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24, Jor Bagh: The freedom house

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-03-2017 Avantika Bhuyan

Last month, 24, Jor Bagh closed its doors, six years after this south Delhi bungalow became available to artists as an experimental space, where their creativity was not restricted by the unimaginative contours of white cube galleries.

This house—though built as a home, it was never lived in—mutated and transformed each time it yielded to the touch of the artists who worked within it—from a space exploring the infinity of the worlds that we inhabit in Raqs Media Collective’s 2013 work, The House Of Everything And Nothing, to a site of drama in which the viewer turned into a performer in Zuleikha Chaudhari’s The Transparent Performer III: Some Stage Directions (2014). Since its inception in 2011, 24, Jor Bagh has served as “the art lung of the city”, says historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia.

The bungalow belongs to former supermodel and art patron Feroze Gujral and her husband, Mohit Gujral, chief executive officer of real estate firm DLF and the son of artist Satish Gujral. The two are known for their patronage of art: In 2008, they set up the Gujral Foundation. They have also supported the Kochi-Muziris Biennale since its inception in 2012 and have given another house, Aspinwall House, for use as the festival’s principal venue. “When we were thinking of what to do with (24, Jor Bagh), Mohit said, let’s see what exciting things we can do with art in there,” says Feroze.

Feroze Gujral

Located opposite the rambling grounds of Lodhi Gardens, 24, Jor Bagh has seen over 25 projects. From soundscapes to light installations, poetry readings and performances such as Queen-size, which looked at intimacy between two men, the bungalow has seen it all.

“Not all practices fit into gallery shows, museums or residencies. 24, Jor Bagh is so open-ended. It’s freed-up architecture,” says Shilpa Gupta, who first showed her work there in February 2016, as part of the show This Night Bitten Dawn. Presented in collaboration with the Devi Art Foundation and curated by Salima Hashmi, the show revisited Partition and featured works by 20 artists from India and Pakistan, including Zarina Hashmi, Nalini Malani, Iftikhar Dadi and Faiza Butt. The viewer began the journey through memories of pain and loss in a darkened room where an audio recording of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Subh-e-Azaadi (Dawn Of Freedom) played as the grilled window of a prison was projected on a wall beyond.

“It (was) not programmed with any institutional intention. I am a bit of a whimsical person and I come up with concepts that I like and work with artists that fit in those,” says Feroze. “For instance, Raqs are very philosophical about their conceptualization and we had long conversations about their site-specific The House Of Everything And Nothing.”

The work was based on an algorithm created by a software programmer to help render the pattern of data generated from the interaction between the artists’ computers in the studio and computers elsewhere. The pattern was then etched on to the outer walls, which were embedded with strings of red LED lights. “The really exciting thing was that the house was not just a recipient of things, it was a material in itself. We had conversations with Feroze about imaging our kind of thinking on to the space and being free about it,” says Monica Narula, who, together with Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi, forms the Raqs Media Collective.

What has excited artists is the history of the house, of having been worked upon before by others. “It had been affected in some way by past works. We didn’t clean up the building but decided to work with what was remaining,” Narula says. “When we show at a museum, like at the National Gallery of Modern Art, we have to change the work to suit the building. 24, Jor Bagh allows us to take the idea to its extreme.”

Dalmia adds that such spaces are sorely needed, for they offer wider scope than a gallery, which moderates what you exhibit. “A comparable space to this is, perhaps, the Experimenter in Kolkata,” she says.

Raqs Media Collective’s 2013 work ‘The House Of Everything And Nothing’.

Everyone who has visited the space has his or her favourite 24, Jor Bagh moment. For Narula, it is the way in which artists like Sonia Khurana and Chaudhari used the architecture. “Zuleikha’s project extended the architecture outwards while Sonia’s Oneiric House brought it inwards,” says Narula. In Chaudhari’s work, the house was transformed with 2,000ft of wooden beams that grew upwards from the ground and hung down from the ceiling. Like beanstalks, they criss-crossed one another across the two floors.

In Oneiric House (2014), the space became an embodiment of a dream house. To Khurana, the structure seemed ideal for a project on sleeping, daydreaming, degeneration and regeneration, with its many nooks and corners ideal for reflection and solitude. Using photo series, animated objects, text, video and sound narratives, different levels of the house represented different states of sleep.

“The house has transformed endlessly over the last six years. Each artist has worked on it and made it their own,” says Vishal Dar, who presented the light installation Antraal in the Open Hand.

24, Jor Bagh will now return to its original purpose, to be a home to its owners. “I am looking to activate a new space by the end of the year,” says Feroze.

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