“In a way, it’s my second life,” says Alka Pande, on her artful meanderings as a curator, critic, cultural theorist, teacher, writer on art, and recipient of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government.
“At the age of 41, when I received the Charles Wallace award, it altered my life significantly,” says Alka, who completed her post-doctoral studies in critical art theory from Goldsmith College, University of London, in 2000. “I was a mid-career student and so many different worlds were moving around me like the Young British Artists, known for their shock value and I got struck down and wondered, how am I going to survive? All this was new for me.” She continues, “It was a now or never kind of moment for me. I was on a sabbatical from my college where I was teaching and the thought of how could I go back to India as a failure, scared me. So I decided to give myself completely for the time that I was in London. There was a nice German girl, who understood my predicament and asked me to read ‘50 Key Contemporary Thinkers’ by John Lechte. It was an engaging book and made me comfortable in my new environment. I started spending my money wisely and instead of pubbing, I started travelling every month from Prague to Athens to Bilbao at a time when Bilbao was just opening up. These experiences shaped my thoughts and my body of work.”
Growing up in Delhi in the late 70’s, Alka remembers it to be a different world. She was working for All India Radio (AIR) and as a TV newscaster for Doordarshan, while still attending Economic Hons. at Jesus and Mary College, where she was the college student president. With her father’s job transfer to Mumbai, she pursued an M.A in History while still working as a newscaster for Mumbai Doordarshan, AIR, writing for magazines and doing voiceovers for commercials. “After marriage, I moved to Chandigarh and I was at a complete loss. I remember Chandigarh as a city of grey buildings with no Doordarshan or AIR.” To be academically occupied, Alka enrolled herself for another MA in History of Arts at the Punjab University and also got into teaching history at the local government college.
“This was the city where I transitioned from a totally different background to academics. Academia was a different world. I was learning and teaching simultaneously,” Alka says, adding that she wrote for several publications then.
She then went on to become the Chairperson for the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Academy. After this, she went to London to pursue her post-doctoral studies, from the Goldsmith College.
After getting her Ph.D, Alka returned to India and started work as a consultant with the India Habitat Centre (IHC), Delhi.
Alka and her team went through a tough grind to set up the prestigious Visual Arts Gallery, Open Palm Court, and the Experimental Art Gallery at IHC. They opened walkways within the buildings for art displays, which form part of the IHC, and are now managing art exhibitions at two metro stations. Displays at walkways and metro stations speak volumes on how Alka uses space as a vivid metaphor of art curation. And as with art, so with curation. It leads to a chain of ideas and thoughts. One concept leads to the other; an emanation of which is many a interactive opportunities. The best example of this is the Visual Arts Gallery, which besides hosting curated exhibitions, conversations, workshops on creative writing and painting, now has a website that serves as a platform for exchange of ideas. And it doesn’t end here. In the Visual Arts Gallery’s pipeline of projects is ‘Photosphere’, an initiative in photography and sustainable development through the lens. Today, holding an exhibition at the IHC has become symbolic to good art, which has raised the bar for the artists and aficionados.
In her role as a curator, Alka says, “I am not comfortable with the way curating is shaping up now. It has become fashionable and everyone is a curating now from books to festivals and films. People think taking 10 artists and putting their work together is what curators do. They have forgotten that curating is a discipline, like sociology, psychology, social work, and there are techniques of curating art or just about anything. One doesn’t need to pursue an ‘academic course’ in curation. You can be a philosopher and curate within certain conceptual and philosophical guidelines. Curation is much like a literary framework where one has to really understand the importance of the footnote, the bibliography and the endnote. I don’t believe in degrees but I don’t look down upon the value of a degree. There is a certain kind of respect for formal education, though one can learn just by observing, learn on the job, intern with a curator and self-teach also,” Alka adds.
On artists’ infamous temperament, Alka advises curators not to take arguments personally. “It is where artists are coming from and the nature of beast is insecurity, and one should never lose their cool,” she adds.
Alka remembers her exhibition, ‘Kama Sutra, Eroticism and Spirituality in Indian Art’ at the Pinacothèque de Paris, where, “I was exhibiting paintings, cultural objects, and couldn’t take textile,
indigenous art, cinema from India, for, it was difficult to take such art out of the country which borders on pornography. It was one of the most challenging projects I undertook, but I loved every bit of it because I had to find private collectors and museums abroad like the Rietburg and British museums that had artefacts like ivory and other works and would be ready to loan them. It was a project within a project.” Another project which Alka holds close to her heart is the Kanha Museum of Life And Art, Madhya Pradesh, where she worked with the tribal communities of Baiga and Gond and curated a museum for indigenous art of the region for the Singinawa Lodge, which works on the ethos of fair trade and sustainability.Given our rich cultural diversity of the land, Alka laments how Indian art is still competing in the international markets by trying to ape the West. She says, “I am a born again Indian. Ten years ago, I was such a wannabe looking at the conceptual art of the western world, but with the course of my work and learning therefrom, I realised that to succeed one must look within, understand ‘who are you’ and ‘where you come from’. We need to understand our own myths and Indian aesthetics. It is important for us to revisit, re-read and re-imagine our texts like the Mahabharat, Upanishads, Bhagwat Puran, Panchatantra, which are not only books of knowledge, but give us a perspective of who we are, where we come from, the cultural significance, along with the cultural metaphors. We are in essence a metaphorical and allegorical country,” she says.
Alka has written books which are often considered bold for the times. In 2003, she turned her PhD into cultural studies with ‘Ardhanarishvara, the androgyne’ which was the re-reading of the classical image of the Lord as a half woman at a time when the world was waking up to androgyny. Her other book, ‘The Indian Erotic Art’ written from the point of ‘rasa’ broke new grounds when erotica was largely used as titillation for many.
For a woman donning many hats, with her double MA and Ph.D, a host of journals and books to her credit, Alka, with her strong conceptual framework, has effectively translated theory into practice.