New Delhi: When artist Subodh Gupta – accused of sexual harassment last year – filed a defamation case against an anonymous Instagram account in the Delhi high court, he included an email from the director of an international art collective, Khoj, in his filings.
The email offers a glimpse into how the Khoj director, Pooja Sood, wrestled with her own friendship with Gupta and his wife and her desire to stand by them, and the interests of Khoj, which she said, required him to “voluntarily step down from [its] board”.
Last December, at least six anonymous women made allegations of sexual harassment against the internationally exhibited Gupta. The accusations were published on an anonymous Instagram account, ‘HerdSceneAnd’. The account had named a number of prominent men in India’s art world in sexual harassment allegations.
In September 2019, nine months after the allegations first came up against him, Gupta sued this anonymous Instagram account for Rs 5 crore, claiming that he had been defamed.
Gupta is one of the founding members of Khoj. Bharti Kher, noted artist and also his wife, was until recently the chairperson of Khoj’s board. After the allegations of sexual harassment against Gupta surfaced on social media, they both stepped down from the board.
Khoj is an international artists’ association, and some of India’s biggest contemporary artists are associated with it. Dayanita Singh, Anish Kapoor, Anita Dube, Mithu Sen, Atul Dodiya, Thukral and Tagra, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta have all donated work to Khoj, which has been auctioned via Christie’s.
Khoj is also supported by the embassies of Austria, Norway and the Netherlands, and the cultural centres of Germany, France, the UK, Canada and Korea. It receives funding from a number of major trusts and foundations.
Different stands in public and private
Sood’s email – which Gupta presumably chose to make public because he thought it would help him in his defamation case – was sent on December 20, one day after Khoj had posted a brief statement on its Facebook page “taking cognisance of the allegations” against the artist and saying that they were “deeply concerned about these and take them very seriously” because “we will not tolerate any form of harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment”.
A day after the email, Khoj issued a terse statement announcing the exit of both Gupta and Kher:
Mr Gupta has stepped aside from the Board of Khoj and will not be performing any Board functions or representing Khoj. Bharti Kher, Chair of the Board, has also stepped aside.
The Khoj Board remains committed to creating safe spaces for its community and the Board will meet shortly to decide on next steps towards implementing this goal.
Sood’s email to Gupta is the missing link, so to speak, and suggests Gupta quit at the urging of the Khoj board, who were worried not just about the reputational risk to the collective but also its relations with its funders, Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation – who might be upset to hear of the allegations against him as they have “very stringent guidelines for a safe space policy”.
Though Sood said this was the first time she had heard of this kind of policy, “but clearly it is a big deal in the US now. We are answerable to them for our funding and as chairman, you in particular more so”.
While Sood tells Gupta and Kher that “ALL the board members are completely with both of you” she said that they also felt “that till things are sorted, it would be best for [Gupta] to step down”.
“Stepping down is NOT an admission of guilt, Subodh. As a well meaning individual, it is a responsible act by you – for an institution that you care for. This is what Riaz [Komu, artist who also faced similar allegations] did… It is also good for YOU to protect yourself from any more mudslinging”.
In her email, she suggests that Gupta send a letter “stating that as a founding and board member with a deep sense of responsibility towards Khoj, you are stepping down from Khoj till such time as the allegations are sorted.”
She also said that two mutual acquaintances “are frothing at the mouth about the way this MeToo movement is being misused to target people”.
Gupta appears to have accepted Sood’s advice and stepped down.
The Wire reached out to Pooja Sood several times as part of its research for this story. She said she would respond but and this story will be updated when she does.
Khoj scrambles to create a “safe space”
Two of Khoj’s board members said they were taken by surprise to hear that Gupta had filed for defamation with a claim for Rs 5 crore.
One said they were “sad” to hear that Gupta had done this and that the case was an “aggressive” act.
This person said that the entire board had reached a unanimous decision on asking Gupta to step down and stay out of Khoj, and that they had also unanimously decided to put in place measures to build Khoj as a safe space.
For example, despite Khoj’s commitment on safe spaces to their funders, Khoj did not have an internal complaints committee for victims of sexual harassment until Gupta was accused. These committees are mandated by Indian law.
Now, over the last few months, Khoj has worked with lawyers to draft a policy and set up a complaint’s committee. Khoj was due to announce this soon, but they were blindsided by Gupta’s court case and the board is looking to quickly announce what measures they have put in place to further their aim of making Khoj a safe space.
Responding to Sood’s private email , one board member said, “There is no difference of opinion in Khoj on this and we have reached a unanimous decision on what we need to do to make Khoj a safe space. We will announce this soon.”
This is important also because Khoj routinely works with artists from marginalised communities, both within India and from abroad. They also work with the Khirkee neighbourhood and community where their space is based, which is one of Delhi’s more marginal urban communities.
Another board member as well as some artists who are part of Khoj have been interacting with other members of the Indian art community to figure out how to make spaces safer. One board member has said that the art community needs to come together to form a strong legal union that could then represent others in the industry if they find themselves in legal cases.
On Saturday, about 60 members of Delhi’s art community held a meeting to discuss long term and short term measures to address sexual harassment and unfair labour practice in the industry.
Note: This story was edited and more details from Sood’s email and Khoj’s statements added at 8:50 pm on October 8.