Following Curiosities: Outtakes from Offsite 01 with Virkein Dhar

This is the first among a series of reflection pieces from Offsites. If you went to architecture school and despite that, you felt like building buildings wasn’t the thing for you (at least not in the context it was presented to you), this is your story. At any point, while not practising architecture, if your architecture education has come to serve you in unexpected or serendipitous ways, this is your story. Offsites is a series of intimate conversations unpacking and discussing the work and life paths of SPA alumni who are doing other things.

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Offsite 01 was at Oddbird Theatre in Delhi, co-founded by Virkein Dhar, a 2013 alumnus from the school. Twelve students and four young graduates joined us on a Saturday morning over chai and ajwain biscuits. On the agenda was a chat about the intersections and parallels between dance and performance, and the ins-and-outs of independent consultancy. In addition, the conversation extended to the virtues of following one’s curiosities as well as staying afloat in a world full of uncertainty.

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Virkein’s creative practice lies at the intersection of design, curation, and performance. In the past few years, she has undertaken a range of projects — programming and strategising for the Oddbird Theatre, directing three editions of the IGNITE! Festival of Contemporary Dance, as well as leading programming and management for the recently concluded UnBox Festival. At the self- initiated Poppy Seed Lab, she’s presently working on building a connected creative ecosystem in India that can sprout collaborations across disciplines. We were keen to learn about how she followed on her instincts after sensing a fork in her career path, and how to she progressively built on opportunities that came her way.

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Virkein got the ball rolling (literally!) with a quick exercise where participants shared what they’re currently curious about, and what they found futile while in school.

Throughout her journey, one can observe clear signs of her interest in operating at the edges of the built environment. In 2012, along with school work, Virkein found herself moonlighting as a research associate with the Gati Dance Forum, working on devising a methodology for mapping existing (and defunct) built infrastructure and institutions for dance in Delhi. The process of evaluating these spaces in terms of capacity, access, safety, and flexibility for policy level recommendations led to articulating a ‘minimum viable standard’ for performance venues. At the same time, she was finishing her dissertation exploring the experience of space through architectural design and dance. Soon after, her thesis provoked the idea of revitalising industrial estates in Delhi into hubs for culture using a series of adaptive reuse interventions. All of these pieces came together in 2016 when she was approached to help bring a vision for an alternative performance venue to life. After months of collaborative work, Oddbird Theatre — a black box theatre at the Dhan Mill Compound — was born.

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From shooting a stray email to the IGNITE Festival team to volunteer at their first festival and acting on a prompt by her dissertation guide (Madhav Raman) to check out the UnBox Festival, there’s also an evidence trail of deep immersion in even the smallest of tasks that she undertakes. Consequently, it only took her a few years (and lots of leaps of faith, mistakes and learning!) to get to significant places within both of these projects. She reckons that this sense of ownership in all her work also comes from framing these projects as mini-experiments in a longer journey. It would indeed be useful to remind ourselves of the larger time frame of our lives in order to detach from the pressure of individual outcomes and to remember that ultimately ‘we’ are the project we are working on.

Virkein was quick to add that she could fortunately afford these experiments in her work life thanks to the support and patience of her family. She recounted from her childhood that it was, in fact, her father who always prompted her to be curious about the world — to step out, look around, and ask questions. During her time at SPA, the obituary writing exercise during Prof IM Chishti’s Theory of Design sessions left a lasting impression on Virkein. The act of writing out her own future life made her see herself beyond an architect. It was profound to her that until that point in school, no one had probed into the kind of human beings that we were going to make, the lives we were going to build for ourselves. Perhaps the more important question to ask of ourselves through school and beyond is this — what does our work say about us?

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The session ended with the handing out of activity cards to participants that were Notes-to-Future-Self.

For Offsite 02 on March 30, SPA alumni Shantanu Chakraborty (Batch of 2001) and Pallav Kumar Agrawal (Batch of 2007) will give us a sneak peek into the world of real estate asset management and finance. You can find more information here.

‘Offsites’ is a series of curated interactions with SPA alumni who have chosen to do things other than building buildings. Commissioned by the Department of Architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, as part of its platinum jubilee celebrations (supported by Jaquar), this series explores how an education in architecture prepares young people for the world in unexpected ways, and celebrates the diversity in lives and career paths that result from it.

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