Okhla’s patch of red

Red House is aiming to be the alternative cultural centre Delhiites have always wanted.
Jaise Kahin ek Azaad Asmaan, Tumhari Nooran, a theatrical performance
Jaise Kahin ek Azaad Asmaan, Tumhari Nooran, a theatrical performance

"Having done many things in my life, from web designing to waiting tables in a restaurant and cutting trees, I’ve realised that to be a cultured person, you have to engage with all that the world has to offer. The mind and the body—even the heart—need to be catered to. For instance, even if you are a cello player, to be able to play it well, you’ve to think about the other arts, see good films, and participate in invigorating discussions,” says Arjun Shivaji Jain, founder and creative head of Red House, a cultural centre in Okhla.

If this sounds like a manifesto, Arjun’s programmes, a mixed bag of Indian and European mainstream and avant-garde art, support this claim. The House’s gatherings began around the Pankaj Tripathi-starrer Mango Dreams. Earlier this year, they screened Electric Moon, an early film by Pradip Krishen, written by Arundhati Roy; both were invited for a post-screening discussion.

Polish actor Joanna Kulig, Pahari miniature painter Dhani Ram Khushdil, mime artist Srikanta Bose, theatre director Kanika Aurora, performance artist Aabshaar Wakhloo, and Italian dancer and professor Luisa Spagna have been other collaborators.

The isolation imposed by COVID-19, and the absence of a cultural community in the city besides the need to process the loss of a parent, nudged Arjun to initiate Red House. Trained as a scientist and an artist, he completed his postgraduation from from Central Saint Martins, London, in 2016 and returned to Delhi.

He decided to shift his medium from oil and canvas to brick and mortar, transforming a part of his family’s transformer factory into an architectural laboratory where he had been experimenting with a variety of building materials and techniques, opening its gates to a city hungry for quality cultural interactions.

More than a building

The organisation of space at the House is interesting. It has a hall with a high ceiling and Gothic arches. A dark corridor bursts open into a bright courtyard, which in turn takes you to an office space. There is also a café, and a modest museum on the history of the factory where the Red House stands today. Hanging on the naked brick walls of the expansive yet intimate 40-seater hall is an artwork depicting the cover page of John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, a late 19th-century book on principles of architecture.

Ruskin—a painter, philosopher, writer, poet, art critic, and architect, and one of the three teachers that Gandhi mentions in his autobiography—has heavily influenced Jain’s conception of Red House as a cultural centre and its vision for fostering artistic practices that do not have a perilous separation between the hand and the mind.

The centre’s name is, in fact, inspired by designer and thinker William Morris’ family home, ‘Red House’ in Bexleyheath, London. Amidst the nondescript industrial area of Okhla, the poetic beauty of Red House stands out as a curiosity. Yet in a short span of time, it has managed to introduce the people of Delhi NCR to the ingenious brick construction techniques of Laurie Baker, the beauty of Gothic arches, terracotta-tiled roofs, and green courtyards—all crafted by Arjun.

In the spirit of bringing alive the essence of past ideas to enrich modern life, the space has devoted itself to activities such as charkha spinning studio hours; it holds poetry reading sessions, and art-driven community sessions. A gold leaf painting workshop to celebrate Gustav Klimt’s upcoming 162nd birth anniversary is for instance being organised on June 29.

Sunaina Jain, Arjun’s sister, the media and communications head at the Red House, says that “although we have primarily grown through Instagram, we have attracted people from all walks of life. For example, in the charkha classes, we have a fashion designer, a lawyer, and even a doctor”.

Costs and challenges

Most of the Red House events are ticketed. “We charge a nominal amount from artists for group exhibitions. The money collected helps us maintain our autonomy without falling into the trap of grants and big organisations dictating our vision,” says Arjun. In an ideal world, culture should be free, but the absence of state-funded long-term support for the arts has not only maintained the historical prejudice against art but also denied its value in people’s lives.

The two siblings envision making the space even more accessible and hope for a steady and sufficient rise in attendance at events to justify the costs of running it all seven days. “However, as the memory of the pandemic fades, people are again falling back into their previous ways of taking the cultural community for granted. The rise of online events normalised by the pandemic is also a paradox for the idea of culture. Online events divorce people from the equation and just end up becoming a thing of mass production,” says Arjun.

The place of work and home became one during the COVID-19 lockdown. Even after its end, the continuous lack of a third place between these two has been felt. The third place is a concept in sociology that describes familiar spots where people can connect over shared interests, outside the connotations of productivity and status.

These spaces are rapidly disappearing in urban centres but possess a potent power to offer a sense of belonging and a feeling of home. Home as a place from which the world and the self can be founded, home not in a geographical but in an ontological sense, as art critic John Berger had said.

Since it is a privately owned project, Red House is not really a third place, but a space that has been facilitating individuals to bridge the gap between intellectual pursuits and activities of physical labour. Invoking the words of Ruskin, “There is no wealth but life,” Arjun says that their various programmes, the space they have built and the community that has been formed are about adding life to the mundane acts of everyday life, romanticising the world, and celebrating things of beauty.

To register for Red House programmes, contact redhousedelhi@gmail.com.

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