists would live together and work together, and they did. Many people bought land, had their studios there. But for a variety of reasons it fell apart. There was Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram’s Kasauli art camp, which was inter-disciplinary and had artists and intellectuals coming together in the hills once a year.’
India is such a vast country. Do you think the category ‘Contemporary Indian Art’ really applies?
‘Artists in India who are internationally recognised really do not like being pigeonholed as ‘Indian’ artists — they are just very good artists that live in India. I think we should stick with that. Artists are artists everywhere. Many have strong international careers. I wouldn’t call Anish Kapoor an Indian artist. I’d say he’s of Indian origin and he’s a great sculptor. It’s better to say Contemporary Art in India.’
Who collects contemporary art in India?
‘For many years, because there was a market in India, there was no push to seek out other markets. Artists sold their paintings, they sold their sculptures. With globalisation and liberalisation, when international collectors became interested in Indian art, it changed things. Today, collectors in India are still largely conservative, they prefer paintings or sculptures. But people are beginning to understand the scope of what constitutes contemporary art, especially as galleries based in India are showing across various art fairs and blockbuster survey shows featuring artists of Indian origin have happened in Europe and Japan over the last couple of years. People are beginning to know Indian artists more. Collectors in India are also collecting international art.’
Do you think India has the potential to become even more prevalent on the international art scene?
‘If we had the institutional support, infrastructure and governmental will to push the arts in India, I think we would really go places. But there is some really good work being made, despite the lack of infrastructure.’