My husband and I took three months off to go see the world. This trip took us to Pondicherry, an ex-French colony which offers tourists a break from the particularly intense Indian experience. This small city is known as a vibrant cultural hub which focuses on the arts and preservation of its colonial architecture. Our first stop there was at Kasha Ki Aasha, a rooftop coffee shop selling local fair trade stuff on the ground floor. The space was designed with a blend of Indian & Californian styles, and operated by all local female staff, an oddity in Southern India. I ended up chatting with the owner, Kasha, a US born architect turned entrepreneur who set up shop & home here in this little piece of France turned Indian. Turns out she was also running PondyART, a collection of photography shows in an abandoned distillery by the shore.
Here’s my interview with her, but you can also learn more about PondyART, and how you can help. You can find some pictures of the space here, and more information about the exhibition itself here. All the art you see is by Olya Morvan, a (needless to say) very talented Franco-Ukrainian photographer.
“I realize now that the movement is there, we need to make it happen in other cities so everybody gets to do these shows.”
1. Age, name & occupation
Kasha Elizabeth Vandee, 44, Owner of Kasha ki Aasha & Founder of Pondy ART
2. What was your dream job as a kid?
Surgeon or vet. My father had been ill and I thought I should do something about that. I was also terribly attached to animals. I ended up doing a year as a pre-med but dropped out to pursue architecture – my dad himself was an architect!
3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?
Really, these shows bring two things. First, the photographers don’t often get the opportunity to see their work on the wall, and never in this format. I also get motivation from seeing kids run across the beach to watch and look up every single picture.
The shows are meant to provoke without being aggressive about it, to get people thinking about India as it is today. We once had a show about the environment, this one by an Indian photographer. A visitor, who assumed I was the artist, made comments about the fact that images taken by foreigners were always ugly. When told that the photographer was Tamil, he was still offended that somebody would show something ugly like that. My response is that if a picture makes you angry, it’s touching you, and something at home might change.
All the people involved in this project love India, and that’s why we want to show what is happening right now. Some of the subjects don’t display the right directions, but hopefully these photos will help initiate the change, from the ground up. These shows are about trying to reach out to people in a different, more personal way.
“I was told that locals would not understand my project, would not know how to behave and have no taste. And that made me angry.”
4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?
Originally I was trying to do an open night, and have all the boutiques open and showcase art. I wanted it to be a public event and wanted everybody to open their doors but I was told that locals would not understand, would not know how to behave and had no taste. And that made me angry. I was doing a lot with a local photojournalist who felt that he had a chance to carry a message for these challenged communities but he didn’t have a medium for that. We came up with the idea of putting his work up on the wall so that everybody could see it.
I realize now that the movement is there, we need to make it happen in other cities so everybody gets to do these shows, with these pictures at this scale. A lot of the photographers shown are young and new, we need to showcase new talent. One of the photographers even said that after seeing his work in such big formats, he wouldn’t want to see his pictures in a traditional gallery format anymore.
“This is new in India, but when something catches here it goes very fast.”
5. Your background is in architecture, and here you are putting together these shows. Tell us more about it. I have a photographer who gives me lots of ideas. I don’t have much experience in curating but this has been a wonderful experience, thanks to the input. I use this certain lack of formal education to my advantage and instead break with conventions, making the show feel more like a museum or a conversation than a gallery.
I had been wanting to work with some artists for quite some time and I really like the association with arts but I don’t feel like I’m a creator myself. The chance of helping somebody to get their work up, people whose work I believe deserves to be noticed, makes me feel really good. PondyART is actually getting more publicity than expected, and after this set of exhibitions, which I hope I can pull off, I really hope I can take this nation wide.
Putting the shows together comes with its own challenges, some of our content can be heavy, and we are not immune to censorship, so I sometimes have to tread carefully, which can make you nervous, notably when the subjects tackle religion.
6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?
That it would take a hell of a lot of money. People love your project, but don’t want to give money. The government has been giving me a budget but I can’t always foresee how I am going to pay for the whole thing. My business has brought some support, but I never really know what lays ahead. Somehow though, it always ends up working out!
For me this is the hardest thing. It seems to me that if you give something to the community that I would get something back. There are over a million people living in Pondicherry, and if they each gave me 1 rupee I could run this show for at least a couple of years.
“Things in India don’t happen regularly. One of the biggest business owners in Pondicherry looked at me before my 10th show and said “Look Kasha, you can’t do this alone” – and yet here I am!”
7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.
I’ve never really been able to think about more than tomorrow. I’ve spent a lot of time testing ground with the local businesses and restaurants. I’m definitely going to be approaching other cities, talk to locals and chase down those opportunities as best as I can. I want to try to use old empty spaces like this distillery or take it to the streets, depending on the neighborhood.
My network of photographers is expanding very rapidly, I think I could do something very special in every city. This kind of stuff is done commonly in NYC and other western cities. This is new in India, but when something catches here it goes very fast. I just have to get there first.
8. If somebody would walk into this space, see the work, and want to help, what should s/he do?
Come see me. Part of the challenge is that the production side is a one woman show. I run the website, the blog, the facebook, I also do the fundraising part. I tried crowdfunding, but that requires an enormous amount of work. I had to find a site that allows for a campaign like this running in India, successfully, with minimal charges, and then produce the videos and promote the whole campaign. I’ve been told this is usually takes 3 to 5 hours a day. I’m already putting most of my time in getting the shows up and running.
I don’t have a business of NGO form for this project yet because I didn’t know where this project was going. Now it’s taking off and expanding, I need to create a structure and figure out where I’m going in order to receive more funds. We have approached a lot of people but we’re still waiting on responses. I haven’t been very aggressive about fundraising because I wanted to prove I could do this on a regular basis. Things in India don’t happen regularly. Now it’s the 11th show, I’m here, still standing. One of the biggest business owners in Pondicherry looked at me before my 10th show and was still saying “Look Kasha, you can’t do this alone” – and yet here I am!
9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say?
That I was honest, straight-forward and that I had no hidden motives.