TRA Inside an Artist’s Head: Akansha Rastogi

Akansha Rastogi in front of Anpu Varkey’s mural, Summer’s Children, ‘Very Small Feelings’, 2023. Photo courtesy: KNMA

Akansha Rastogi is the Senior Curator at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the brain behind Delhi’s favourite exhibition this summer, Very Small Feelings. In collaboration with Samdani Art Foundation, Rastogi co-curated this exhibition with Diana Campbell, Artistic Director, Dhaka Art Summit. The first iteration of the exhibition was held in Dhaka which was later brought to Delhi as part of the series ‘Young Artists of Our Times’, conceptualised by Rastogi in 2019. With the adage, ‘Nothing is older than a child’, Very Small Feelings invites the visitors to access their childhood as a place that can be entered and exited at will. 

Rastogi’s journey has not been straightforward. “I’m not trained as a curator, in the sense that I didn’t really study curatorial studies.” Films, performing arts and theatre were her entry points into the art scene. With a Bachelor’s in Literature, it was the jump she took to study Art History which reoriented her career. As a fresh graduate, she joined OSIAN’s as an archivist where she worked alongside other curators managing a variety of archival materials concerning modern and contemporary art in the subcontinent.

At the Delhi Art Gallery, she worked on their collection of Chittoprasad’s books and helped them bring out a series of five publications. Eventually, she joined KNMA in 2011. It was then a new private collection without an archive, housing some 450 works and a small team with Rubina Karode as the Director and Mrs Kiran Nadar as the Chairperson. “I was very lucky to come in at a very formative period of this new institution. I grew with it.” 

We spoke to Rastogi in her office space at KNMA, where she was at work and in her element. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Could you tell us what your process is like as a curator? We’re curious about how the mind of a curator works when working on an immersive exhibition such as Very Small Feelings

I believe curators and facilitators are also creative people. They have as much agency as the artists. So, I am always on the lookout to work collaboratively and explore the power of exhibitions as a medium and an expression. My curatorial training comes very much from my experience as a researcher and an archivist. I spent my formative years looking at thousands and thousands of artworks, managing huge private archives, and working with lists that were over 500 artists. That kind of exposure enabled me to develop my own processes of listening to the materials. What is the material telling me? How do you listen, initiate conversations and activate your research? How to listen to the artists, to the city, your surroundings and all the other simultaneous stories that are being told?

Very Small Feelings is special and personal for me, because I was pregnant and delivered my baby as we were conceptualising and thinking through all the conversations with the artists. My baby was six months old when I travelled to Dhaka to install the show. So, in many ways, it is rooted in that sort of personal space which has always been crucial to my curatorial practice, especially as the exhibition itself centres around the ideas of childhood. The personal always informs my practice in some way or the other. For instance, my experience of being a part of the artist collective WALA became important when I was curating an exhibition titled Hangar for the Passerby in 2017 at KNMA, Noida. 

Tell us more about the series Young Artists of Our Times and how it led you to curate Very Small Feelings.

Young Artists of Our Times is a series which I conceptualised in 2019 with a very straightforward focus — thinking with the youth in South Asia and how museums and institutions must involve and engage with that demographic. The series conceptually expands the idea of ‘youth’ or ‘youthfulness’ and prompts one to think of it as a place, a transformative energy, and a sensory body which expresses and thinks differently. 

At the moment, the series is still in its initial stages as it has had only four exhibitions. The first was Smell Assembly. We translated a year-long research by two anthropologists, Ishita Dey and Mohammed Sayeed, into an exhibition. To prioritise smell over sight challenged the museum in an interesting way because it is difficult to contain smells and a different kind of logic is required to durationally think with smells. This was followed by Summer Children by Anpu Varkey, and then Right to laziness… No, strike that! Sidewalking with the man saying sorry, imagined as a thought-form on the idea of apology.

With Very Small Feelings, which is the fourth exhibition under YAOT, our focus was quite simple — how to think about contemporary art and children together? Most contemporary artists don’t create work from that perspective.

How was your experience co-curating this exhibition with Diana Campbell? How do things flow when two people’s curatorial practices come together? And what would you say is the cultural significance of these kinds of cross-border collaborations?

When Diana and I started talking, she was working on the Bonna edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, and the core ideas behind Very Small Feelings—storytelling, focus on orality, childhood, children, play and intergenerational exchanges—connected very well with the schematics of the summit, and excited both of us to develop various layers of the exhibition. Bonna became one of the characters to anchor the exhibition. In the Delhi edition, when we see the works related to the mythology of Bonna, it makes a huge difference. It was always clear to both of us that it would be a story-led exhibition and more than an exhibition, we thought of it as a playground. Diana and I kept exchanging notes on our research and creating a repository of projects, artists and practices we were interested in. It took us a year and a half to develop the concept, commission the artists, figure out artwork loans, institutional collaboration and infrastructure for making these ambitious projects and artworks happen. The scale of the exhibition really grew with Diana’s experience and DAS’s promptness in engaging with so many work productions happening on the ground.

To answer your question about cross-border partnerships, they are difficult to manage. This was a crucial collaboration between Samdani Art Foundation, Dhaka Art Summit and KNMA, two private institutions situated respectively in Bangladesh and India which are key supporters of contemporary art in their own contexts. The overall focus was on South Asian artists because that is our region and both the institutions believe in being inclusive of that aspect but it was a global conversation in itself. For KNMA and Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), it was clear that SAF will take care of the entire production in Dhaka and KNMA will manage the production that takes place in Delhi. KNMA supported all the Indian artists to go and install their works at the summit. We also applied for international grants and funding separately which enabled us to bring numerous international artists.

Dhaka Art Summit is a fantastic platform and I learned a lot from Diana. Over several years, they have created a massive ecology of local craftsmen and people who are involved in making the installations with international artists. I came back with many takeaways because such formulations matter to me and I like to experiment with the dynamics of an exhibition space; trying to work around the integration of how stories and narratives can be entwined with the processes that manifest them. That is why this exhibition is conceptualised as a ‘spread’ which grows and thins out or gets chunkier at places sometimes.

Belly of the Strange III by Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

What would you say were the major differences between the two iterations of the exhibition — between Dhaka and Delhi?

Dhaka was an entirely different context because the exhibition was one of the many shows within the summit. It was installed at a multi-floor venue, the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Dhaka is always significant in terms of its footfalls. The summit and thus this exhibition was visited by 5 lakh 75 thousand people in just nine days. It’s a huge number which makes Dhaka Art Summit the largest attended festival in the world. It was extremely dense and the exhibition was super crowded at all times. 

Most of the projects were commissioned for the show. So, they were coming into being for the first time. The Dhaka Art Summit iteration was more raw, and had an entirely different kind of energy and a celebratory carnivalesque feel to it. It took us another six months to develop it further for Delhi, accommodating many changes that artists made in their works. So, this version is different in the sense that works have changed and evolved. The ones that were produced on-site were remade. We added newer projects, also in lieu of a few works which we couldn’t exhibit because of space limitations. For instance, children’s artworks and Devi Prasad’s project were amongst the many new tangents which weren’t present in Dhaka. In fact, Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange is the first work that we commissioned for the show. What you see here is the fourth iteration of the on-site work and if one looks at the difference between the outcome in Dhaka and here, it’s fascinating how the shape and size of the installation can change according to the space available.

This exhibition is also very different from the kind of exhibitions that KNMA has done so far. Many installations for this show were produced on the site, making both the artists and the works unstable, raw and dynamic. 

Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: KNMA

We have been talking about artists but we would also like to bring in the audience here. A new wave of interactive, immersive experiences focusing on visitor engagement has recently swept museums – something which comes out very strongly with Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange and Afra Eisma’s Poke Press Squeeze Clasp. What do you think about that and how does that challenge you? 

It’s a fantastic question. Thinking with audiences is always exciting. I do think about audiences but I also don’t because, at certain points of developing the project, one shouldn’t. I believe that work should also be allowed to express itself without any pressures of how it will be received. Otherwise, one falls into the trap of generating the same material. So, from the very beginning, Diana and I conceptualised Very Small Feelings as an interactive exhibition where the audiences are not passive viewers but are completing and making the exhibition by thinking with us and the artworks. 

I believe in the Theory of Loose Parts which was developed by Simon Nicholson in the 1970s who argued how museums, schools, daycare centres and playgrounds don’t work for people and are failures mainly because the creative potential that the space held was saturated by the time it was created. The architects, builders, and everyone involved had their fun while designing the space, making its elements, and resolving the problems which arose. However, by the time the public enters, these spaces are robbed of their fun and are devoid of any creativity. So, he instead proposed a theory of loose parts that are variable and allow the agency to be shifted to the other participants also. I think our exhibition is doing that to some extent. 

We wanted the exhibition to involve the whole being. The sensory body had to be challenged and activated in every way. So, sometimes you jump up, sometimes you lie down, sometimes you just sleep in the Belly, you explore that space through your body. The Belly looks like a toy because the creators were inspired by these small wooden toys. It seems like a headless and tailless body and only you can activate it. I would like to add Afrah Shafiq’s work which is an interactive game to this list. So, that agility was very important to have and we commissioned works which allow you to do that. 

Khaal Gaaon by Anga Art Collective, Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

However, every day has been a challenge in terms of administering the exhibition which also reflects the quality of engagement. For instance, in Anga Art Collective’s space (where visitors are invited to create artworks which become part of the installation), a kid didn’t want to leave their work behind. We eventually had to allow them to take it because the young artist held the right. Though conceptually, the artist of that field wanted such things to be left on the site but we make room for these little negotiations. 

I also believe that the linkages between posterity and digitality are here to stay in terms of designing experiences. Museums do need to think more openly about how they are engaging with numerous media and mediums.

Nobody Knows for Certain, Interactive fiction and archival game by Afrah Shafiq, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

Do you think that centring the idea around youth or childhood allows you to tap into new sets of inquiries? How do you evaluate the role of children as ‘artists’ in this production of things? Does it disturb some established hierarchies?

While we have historical works by forgotten artists and experimental works based on literature, I think Very Small Feelings is tapping into a new terrain and is challenging how we perceive the idea of child artists and childhood within the museum space, which otherwise mostly looks at children paternally as footfalls. Another layer gets added to the discourse when we bring the practices of artist-educators who have been working with young learners for a very long time. Contemporary artists see pedagogy and learning as crucial parts of their practice. 

There are also artistic renditions of the cartoons we have seen or grown up with. Simon Fujiwara created Who The Bear, and Lokesh Khodke created a character of a young boy who is navigating his way through Bhopal and Hong Kong. The formats of an exhibition and a comic book have merged to give space to illustrators who work on children’s books. We also have illustrations by Ganesh Pyne, the master modernist who is widely known for his tempera works but he also worked for 20 years in an animation studio in the 70s or the 80s in Kolkata.

So, it’s definitely opening up conversations on these levels and by bringing the question of child art and child-artists into the exhibition, it’s kind of playing with the hierarchy of who is an established artist and a young artist. Who is an artist anyway? And who is the audience? Because when the audience is making their stories and leaving their own works, how do you distinguish between an artist and a spectator? You are unsure of what you are looking at but you end up engaging with it on the values and questions it is asking of you. 

This also takes me back to the questions that I used to get when I had just joined the museum— “Why should I be looking at this work? What is so important about it? Even my child can do this.” This is a common response. And now I think of it and feel, of course, the child can do this and the child can do anything and more. So, I have never rejected these questions as unnecessary ones and tried to address them in some way.

Children’s arts centres are designated separate areas in large museums. However, here we have a spread that is mixing things up in surprising ways – by your own interventions, by what you’re about to witness. Personally, as a curator, I do my job but I never dumb it down for the audience. I believe in coming to the same page together with them. I don’t take visitors’ time and intellect for granted.

The two walls at the beginning of the exhibition, comprising children’s drawings, and scribblings of a three-year-old with notes from Devi Prasad written on them are arguing for a space. But I wonder what this is doing to the space of the museum. I don’t have an answer to that but it’s definitely challenging a lot of things. So, exhibitions do also work at that level, right? They have that power.

Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: KNMA

This is evident in how we have also received a lot of new footfalls from first-time museum visitors. I have heard a lot of people say: oh, it’s my first time in a museum! Everyday life in the museum is very different from any other place. Here you are in touch with your audiences every single day. I actually want to conduct a workshop sometime soon about rewriting all the wall labels with the audience. I am saying this for the first time here.

Shubha: Now that we are talking about it, I wonder if you pass the mic to the audience, will they always be able to articulate what they want to say? Because our personal experiences do inform how we see things. For example, when I saw the Belly of the Strange, I could only think of how similar it is to the Fish House at Patna Zoo where I used to go as a child. The building resembles a huge fish with its mouth open. The kids used to be scared to step inside thinking that the fish might close its mouth once we were in. So, my parents used to take us in through its tail where they had rabbits. In no time, we would be looking at the fish and sea snakes and would eventually exit through the mouth of the fish, surprised how we were actually in the belly of the fish the whole time. So, the entire idea of the Belly Of The Strange being squeezed and congested doesn’t make sense to me. In that sense, why should everything be described from only an artist’s viewpoint in an exhibition? I enjoy it when there’s scope to accommodate our narratives within the installation. 

Akansha: About your observation if everyone will be able to articulate it? They may or may not be able to and they don’t have to. I too think in fragments; most things that are going on in my head haven’t been said yet and some will never be said. That’s the joy of it — to be able to hold that space for abstraction and museums are such spaces where you are able to hold that abstraction for longer. 

Prachi: I am glad that we are talking about this because I have some visitor feedback that I wanted to share with you. When I came here for the first time with my friend, we were thinking about the Belly of the Strange. What is it supposed to be? To her, it seemed like the inside of her head. I felt that I had come from the chaos of the outside world and this Belly concealed me from it, paving the way for me to access my inner child. It seems that this first installation as you enter, acts as a rite of passage to experience the entire exhibition. To another friend, it felt like the inside of a womb because you are accessing your childhood, and are kind of reborn once you are out of it. It’s interesting how we mostly think of these installations as play areas only meant for children. But this exhibition invites the adults to do just that. One of my friends wouldn’t get up from Afra Eisma’s installation. There is no other way that we would be comfortable lying down like this on a carpet in public. So, this exhibition provides a sense of privacy in a public space, which is an unusual thing. Most of my friends and I also felt a tinge of sadness and bittersweetness at the end of the experience. Our interpretation was that the exhibition invites you to access your inner child and sometimes as adults that inner child is inaccessible to us. So that inability and inaccessibility may make one feel sad. 

Akansha: Or maybe you have accessed some pasts. There are some confrontations which may have happened and some stories that may have been triggered. Sadness is a fantastic emotion! 

Shubha: I think through the means of this interview for Inside An Artist’s Head, we too wanted to understand how you can have a thought at the back of your mind and the possibilities and forms it can take. Similarly, through this exhibition, it is fascinating to witness how an idea can manifest in so many ways.