As director of Khoj, an alternative space for experimental art in the city, Pooja Sood talks how she has forever been searching…

Her child-like excitement is in sharp contrast to the kind of work she does. Pooja Sood, director of Khoj – International Artists' Association, lets out a squeal of joy as she shows us the recently launched “The Khoj Book, 1997-2007, Contemporary Art Practice in India” (HarperCollins). Knowing the kind of organisation she leads, you understand where that's coming from. Hasn't the art practice this 13-year-old space promotes resulted from the harmonious concoction of a child-like approach to innovate and explore relentlessly and the beliefs, philosophy and skill of an adult mature life?

“Art is made out to be an object and I have a problem with that. Art is about how you change perceptions. Here, it's not about prices. There was a huge gap when we started off. Art galleries were so conservative. Sculptures were just ‘shaayad', graphics ‘may be' and installations were just beginning,” says Pooja. Khoj, who entered the picture in 1997 and filled that void, with the wide range of art practice — video, sound, performance and site-specific installations — already popular in different parts of the world. “Much before Subodh Gupta became known for his utensils, he did his first work in cow dung at Khoj. Bala (A. Balasubramaniam) was a printmaker but he moved to three-dimensional work from Khoj. International artists could work on their own terms… so, artists were breaking forms and patterns. There was huge energy. Khoj is ultimately about artists' voices, an initiative for artists, by artists,” she points out.

The journey of this alternative space, in many ways, is also Pooja's own and that explains why every sentence Pooja utters is not without the mention of Khoj. For two years, she even operated it from her home in Panchsheel and then later set up an artists' residence-cum-workshop in a property that belonged to her husband. Then, it was a voluntary group that comprised Subodh, Bharti Kher, Manisha Parekh and Anita Dube besides herself and which for the first five years ran only workshops.

“I remember the first computer and other office stuff was bought from the money we had earned from a residency in Japan ,” she recalls. In 2005, Khoj joined the network of UK 's Triangle Arts Trust, and Robert Loder, its founder, helped Khoj to zero in on the space in Khirkee Extension, where it currently operates from. Pooja has been the director ever since.

She was simultaneously the curator of Apeejay Media gallery, which was probably the first gallery to have exhibitions of video and sound art in the Capital. “While one was a real grassroot kind of work, on the other hand I was running a state-of-the-art gallery. There were two spectrums of arts and the experience from one forum was fed into another and vice-versa. Rashid Rana, who is now hailed as a star in Pakistan and elsewhere, did his first video for us. I remember, our first exhibition was of Nalini Malani and the audience didn't know how to even view that kind of art because it was so new. They didn't know whether to stand and watch or to sit…,” says Pooja, who also steered the revolutionary public art festival ‘48 degree Celsius Public Art Ecology' as its artistic director and curator. “What it did for me was it made me understand the problems of working in a public space,” she informs.

It's a little surprising to know that the name synonymous with cutting-edge art practices did a Masters in Art History from Punjab University much after marriage and children, but then Pooja has always been known to break stereotypes. A B.Sc. in Mathematics and MBA from Symbiosis, she remained a homemaker for five years until her kids were grown up.

“I hadn't studied all this, I learnt by watching. I was always questioning and probing other forms besides painting. So, when I joined Eicher Gallery in 1994, we did a show of studio pottery and textiles,” tells the curator, who way back in the 90s invited Pakistani artists to participate in the exhibition “Mappings: Shared Histories… a Fragile Self” to commemorate 50 years of Independence.

Art net

Besides new media, Pooja has also been working towards creating a network of arts in South Asian countries. She has facilitated the development of artist-led organisations — Vasl Arts Trust in Pakistan , Britto Arts Trust in Bangladesh , Sutra in Nepal, Teertha in Sri Lanka.

“We wanted to create a network of informal places of learning. Teertha, at the peak of political tension in Jaffna, had an exhibition there. It trained the artists in English, gave them insight into the art scene the world over. Shilpa Gupta and Huma Mulji met at Khoj and created ‘Aar-Par', the public art exchange project between India and Pakistan,” says the regional coordinator for the regional network.

What next?

To go around and look for the grants that formed the core funding of Khoj, which for six years came from the Ford Foundation and is now ending. The challenges keep pace with Pooja.