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. 

Inside an Artist’s Head: Samrata Diwan

Samrata Diwan is the founder of Family Fables Co, a bespoke publishing company that helps preserve individual, family, institutional and socio-cultural histories through books using oral history as a tool. Family Fables evolved out of Samrata’s passion project in 2017, a book on her grandmother (Nani). She worked on this book to prevent losing an essential part of family history and thereafter, continued to extend this opportunity to others by establishing the Family Fables Company.

Shubha: Your team engages with oral histories to document generations of family experiences. We would love to know what guided the creation of Family Fables and how your team navigates through the process of translating memories into memoirs. 

Samrata: Family Fables started 5 years ago but the direction towards its conceptualisation started a year or two before that. I wanted to document my grandparents’ lives. I grew up listening to their stories about partition, how they moved to Delhi as refugees and started life afresh. Such socio-cultural interactions gave insights into the lives and times of an earlier generation. I didn’t want these stories to get fragmented with time or get lost. So, I really wanted to document my nani’s stories and it was then that I was looking for someone to help me with the process. When I couldn’t find someone for the task, I decided to take the job upon myself. At first, I jumped into it like a personal project and would sit down with my grandmother to record her stories. Everything started with a need to document my family history, to just preserve what I could of it. Over time, that personal project took shape into the Family Fables Co. where we are now able to provide an opportunity for others to preserve their own family histories. 

And yes, every story or project that we work on is distinct from the other. But all of them are largely driven by an intention to create a tangible archive of history, culture and identity. So, even though the people in these stories differ, the main motive, which drives both sides, has always been to preserve the memories, and to know more about their roots. That has been the guiding force for us.

Shubha: Are their motives to locate identity also accompanied by a sense of urgency after the pandemic? 

Samrata: What happened to me is also true for a lot of other people. A lot of our clients face a common urge to know more about their roots while they still can. The complexities of everyday lives do not allow them to sit down and ask questions related to their histories to the elders in the family. Thus, in the past, a lot of our clients have been of a younger generation, wanting to know more about their grandparents’ lives. Their parents and the memories they hold serve as the main source of documentation in such cases. I feel that with the pandemic, the frailty and the uncertainties of life came to light which called for a yearning to hold onto such memories even more. We received numerous queries during the pandemic which I feel was largely because people, locked indoors, wanted to do something positive with their family around them. There couldn’t have been a better time to embark on a project like this. 

Secondly, the pandemic also allowed people to reflect and connect more with extended family members. A project like this requires a lot of commitment, not only from us who were helping with the process but also from the family itself. That commitment goes both ways. The process is time-consuming and involves digging through family albums and documents, understanding who are in those pictures, and contacting the right people. 

Interestingly, as life slowed down in a lot of ways, everybody became used to a virtual way of life. We found ourselves conducting interviews over Zoom calls. We could even complete several projects entirely without ever meeting the clients physically.

Shubha: Why do you think that oral history serves as an ideal method for collecting and preserving memories? Moreover, how do you ensure that the stories you’re portraying are neutral? 

Samrata: The information given in oral histories is often not found in books, photos or other archives. It’s the texture and emotion of individual experiences, which brings the past to life in a way unique from viewing objects or reading history books – It’s the weight of personal experience that gives this past its meaning.

There could be your personal views on a lot of subjects but we, as a team, are there to enable you (the client) to document your story; we are just the medium. We are not the key people taking the central roles. Secondly, we work so closely with the families and the individuals who are the initiators that the whole process turns out to be extremely collaborative. It’s more than them narrating and us writing. Every task is first discussed with the family, so we primarily function as a medium, a guide to ensure that the project is completed. Our opinions are not reflected in the text that is ultimately produced. 

However, we do handle aspects related to the book. Our team has the expertise in further structuring the text and designing the book. So, our clients do reach out to us saying, “What do you feel is the right way to go?” But that’s more from a technical point of view. We go about approaching the entire process keeping in mind the visions of the individuals who are overall in charge of the project. So, neither our biases come in stories nor do we influence them but we do give our expertise in terms of the structure of the book. We can’t influence, it’s not our story, it’s their story.

Shubha: Interestingly, Family Fables records personal histories in languages other than English. According to you, how does language play a role in bringing out nuances of a lived past? Given its limitations, would you say that some things are left unsaid in the archival process?

Samrata: Language is crucial. People recount their lives in a language they are most comfortable in, one that is their own. In the past, we have documented stories in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi apart from English. These are the languages that our team was also equipped to capture the stories in. We have taken up projects in Kerala where we have captured the stories in Malayalam. So, we try to organise our team in a way that we can capture the stories in a language that the particular family is most accustomed to. 

Answering the second part of your question, I would say that every archiving team interacting with personal histories, including ours, attempts to bring out the narratives in the same way it was told, which is why the language turns out to be extremely pivotal. And you are right, the body language, and the gestures all come into play when documenting such stories. There could be points where one could be emotional or points where they would want to share a photograph or bring our attention to something more about that particular narrative. 

I would also like to add something about oral histories here. We conduct a series of interviews with the family members involving wide-ranging questions. The idea has been to establish that comfort and trust with the person. Only if they feel comfortable with you being around and asking them about their lives, will they be able to share their stories. One of the ways to achieve this is to have conversations in a language they are comfortable in. This also involves an exercise of guided reminiscence wherein the person is allowed to revisit their past.

Shubha: Each book, curated by your team, is more than mere genealogical accounts and also records legacies passed down through generations. Alongside these personal memoirs, your team has also curated institutional books, commemorative books, family cookbooks, and customised products. How do you approach archiving projects in such varied formats? Is the process significantly different from recording memoirs? 

Samrata: There are various formats which we have previously taken up. As you named, there could be memoirs, family history books where we’ve interviewed up to 80-85 members in one of our projects, or family trees where we once covered an extensive tree including 300 members. In this sense, documenting family histories could seem more like placing a puzzle together. Depending on how the individuals want to go about documentation, we either do full-fledged family cookbooks which include recipes passed down generations as heirlooms, and recipes made on special occasions or recipes could also be a part of family history books. We have incorporated folk songs and recipes as separate chapters for a book tracing the histories of a family based in Multan. The idea has been to preserve what we can and that differs from family to family. We have had opportunities to document institutional histories as well. 

Shubha: Having completed five years in the publishing industry, which were some of the most gratifying stories that you had the chance to cover? 

Samrata: I started this project because I felt that there is something extraordinary in ordinary stories. Every family has a story. Every individual has something to tell you. One doesn’t have to be necessarily famous or rather “make it” in life to feel the need to document their story. So, one of the most gratifying aspects is to provide people with an opportunity to document their stories. We are committed to making this process as hassle-free as possible. Our process encompasses everything from capturing interviews, research, collecting photographs and documents, writing the narratives, providing editorial support and designing the book, thus providing a carefully produced book of your family history which is almost like an heirloom. Presenting that book to the family knowing that it will remain in the family for generations makes for the most gratifying part. 

I have had the chance to work on so many inspiring stories and meet numerous inspiring figures during that journey that it is truly a motivation for me and my team. We do this day in and day out just because such stories need to be shared and preserved. 

Samrata and the team at Family Fables are working on multiple books including memoirs, and institutional and family history books at the moment. You can find their work here

Inside an Artist’s Head: Meera Ganapathi

Meera Ganapathi is a writer and the founder of the independent digital publication, The Soup, an archive of Indian arts and culture. She is based in Mumbai and writes books for children and short stories for grown-ups. Meera is @onemeerkat on Instagram.

We absolutely love how you always manage to bring out the beauty in the most routine things. Would you say your writing style has always been this way or has it evolved over time? If it has, how did you first start off?

I have always been writing, even as a child and then as a teenager, I was tempted to write stories. Although everything I wrote then was influenced by the books I read about blue-eyed, auburn-haired girls named Caitlin or Abigail. So, yes, (thankfully) my writing has evolved. Since I was a copywriter for many years, my writing at one point was quick, snappy, and tailored to fit headlines and 30 seconds. But all creative expression evolves with your own personal growth, these days I’m being patient and observant in what I see and what I write about. 

Where I work out of every day.

What is your writing process? Are you an ardent notes-maker? Is there a particular time/place that helps you articulate your thoughts better? We essentially want to know how you get in the process of writing. Is it linear? Does it involve anything peculiar? Our readers would love a personal touch to this question.

For a while, I’d wake up every morning and write for two hours, and this was terribly satisfying because the whole process was smooth and natural. All of a sudden it stopped and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t bring back that spontaneous routine. So instead of stressing myself, I turned to books and movies for inspiration. Now I’ve found a less stressful rhythm where I do tons and tons of research- make copious notes, create a structure or plot, and once I feel I know enough I write for four-five hours a day most mornings. Being one of those annoying morning people, I wake up in a good mood, looking forward to all the quietude morning brings. I cherish being alone before the house awakens (I can just about tolerate my cat circling my feet like a psycho)- so this kind of time, free of distraction, is ripe for research, ideating, and writing. 

About spots to write? I feel ok to write anywhere, as long as I don’t have people talking to me. I like to be left alone. I read recently that Agatha Christie would book a room in a terrible hotel where there was no possibility of any entertainment and all she could do was concentrate on her writing. This sounds like a fabulous idea to me and maybe I’ll give it a go one day. I cannot fathom how writers retreat to fabulous places to focus on writing- to be an element of punishment seems, unfortunately, essential. 

A photo of a desk I write at in the home I’m temporarily living in. The internet doesn’t reach here so it’s great.

How would you describe the relationship of your cultural identity to that of your writing?

My cultural identity is a hot mess. Haha. I grew up all over the country in a collection of homes, with an ever-changing circle of friends because my father, an Army officer, got transferred very often. Even the schools were inconsistent as I had to change nearly 13 of them, so I never felt I truly belonged to any place entirely. I’ve had to dig deep to find that I don’t feel connected to my cultural identity, instead my identity is based on memory –– as this is the only thing that grounds me. I relate to old photographs from a time I haven’t even witnessed as these are rooted in stories swapped by members of my family- a sort of oral history, I also feel close to unique aspects of places I grew up in, my grandmother who was always a solid, dependable presence in my life and Mumbai-which is where I’ve finally spent all my adult life. I suppose this memory-based identity reflects in my writing where people are addressing the same anchorless feeling. 

What was the impetus behind establishing Soupgram? What are your thoughts on the need for digital content platforms for literature?

It’s The Soup actually, Soupgram is only the Instagram handle. 

I had quit my advertising job to start a space where I could tell all the stories I had no room to tell within the constraints of brand work. The internet is free, but readership is supportive and loyal only if you have something urgent or honest to say. At Soup it is an ongoing process of sticking to a certain discipline- of not getting into content contests- but creating stories that are meaningful. 

I’ve seen a lot of digital platforms mushroom over the past four-five years- while sometimes there’s too much noise, it has to be acknowledged that all these platforms are distributing the power to be seen and heard. The task as a reader is to be discerning about what you consume. And I’ve noticed that platforms that speak of books and literature tend to dig deeper to find unique voices, stories, poems to combat the clamor online. 

‘Onemeerkat’ – any interesting anecdote behind this unique handle?

Not really.  

Lastly, what are some interesting projects that you’re working on currently?

Everything is WIP until it’s out. 🙂 But there are few interesting things in the offing. 

Inside an Artist’s Head: Riya Roy

A United Nations volunteer, Riya’s articles have appeared in The Swaddle, Arré, LiveWire, BeBadass, Noble Missions for Change Initiative and Feminism In India. Her poems have found a home in The Alipore Post, Airplane Poetry Movement, Verse of Silence, On Fire Cultural Movement, Narrow Road Journal, and other loved poetry and art spaces. Her debut poetry chapbook is called Syllables in Exile, which also features her photographs. The Nook is her weekly newsletter.

What was the inspiration behind the establishment of The Nook?

In 2020, during the pandemic, I got to curate a newsletter for a friend. I curated just one edition and it was a completely different experience for me – it felt more personal. 

Within a week, she received a lot of responses and she forwarded them to me. Some people even wrote to me personally and I had never really expected that. 

After that, I discussed it with a friend and mentioned how I wanted to start my own newsletter. They got so excited about it and started checking in on me almost daily, just to see if I was working on it. During that time, I was also reading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, where she talks about being okay with your anxious moments and not knowing what was going to happen next. 

So, these two factors – trying the curation first hand, seeing how I felt about it, and reading the book – played an important role in the journey and made me go ahead with it.

Producing a weekly newsletter can be a huge commitment, especially when one has to toggle between different things. We’d like to know more about its curation – like how do you land on a particular theme, etc. 

Throughout my week, I read a lot; there are always a lot of tabs open, so I keep bookmarking things. I also keep a check on what could be useful for the newsletter or what I found to be interesting in a particular week. I try to make sure that what I have enjoyed the most finds a place in the newsletter. Otherwise, if I choose things that I think people would like, my newsletter won’t reflect myself. 

Coming to the choice of theme, it usually happens on its own. I don’t ever start with restricting myself to a theme because then the content wouldn’t be organic; I would be forcing myself to think in a particular direction. A week is a long period, and whatever I have felt during my week comes together in the newsletter, thus making it a reflection of how my week went.

As an Indian writer residing in Bhutan, is there any particular set of challenges that you have faced? Has Bhutan’s culture or literary scene ever influenced your writing? 

In terms of challenges, none really, because I have mostly worked from home. Even when I started volunteering for the UN, or after that when I got on to working for literary magazines, and now when I am working for a home solutions brand, the offices are either here in India, or based in Germany or the US. So, as long as I have a good internet connection, it’s all okay. 

Talking about my writings, I have mostly been influenced by Indian literature. I have had very little exposure to the literary scene of Bhutan. But if we talk about the socio-political environment, the cross-national element has always been there. 

Living in Bhutan has definitely influenced my spirituality. I have grown up with mountains around me, and a very quiet atmosphere in general. Then, it did make me feel lonely, but when I think about it now, it really helped me focus on my creativity. Plus, the concept of GNH has a played an important role too in my work. The fact that focusing on what you do is not just bringing in revenue, but also adding to the joy factor in your life is a great thing. 

As subscribers to your newsletter, we are aware of the fact that you send a pdf version of Big Magic as a welcome gift. What significance does the book hold for you and your readers?

When someone subscribes to my newsletter, I either send a copy of “Big Magic” or “When Things Fall Apart”. I have already talked about “When Things Fall Apart” in the context of The Nook. So, if this one is the why of it, “Big Magic” is the how of it because I think this is what The Nook is trying to do – making creativity accessible; deviating from the notion that creativity is something that requires you to be good at a certain thing and only then one is allowed to practice it. 

Last year at The Nook, we started with “Do for Joy”, which was a series of interviews. We interviewed a lot of people and even creative ventures that started because of the pandemic. The idea behind “Do for Joy” was to not ask these people about their work and their creative pursuit, but about their hobbies or the activities that they weren’t good at but did regardless because it made them feel good. Then on Childrens’ Day, we interviewed kids, and the answers showed us how during our life laughing becomes difficult for us. We forget that joy is extremely accessible and I think joy is the easiest way to access it. 

What does a usual workday in your life look like? Walk us through your writing/work routine.

Once I wake up, I leave my room and go around for a walk, particularly to prevent myself from checking emails or social media right after waking up. I come back and get onto practising Yoga and mediation. Then I sit down to work. The first half of the day is for the commissioned projects, mainly the home solutions brand that I am working for. The afternoons are for my side projects and for all the freelancing work that I take up. Finally, I get about an hour in the evening to create the content pipeline for The Nook’s Instagram and one of the sections of the newsletter, so that I can get it all done before Sunday because I take Saturdays off. Then I just spend time with my family. So, this is how the day usually looks. 

Tell us about your writing process in detail.

I religiously follow “Morning Pages” by Julia Cameron. While journaling, I write in such a way that absolutely no one can decipher what has been written, including myself, only so that I don’t go back to it and also to make sure that whatever I am writing about does not make its way into the writing that I am sharing, because when you are just pouring things out, you are only getting rid of thoughts and there’s not a lot of thinking involved. And, I believe, that it doesn’t make a mark. Adding to that, I’d mention that I usually like raw work, but sometimes it’s too raw, and I feel like the person has presented morning pages as their final write-up. Even in poetry, I like its raw elements but the efforts should show, and the thinking should be reflected in the words. 

Coming on to the various parts of the process, I usually keep a different hour for analyzing things, to see which all ideas can be paired. Jotting ideas down is a constant thing. 

There’s one more thing I like to do, especially when I am nervous about a certain project or a deadline – I write a love letter to myself. I type out a sentence for the piece I’m working on, and then I write something to myself. So, suppose, I have to type out 500 words, and I am only done with ten, I’ll write to myself that you are doing well, go on. 

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Big Magic says that these are the words that we are expecting someone else to tell us, and our entire lives we wait for it. It also makes us bitter towards other people because they don’t know we are expecting them to say such things since they are also expecting us to say those to them. So, we could just say these things to ourselves, and it doesn’t matter who says it, and here, the funny thing is, that once I write it to myself, I feel like someone else is saying those things to me and it really has the same effect. 

Inside an Artist’s Head: Seep Agarwal

Seep Agarwal

Seep is a spoken word artist who spends her days building artist communities at Soulstuff, driving youth innovations at UNICEF India and championing the inclusion of arts learning in formal education systems. She believes accepting uncertainty is actually great evidence of courage, and hopes to always be remembered by her poems.

Q: What has your experience of writing during the pandemic been like? What were the challenges?

Seep: I think for me, it’s been a little different than others because I have been continuously working full-time. I was already doing a job when the pandemic began. Then I shifted homes and started working from home. So, in the initial few months, the transition was about striking the balance between getting things done, being productive, while also focusing on my mental well-being.

Writing-wise, I’ll just say that for the last one and a half years, I have been in this space where I have just felt that there’s so much happening in life, that I want to be able to live it fully and feel it completely, before writing about it. For me, otherwise as well, writing is very observational in nature and the part about living and observing really matters a lot.

My writing has seen a shift from me saying things, to me asking questions, and it also quite focused on growth and the concept of adulting, because I think people don’t talk about it enough, especially how difficult it is. So, this is how it has been. I’ll just say that the past one and a half year has been a process of me trying to discover myself.

Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you follow a strict writing schedule? Are you an ardent notes maker? We’d love to know what the process looks like for you.

Seep: I think for me, writing is very observational. I’m very particular about the long-form content that I consume whether that’s cinema or articles because those are the things that stay with and influence us the most.

I often get ideas at the most random moments- going to sleep, writing an email, reading an article, so the process of conceiving these ideas is mostly impulsive and observational. Although most times, I forget to write them down ( chuckles) but when I do note it down, I type ideas out in the WhatsApp group that I have with myself or send myself a voice note, so when later I finally sit down with my words, I go back to these little realisations and build my craft around them.

I usually try to convert one thought into a metaphor. Earlier, when I used to produce more spoken word poems, my writing used to be focused on themes. I would choose concepts like balance, self-love or homesickness and then weave a story around it or incorporate my own experiences with it in my pieces. However, now, since I have shifted to long-form essays, I usually sit with my thoughts for longer durations, ask myself questions, and then I bring it all together.

I don’t have a stringent writing schedule, because of my full-time work and also because the emotional turmoil of living in a pandemic doesn’t really allow it. I think I have grown to be comfortable in not writing for prolonged periods because when I come back to it, it stems from an honest and authentic place and I would much rather prefer creating pieces in gaps of longer periods than writing inauthentic pieces often.

Q. We have noticed that you are a great proponent of mental health. How important do you think it is, especially in the current day atmosphere, for art to recognise the sensitivity of mental health?

Ans. It is extremely important, so much so that I think that one can not exist without the other. And of course, it is always better if one is aware of and sensitive towards such things because that also helps in creating the required space to talk about it. Adding to that, I am of the opinion that performance poetry, in such cases, is a great medium to be our own selves and to be in a space where our feelings will be honoured and heard.

In the past few years, even the organisation of slam poetry events has revolutionised to such an extent that there’s more focus on the procedural aspect – proper trigger warnings and guidelines are given out before every event. This is also really great because performing a poem about mental health or someone’s own challenges and/or experiences with it, is one part, but the moment you say that this is a space where these experiences would be heard and more than that, the fact that one would be heartily welcomed to share such feelings, things really change. So, we again come to the point that one won’t really exist without the other. If you don’t create a space where people can speak for themselves, I don’t think slam poetry would exist.

With reference to that, we also have such amazing poets in the Delhi poetry circuit who write strong and powerful poems about their own challenges, without romanticising or whitewashing them, and I think that really lays the groundwork for similar pieces to follow. They really paved the way for such great work to come after.

Q. Where did the idea of establishing a spoken word platform like Soulstuff come from? Could you also shine a light on your transition from writing poetry to its spoken form?

Ans. I would like to take on the latter part of the question first. I started writing poems or as one might say, some brief metaphorical pieces, when I was in the 11th grade. It mostly happened because of my English teacher who used to teach us, Shakespeare. She used to draw metaphors out of trivial things, such as blue-coloured curtains, and I would get fascinated just by the amount of poetry people see in everyday life.

After that when I came to DU, the first spoken word poem I saw was Sarah Kay’s “If I should have a Daughter” and I was really moved. I kept crying while listening to it because I could relate to it and I thought that this is how my mom and I are. I hadn’t heard anything like that before, and I didn’t even know spoken poetry.

Almost 6-7 months after that, I started writing longer poems. My first spoken poem was something really preachy. Eventually, I started going to slam events. So, I sort of directly segwayed into spoken poetry. I have written a lot of poems that are not performative in nature and could be read as paper poetry, but I technically started with spoken word poetry itself.

Coming to the establishment of Soulstuff, it has been co-founded by me and Aprajita, who is again an amazing spoken word poet. Since its inception, Soulstuff has been a place where we are not very regular with events, but whenever we do something, we put our heart and soul into it. We try to think of events as thematic concepts. For example, our very first event – ‘Neon’ was named so, keeping in mind the fact that art is like the neon city lights in the night. The next event was called ‘9798’. It was about the people who were born in 1997/98 and are in their 20s currently. It was essentially about growing up and finding ourselves in that process.

Something that we also wanted to do and acknowledge while establishing Soulstuff was to create some part of the ecosystem, where artists are also monetised for the efforts they put in and that is something that Aprajita and I are both really proud of.

Q. Who are some of your favourite growing artists?

Ans. Wow (chuckles). I don’t really know how to classify, because all of us are growing artists, but all of my friends are my favourite. Even people from the Delhi poetry circuit, are so talented, it’s crazy. I think that the world is missing out because they don’t know these people exist. Aprajita is surely one of them. Utkarsh, who is a brilliant political poet and also Muskaan, whose poetry is conversational in nature. In the music scene as well, there are some amazing artists like Manikaant.

There are literally so many more names, other than the ones I mentioned.

Seep often shares her words via Barstool, her newsletter named after the first spoken word poem she wrote. You can subscribe to it here: