You Are What You Create

Illesha Khandelwal opens up about her collective space

by Jessica Kilbane

Ikattha is a shared studio project offering its members access to workspace where they can create and develop as individual artists. Founded by Illesha Khandelwal in 2018, the benefits include reasonable fees for space and storage and the opportunity to connect with a larger community. In her space, you will find a variety of projects with many of the artists displaying their work, positioned in the context of where they were created.

We caught up with her to discuss why it's important for artists to have a safe haven:

Can you tell me how you first thought about starting this space?

I'm an artist myself, and in Bombay I had a hard time finding like-minded people as a young person and a lot of difficulty growing my ideas. And even when I went away to college, I felt the same way. I studied at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, but somehow, even being around so many artists, there was this lack of real community.

As I have moved around and grown in my art practice, I've found a lot of communities along the way that have really inspired me and a lot of those spaces have been collective spaces. They are spaces by artists, for artists and they work together to support each other. So I really started to get a sense of how essential the support of other artists is to your own career as an artist, and that we're indispensable to each other. The sense of competition is really just an illusion, which is induced by capitalism and a scarcity of resources. But there can be so much abundance when we just come together with what we have and try to do something together.

Ikattha Space, photographed by Jessica Kilbane for Matter + Form
Ikattha, near Sasson Docks in Mumbai. 2019.

Do you think that people in Mumbai don't have the resources to get their art to where they want it to be, or is that it is a more global issue?

I think it's really global to be honest. When I lived in New York, I used to work at the Aperture Foundation, which is photography magazine. I have a degree in photography and so my dream job was to work at Aperture. So I applied after I graduated and thought: this is a nonprofit foundation that supports all the most amazing photographers in the world.

Then I got there and had this extreme disillusionment. I was completely depressed by the work that was happening, to see that there's a lot of racial and identity and class politics behind the scenes - even within the worlds that are perceived from the outside as extremely successful.

I had this sense that even being in New York which is considered the cultural capital of the world, that everyone imagines is just exploding with all kinds of creativity, it's so much about the world you choose to place yourself in. It's understanding that there isn't just one art world but several art worlds, as well as several forms and ways to be an artist that you could involve yourself in.

Your practice is not just what you sit and make a like drawing or a photograph or film. Your practice is really how you put your work out there, who you share it with, who you're talking to, who you're working with, who you work alongside and how you're able to evolve.

In what sense - do you mean in terms of different mediums or social strata?

It's so much bigger than that. After working at Aperture, I had joined this collective, it was like a residency program that I got accepted to. It's called Flux Factory and it's a collective space in Queens, New York, and that experience really changed things for me.

It was the first time in my life I really found a community that was giving to each other, that was supporting itself, that was doing good work and having so much fun doing it and involving all kinds of people from around the community in their work in a way that was really fruitful to everyone involved. That often becomes a kind of entity where an artist has to put up with everyone, but it's something that the artists grew from as well. So after joining Flux Factory and being part of this collective context is when I realized that there are so many different versions of the art world and that these white cube gallery spaces are not the ones that I wanted to go to. I think it's also the one that a lot of artists are pointed towards.

Just to be around people that were more interested in building a social practice was very exciting to me. And that's really how I've been trying to think of my own practice as well. Your practice is not just what you sit and make a like drawing or a photograph or film. Your practice is really how you put your work out there, who you share it with, who you're talking to, who you're working with, who you work alongside and how you're able to evolve.

Where we exist in the world, it's such a time of uncertainty and conflict, from the environment to politics. I don't think, personally, it's enough to just be someone who works at a desk. I think my practice has to really expand into something social, to create a space for people that is safe, loving, supportive. I want it to be more like lighting a little lamp, that even though it's a small light, it brightens up something.

What is something that you are working on right now?

I've painting these textiles with the different images of crows and I knew that I eventually wanted to turn them into clothes. So this skirt that I'm wearing is a layered, simple design and it just wraps around. I wanted to get a sense of how fragile it would be, from walking around in it. It feels good so far! Other than that, I'm working on a graphic novel right now. A lot of the books I made in the past have been extremely abstract, so I really wanted to make a book that was in a specific format.

Do you think graphic novels are more accessible?

Yeah. I'll show you that as my books and you'll understand why. They seem a little bit arbitrary to someone that doesn't have a background of the kind of work I do. And then usually those books are made to exist in a much more situational context, they're usually involved in exhibition or installation. They are smaller parts of a large body of work, which are presented together in order to make sense. They are also usually one offs because they take two months to make one and there is just one copy. But I want this graphic novel to have several copies, that are more distributable.

I think, just as a human being, I tend to prescribe places to feelings. I think it's because it's extremely difficult to map the heart, what happens within you or your feelings.

Do you want to talk a little bit about the story?

It's not a specific story line, even though it is a graphic novel with a linear narrative. A lot of the work I do thinks about landscape - what is place and geography and what are the ways in which we love and how do our love move through these geographies and can we also have romance with place?

I think moving through several different spaces over time, over the last few years has brought me that feeling that often I leave people I love behind and go to another place and begin to see these people in that new landscape. I think, just as a human being, I tend to prescribe places to feelings. I think it's because it's extremely difficult to map the heart, what happens within you or your feelings. But I think often walking is my way to do that. So I begin to map what is happening within me on the outside world and it allows me to move through my feelings. So a large part of my practice involves walking and collecting objects and collecting thoughts and collecting images and beginning to prescribe feelings to places and movements, and to begin to discover them through those movements.

Your idea of success seems to have changed over the last couple of years, so what is it that you are working toward? Is Ikattha a space to discuss ideas and create, or does it provide an alternative to a gallery space?

I don't know that there's an end goal. I think of it as a very generative, fluid practice that evolves. I think it's more about building a lifestyle, building an everyday for yourself that feels supportive. Then beginning to find work and ways to exist that work for you, and also contribute something to the larger world.

I think our hope is that we do good work here. We continue to host community events and show artists work. Then eventually we will attract the kind of work that we want to do and I think that could involve anything from having a very diverse freelance career to working with brands and getting commissioned or maybe working on a film with someone.

I think the idea of a career is also changing. You have to be to everything and that scares me. We're very slowly moving away from the Industrial Revolution way of looking at things. You delegate everything, you have one profession, like this is the one skill you have and then you join the assembly line. Now it's closer to the idea that I can have eight different skills, and it's possible for me to find work that allows me to actively use each one. That I can grow from and also make something unexpected because I have that specific set of skills. There are a few people I've met that have been so successful at building these freelance careers, with skills that lie somewhere between art and design.

You mentioned purpose somewhere a little while ago, what do you feel is your personal definition of purpose?

In anything? In work?

For someone like you, that boundary between work life and your personal life seems non-existent. So at what point in your day or during your practice, you would think "this was worth it"?

That's a good question because I do so many different things. Whatever the thing I've done is - whether it's my first piece of clothing that I designed, which is this skirt that I'm wearing today or whether it's an art book that I made... I think the moment that it feels like it has achieved its purpose or when I realize its purpose, it's just that moment of connection. If even just one person feeling something when they look at something I've worked on or if it has moved them in a certain sense, having reminded them of that there is a world outside of you that you can open yourself up to, that you can connect with - that matters.

I think it's about cultivating joy. If I am exploring a specific idea or following a research path, I think the success of the work is impossible without people opening themselves up to it. So I think that is the purpose to get people to enjoy it. Too get even one person to be able to bring down their walls and really encounter the work or the community or the gathering, in a way that alters their life, it makes it more beautiful.

It reminds you that existing is such a viable thing, that humanity is something intangible.

Clement Stanback at Ikattha in Mumbai. 2019.

What are some of the projects the communities have been working on of late?

The main thing that we're working on right now is a full moon gathering, which we have every month and that's been a long standing thing we've done since May. The idea was to have a monthly event here that people can always count on. It would be planned for the same day every month and I can see your work and progress, or we can just meet and talk, or we can just meet other creative people or people that are interested.

They're public events where anyone can come. We were thinking we'd do the third Thursday or the first Friday, second Tuesday, and then we realized that the most wonderful and simple way to map this would be through the lunar cycle. Often when you live in the city as intense and extreme and overwhelming as this one, you forget that the planet is actually still turning and the moon continues to have its phases.

You may forget to look up at the sky every night, there is the possibility that one day if you looked up at the sky and saw the moon, you could know how far away the next full moon was and know right away how far away the next gathering was. We wanted to re-align Bombay with the lunar calendar without making it about astrology or about the sky, but just about marking time and coming together and meeting very intentionally - that this is an IRL encounter that is important to us and we do something different every time.

People really are doing such great work and they want to show it in intimate context where they can have conversations about it.

And how did that go - were people receptive?

Since we were starting this ritual of full moon gatherings, our first gathering was about rituals. So it was about thirty people in attendance and we all just discussed what is ritual and what does it mean to you in your daily life? What does it mean to end your art practice? There were three artists guiding the conversation and talking about rituals in their own practices.

We've done several different things. We had live figure drawing one time and there was an amazing model. Her name is Laxmi and she's been modeling for some forty years at the JJ School of Art and she agreed to come and model for us. Live drawing is not something you get to do very often out of the college environment. There were so many people that came who had never drawn a figure of sitting in front of them before. For them to have that chance to draw the nude figure was like terrifying, but I think it also really opened them up. At least that's the feedback we got.

Now we're beginning to make the full moon gatherings a way to support artists and show their work. We just did an open call for a short films and there was overwhelming response, which was amazing. People really are doing such great work and they want to show it in intimate context where they can have conversations about it. So we want to continue to have these full moon gatherings and do them very intentionally and do them very well.

Do you think meeting other artists and creatives is important?

We want to create affordable studio space in a neighborhood that is notorious for alienating emerging, independent young artists. For me, as one of those artists, walking around to all the galleries around here on an Art Night Thursday or Bombay Gallery Weekend, you can go to these gatherings and talk to people and meet artists - but you never quite feel like you have a foot in the door. You think: Am I in? How do I get in? How do I become part of this thing? And how do I really engage with people on a deeper level?

I don't believe that the only people that are worth networking with were the ones that are in higher positions or that a hierarchy exists between us. It's great to meet someone that's already doing the same thing as me or struggling as much as I am or more than I am and just starting out. Often those would be the people that are a hundred times more likely to work with you towards something that you want as well.

We wanted to create an alternative here where people walk in and then just feel like they belong. We want them to think that they've just gotten to sit with people like them, that their identity is important in this space. We want Ikattha to be a way to network across and not network up, which is something I believe has helped me a lot in my work.

The Ikattha Space, by Matter + Form

What other events do you organize?

I'm hosting a workshop called Book As Place, which will be really like meditative, simple workshop on introducing the recycling practice into your artworks. So we'll be making recycled paper and learning bookbinding techniques.

There's an artist named Zahra Baldiwala. She's going to be hosting on collaging workshop about thinking through ideas with collage. Then there's Himanshu Shetty, who goes by Humhu, who is going to be doing the contact dance workshop at the next gathering. It's technically a sport, I believe. He showed it to me briefly, and he said the only way to learn it is by watching, you cannot be taught it. It's supposed to be a very intimate experience because you have to have to be fully aware of the energy of someone else and their body movement.

Illesha Khandelwal at her studio space in Bombay

The idea of a collective space is a bit alien to the city. How do you think people feel about it?

It's actually been amazing. I think people in Bombay have been hungry for a long time for a space that they can regularly come to and call their own.

Bombay is not a city ideally built for community. It's tough to get around sometimes, the traffic is insane, there's a billion excuses. But it's at that point when you start showing up and feeling welcome, that you want to show up - frequently.

We haven't marketed Ikattha at all. We don't even really tell people what we're doing and just organically the community has grown so much. Every month we have so many people reaching out to us and wanting to be a part of things here and it's been an amazing amount of support from the city and it's really exciting and it's also wonderful for us to know that maybe we are on to something.

Because we question it everyday - What are we doing and are we doing it in the best way we can do it? Who are we to anticipate what the city needs or what the community needs? And who is even our community? I think it's a slow journey and so far we've received just so much love from everyone.

I think being a collective space means that every artist still has that power to change the course of what we're doing and to do something differently. And I think as long as we don't find just one successful format and stick to it, we'll keep it from getting really boring. And that's often how art institutions get so boring.

I think we should just keep taking risks and keep being open to ideas. Which is often more work and is exhausting and tiring as well, because it involves being constantly present and constantly anticipating new needs, new material needs, and new space needs.

Siddhant Vetekar at Ikattha in Mumbai. 2019.

Can you tell me about the actual space - how did you find it?

I actually grew up in this space. It's been in my family for most of my life. We got it when they would still allow pagdi, so we have it for another 75 years or so - which is so lucky.

This building used to be a mansion owned by one family and this was the attic of the house. They divided it in half, then partitioned parts into flats and slowly started selling off sections. A Marathi fisherman who was allegedly a Don in the mafia used to live in this particular space. The storeroom in the back was painted red and there a big red bed, and that's supposed to be where he slept. At least those are the stories I've heard.

When I had the idea, the place was in really bad shape and we hadn't been able to find a viable use for the space. It's a four floor walk up the stairs and when it rains, sometimes there's rats or cockroaches. But I had this idea. It took a few months and all my savings to get this place to what it is now.

And how did you choose the name for the collective?

It really just popped into my head. I was trying to think of a way to talk about gathering, connecting and coming together and collecting ideas and collecting objects and collecting art. Ikattha is this unique word that can mean all of those things. It can translate to people coming together, it can mean for objects to come together, it can be for you to gather and I think it works for a collective.

Illesha Khandelwal

So now what?

I think we're slowly getting to a position where we've done enough, we've been running for real, there have been things happening for real, there have been real artists here. I think we might be almost in a position to start applying for some funding, so we can do more projects.

The idea is for all the work we do here to be generative and important in its own way. We just want to be sure that people that are coming here are not looking to rent space, but can see themselves being part of the community. In some ways, the space incidental. The idea is that we are all here together, being around other productive people that are doing creative work.

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