Vivan Sundaram’s preoccupation with the archive has been well documented. It recurs, as motif and practice, in a number of his works including the various iterations of his own family archive, The Sher-Gil Archive (1995) and Re-take of ‘Amrita’ (2002); the landmark site-specific installation in the Durbar Hall of the Victoria Memorial (1997-98); and most recently, in the immersive sound installation addressing the events of the 1946 naval mutiny, Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017). It is fitting then that the first retrospective of the artist’s prolific career, Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), should itself take the form of a vast archive of his life’s work. The archive is envisioned here as a space where everything goes; where past, present and future are laid not so much like stratified layers sedimented one on top of the other, but rather, as coexisting fragments in a frozen landscape. It is thus that the viewer traverses five decades of Sundaram’s ever-shifting oeuvre, as a seemingly random assortment of objects and pieces from other shows and other lives that seem yet to discern the half-gleamed paths of a buried history.
Sundaram and curator Roobina Karode seem to agree that the archive is a space of memory, rather than the place of history, where a relation to the past must be traced phenomenologically. The exhibition opens then with an act of commemoration. One and the Many (2015) springing out of the 409 Ramkinkers project (2015-ongoing), is an homage to the famous modernist sculptor, whose name re-entered public memory recently through the controversy surrounding the plan to remove of one of his public works, a bronze sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi, in Guwahati’s Gandhi Mandap. The public drive to erase what is considered an inaccessible and ugly modernism from the spaces of official memorialisation is countered by Sundaram’s act of proliferating Baij’s legacy. Rows upon rows of terracotta figurines rework Baij’s famous Santal Family and Mill Call into phantasmatic hybrids in modular reproductions of (art)history. One is then led past the formidable steel and aluminium container that houses Sundaram’s latest installation, to a room containing the artist’s paintings made during his years as a student at the Slade School of Art, London. These formative years coinciding as they did with the explosive events of the May ’68 movement produced canvases that betoken an incipient political praxis. Exhibited publicly for the first time, these initial experiments with pop art and cubism uncover the early painter, forgotten with his turn in the nineties to new media and video art. The painted collages in the London works also look forward to the bricoleur aesthetic Sundaram was to develop through the nineties in other mediums, and which then evince a certain continuity in his practice.
From here on, rooms interconnected through labyrinthine corridors, opening one on to the other, abruptly bring to an end what might have otherwise been designed as a chronological trajectory through the artist’s career. Instead, different “periods” and mediums are juxtaposed in a manner to precisely frustrate any such drive towards coherence. Sundaram’s pop repertoire, born out of a long-standing association with artist Bhupen Khakhar is exhibited in a series of prints, three-dimensional canvases, sculptures and one large-scale installation, Bunk Bed (1999), that demonstrate a ludic quality symptomatic of a child’s-eye view of the world. The kitsch hues and textures of a characteristically Indian life-world are often deployed to the service of a social critique, while just as often constructing a lost plane of infantile plenitude. In an adjoining corridor hangs the canvas from which the current exhibition begets its name. “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” was originally exhibited at a touring exhibition, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1976), the same year Sundaram founded the Kasauli Arts Centre in his family home in that town. Utilising the close-up and long shot techniques of cinema, Sundaram has created a work that quite literally breaks the fourth wall - a glass window lies shattered, as the outside advances in. Sundaram’s engagement with cinema is in evidence elsewhere too: from the references to Resnais and Tarkovsky in the Long Night series (1988), a play with genre in the noir video Tracking (2003-4), to the use of the cinematic devices of temporal cutting and juxtaposition in the digital montages of Re-take of ‘Amrita’. Sundaram’s affinity for the medium can perhaps also be understood if one considers the relation of cinema and photography to specific forms of archival memory. What appeals to Sundaram no doubt is this ability to visibilize the invisible and to materialize the spectral that is the special promise of the mechanical medium.
The yearning to make present is most acute in what may be Sundaram’s best known work, his mobilizations and manipulations of the Sher-Gil family archive. A multi-media re-presentation of a family lost in time, the centre-piece of the “family room” is the artist’s large canvas depicting relatives on his mother’s side, the Sher-Gils; patriarch Umrao Singh, mother Marie Antoinette, and daughters, Amrita and Indira. Sundaram transposes images of the four taken from separate photographs to the painted canvas, constructing an odd family portrait in which the members remain strangely aloof from each other. Elsewhere, light-boxes stand in as grave-stones, freezing the family at the ages that they seemed most happy. Amrita and Indira stare out of these boxes - costumed and made-up, precocious little girls playing to the adoring gaze of their father’s camera. A two-channel video Indira’s Piano is a counterpoint to the numerous portraits of Umrao and Amrita, the great artist-provocateurs, which are arranged elsewhere in parallel sequence like strips in a film reel. Indira’s Piano presents the relatively reticent Marie Antoinette and Indira, the secondary characters in narratives that tend to concentrate on their husband and sister respectively. The video, a slide-show of sorts, brings these women to the fore where they so often remained in the background. It restores their images to an archive that is haunted in different ways by their absence. Even the name of the piece, the titular piano, alludes to the career Indira might have had.
The restorative drive is channelled elsewhere into the realm of politics, where Sundaram’s desire to heal history’s wounds leads him to offer reprieve in the form of House/Boat (1994). A series of works made in the turbulent years of the nineties engage themes of migration, exile, and shelter. The unresolved tensions of the partition of the country having led to the renewal of communal violence - thedemolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, followed by the Bombay riots and bomb blasts, 1992-93 -the artist is forced to evolve a new grammar of creative expression, a new mode of representation. A series of engine oil drawings made in the period between 1987 and 1991 likewise incorporate the very material of war, the catastrophic oil spills and desert infernos of the globally televised conflict in the Middle East. A comparison can be made here to an earlier series of politically charged works associated with the figurative narrative painting of the Baroda school. The section A Place for People, 1981-91, featuring paintings dedicated to the memory of Safdar Hashmi and the young Dalit victim at the centre of the Mathura rape case, show an earlier moment of political activism. The last in the series, a work dedicated to friend and associate K.P. Krishnakumar already shows signs of the final break with painting. Many incarnations of Krishnakumar are brought under a literal roof that juts out of the canvas, a long metal rod like a bow piercing one end.
An interlude is provided by a series of black and white ink sketches of journeys both real and imagined, to Mexico and Machu Picchu (1972, 1978). Whimsical and meditative in turn, these oneiric images of a foreign, possibly mythic land are a lull in apocalypse.
But Sundaram, it would appear, is finally less interested in entropy than he is in survival. A number of works on the theme of obsolescence including 12 Bed Ward (2005) and Trash (1997-2011) reflect on the afterlives of discarded objects. In 12 Bed Ward the soles of shoes continue to circulate in the world as the only material remnants of their erstwhile owners. The remains of the dead feed a satellite economy. In the different projects that constitute Trash, waste is remediated into new forms, fashioning clothes, art and even cities from the rubbish-heap of human life. A single channel video The Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain (2005) imagines a rag-picker, gestated in a landfill, emerging swan-like into the world.
The sound installation Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 comes closest perhaps to a synoptic account of the whole exhibition. Created in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, sound artist David Chapman and film historian Valentina Vitali, the installation comprises a 41 minute light and sound show played within the confines of a forty feet long metallic superstructure that closely resembles the hull of a ship. It brings together snippets of poetry, archival interviews, protest songs and documentary recordings against a score of the low rumbling of distant bombs, as well sharp explosions that pierce an atmosphere leaden with tension. Sundaram and his collaborators have managed to create in this piece an experience that approximates a phenomenology of war. Moreover, in highlighting an episode that is largely consigned to the proverbial waiting room of history, he restores the importance not only of the ’46 mutiny, but of a whole elided history of a militantly secular - and proto-Communist - phase of the national struggle for freedom.
Sundaram has frequently been asked why this oral/aural re-telling of history is not accompanied by illustrative visuals. Instead, the audience’s attention is drawn to a shifting constellation of lights that signify nothing. This resistance to satisfy the anticipation of an image of history, which can then be possessed, is coterminous with the refusal to allow fragments to coalesce into a coherent narrative. We are fated it seems to experience history as this endlessly alluring, but eventually frustrating search for a past that is always beyond reach. And this perhaps is also why the archive has been Sundaram’s eternal object: for the ways in which it gestures to the truth, even as it suggests that truth is by nature elusive. After all, the invitation to “step inside” assures familiarity, not wisdom.