Published in India Perspectives, Vol. 24, No. 6/2010, pp. 147-151.
Vivan Sundaram (1943) belongs to the first generation of post-Independence Indian artists who witnessed the debates around Western modernism and indigenism; and opened aspects of Third-world’s multiple modernity for further interrogation. Mostly responding to topical subjects, Sundaram’s engagement over the years has been with the archival, documentary evidence, simultaneously between real and fake, and constructing mythologies out of it.
Born in Shimla to an artist family lineage of Amrita Sher-Gil, Vivan Sundaram completed his education from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda and later from Slade School of Arts, London under the guidance of R.B. Kitaj. He joined radical politics of the 1960’s European Students movement, and also enrolled for a film course in London. He continued his political commitment even after his return to India in 1970, and joined the Communist Party. After a detour of full-time activism, Sundaram had a solo exhibition of his series ‘The Heights of Macchu and Picchu’ (1972) and ‘The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie’ (1976). His series on Indian Emergency was a sharp political critique of the ruling regime. Sundaram was one of the six artists who boycotted the Indian Triennale and Lalit Kala Exhibition, and organised an alternative exhibition at Kumar Gallery.
Vivan Sundaram has played a pivotal role in consolidating the art fraternity, and infrastructure development of the arts. His initiative Kasauli Art Centre in Shimla became the platform for bringing together artists from different regions for camps, workshops, and public lectures. As a founding member of SAHMAT and artist-activist, Sundaram curated many art exhibitions such as ‘Images and Words’ (1991), ‘Ways of Resisting’ (2002), while experimenting with the notion of public display, and small formats like postcards. He was also the founding editor of Journal of Art & Ideas that energised the field of cultural studies in India. As a part of the Baroda narrative school, he also participated in a phenomenal exhibition ‘Place for People’ (1981), conceptualised by Geeta Kapur, which became a point of departure in many ways.
Sundaram started experimenting in different mediums in the early 1990s. His Engine oil drawings called ‘Gulf War’ series (1991) is a critique of territorial claims. By breaking the two-dimensionality of painting, and extending it to the third axis, the ground, Sundaram manages to create deceptive vanishing points that lead to blurring vision of a unified land, and allows misreadings of the landscape and cartography. He was one of the first artists in post-liberalisation India, who gave up painting and started inscribing his work with negation of authoritative authorship, inserting the idea of collaborations. Sundaram moved towards making installations and working with site-specific contexts. For example, in his exhibition ‘Journey Towards Freedom’, commemorating 50 years of Indian independence, he engaged with the notion of memoralisation through different processes of archiving, digging and archeological sub-textuality, by delving into colonial archives of Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. In response to Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, his earlier installation work ‘Memorial’ (1993) uses nails, newspaper photographs; his act of involving the viewer to mourn the death of ‘someone’ triggers different forms of association and engagement with the dead. Violence is ritualised through this memorialisation.
Re-contextualizing forms an important part of Sundaram’s artistic process. His installation ‘The Sher-Gil Archive’ (1995) has been a project of digging into personal history, and re-arranging with a proposal of creating new content. ‘Re-take of Amrita’ (2001-06) is a series of photo-montages that delve into Umrao Singh’s (Amrita Sher-Gil’s father and an amateur photographer) photograph archive. He juxtaposes father with the daughter in Freudian anxiety, and freezes moments of narcissist pleasure of becoming a subject of one’s own gaze through mediation of a camera. With his re-constructions, he is able to build tension between past, present and future moments. Sundaram has recently edited a two-volume book of Amrtia Sher-Gil’s letters and diaries.
His work ‘The Great Indian Bazaar’ (1999) is a mound of colour photographs of the Sunday market of Red Fort, Delhi, mounted in small cheap metallic frames. The mound becomes the site of consumption, fantasy, and mobility, pronounced by the imposed red metallic frames. He further expands this metaphor of consumption and urban to another level in his installation ‘Living.it.out.in.Delhi’ (2005) where he constructs a city with waste material. Culmination of this process of accumulation of garbage was a photography exhibition ‘Trash’ (2008). He did this work in collaboration with an NGO ‘Chintan’ that works with rag-pickers. A work from this series titled ‘Master Plan’ shows the perspective view of the constructed alternate city that duplicates and yet subverts all the functions of the real one. The city is performed with the leftovers. Sundaram’s interventionist artistic practice is layered with grids of references and associates.