Long before artist Subodh Gupta achieved global fame, he was a migrant in Delhi, struggling to make a mark in the white cube and experimenting arduously with his art. It was around this time that he met Pooja Sood, then a curator and the administrator at Delhi-based Eicher Gallery. The two found commonality in their endeavour to create and promote cutting-edge art in India. While Sood had been diligently working to do that through exhibitions organised by Eicher, British art collector Robert Loder had a more ambitious proposition for her. In 1997, in a conference hall at Eicher, he proposed that Sood should initiate a non-profit organisation. Soon Khoj was born.
Sood’s working group included Gupta, Bharti Kher, Manisha Parekh, Anita Dube and Prithpal S Ladi. Ebrahim Alkazi gave Khoj one of its first donations of Rs 60,000, and together the artists held workshops across Delhi, initiating processes “from the inside towards the outside”. “Process-driven, the workshops pushed for a radical rethinking of the current trajectories of knowledge production, and countered the tendency to privilege theory over practice. We wanted to experiment, build our own network,” says Sood. Gupta adds, “At that point, there was no real gallery system and hardly any kind of atmosphere. So little was happening on the contemporary art scene. Bringing a dozen international artists changed things. Every one felt as if this was a place to do something.”
This year, Khoj celebrates 20 years. Located in Delhi’s Khirkee Extension, it has become a possible prototype for non-commercial art initiatives across India and since its beginning, it has challenged stereotypes. The very year that that it was conceptualised, in a Modinagar workshop, Gupta produced what is now considered one of his seminal works — a cow-dung hut — that he had affectionately titled My mother and me. The references were autobiographical: it germinated from the childhood memories of gathering cowpats for ceremonies. Sheba Chhachhi had excavated the personal stories of unemployed mill workers in Modinagar in Itbari Khan ke Haath (1999), and in her photo suite Sunhere Sapne (1998), N Pushpamala played the twin roles of a middle-class housewife dressed in a housecoat and a mysterious woman in a golden frock and a bouffant. The artist had roped in a photo studio from the neighbourhood to help hand-paint the photographs, in keeping with the desire to involve local communities and encourage inclusiveness.
Till now, Khoj follows the same ethos. Even today, Sood notes, several Afghan girls visit Khoj Studios in Khirkee extension for lessons in dance and the organisation has been engaging with African migrants in India through the project “Coriolis Effect: Migration and Memory”, an annual feature initiated to deliberate on the idea of migration and memory in the context of the historic relationship between Indian and Africa. “We have been able to create a sensibility for people to understand that Khoj can be a safe place for strangers, and that’s valuable. We want to support them through art and include them. That’s our way of contributing and making sense of the madness that is going on,” says Sood.
The current, white, two-storey premises that Khoj occupies is a striking contrast to the more crumbling quarters that surround it. It also signifies the progress of the institution since 2000, when Khoj received its first three-year grant from Hivos, a development NGO in the Netherlands. They rented a flat in South Delhi that doubled as a residency for artists, and set shop with a donated computer, refrigerator, second hand tables and chairs. Two years later, the current premises in Khirkee village was acquired, and since then it has hosted numerous exhibitions, events and residencies, inviting artists from across the globe. Emphasis has been on multiculturalism, and traversing diverse genres such as sound, video, food, science, public art and ecology. “We are constantly pushing to find new meanings of art and art making. We are taking more and more risks with the kind of projects we want to do,” says Sood. Parekh adds, “Khoj happened at a juncture when there was a kind of mafia in the art world and several artists with good intentions were being stifled. It provided a platform to many young artists, and gradually gained stature. Khoj has also not remained territorial, moving from place to place irrespective of geography, class or community.”
The funds come from donations, primarily from international institutions, and the artist community. If in 2011, 40 leading artists, including Atul Bhalla, Vivan Sundaram and Manu Parekh donated artwork which were sold as limited edition portfolios to raise funds for Khoj. In 2014, Khoj raised two crores through a Christies’ auction with works donated by 10 artists, including Anish Kapoor, Atul Dodiya and Bharti Kher.
Mithu Sen, who has returned to Khoj numerous times, since she first attended a residency in 2003, too, has fond memories of the space. “It gave me a residency for six weeks when I had only my bed in our one-room flat to work on. It was my first taste of a studio of my own and of creating work with no pressure but to challenge myself. I used it to expand my drawing practice into larger sculptural projects and installations. Twilight Zone, a multimedia installation that explored the aftereffect of a forgotten social incident (Aruna Shanbaug rape case), came out of that time,” she says. She is also part of an introspection that Sood has initiated with the Google
Arts & Culture platform. The exhibit “Counterpoise: Nine artists at Khoj” charts the trajectories of nine artists within Khoj. “This year, we are also planning a large conclave with artists from across Asia,” notes Sood of Khoj’s future plans.