A towering figure of the global south, Vivan Sundaram’s passing marks a particular moment in the art sphere. In recent years, Sundaram fought a disobedient body to persist in creating work, as recently as the India Art Fair in January this year, and a conceptually directed five part work at the ongoing Sharjah biennale. In his passing, the complexity of his legacy of over five decades, seen in initiatives like the Kasauli Art Centre , the Journal of Arts and Ideas, SAHMAT, and more recently the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation, will be evaluated as historic interventions in the intellectual and cultural landscape of our times. Wedged in time between the subcontinental post modern and the market forces of the early 2000s, Sundaram’s disruptive, and critically agile artistic responses defined him as the face of a secular position in an increasingly divided polity.
Vivan Sundaram marked his presence in Indian art at the very start of his career as a student in MSU Baroda where he befriended Bhupen Khakhar and Gulam Sheikh, fostering a lifetime of shared associations. His involvement with student movements began in 1968 while he was at the Slade school; it was here that Sundaram also took courses in cinema and trained briefly with RB Kitaj. On his return his locus would have been at least partly determined by his legacy. As the custodian of the Amrita Sher-Gil archive of letters and photographs, he contributed to a critical assessment of Sher-Gil’s career, published by Marg (1972) and edited by Geeta Kapur. In the same year he made the series of drawings Heights of Machu Pichu, in homage to Pablo Neruda, the intricate ink drawings invoking a fraught, violent colonial past. For several years he worked with pastels, charcoal and oil, reflecting on travel, poetry and the immediate political provocation, such as the Emergency.
Hereafter, Sundaram’s assumed position was at the apex of the Indian avant garde, both in his negotiations with the community of artists, as well as in his own initiatives and organizational skills. In this way Sundaram placed enormous demands on art as an instrument of social change.
In 1976 he initiated the Kasauli Art Centre in his inherited home, as a kind of artistic retreat. Families of artists - some even with young children - formed the matrix of experiment, both ideological and formal. This strain of mediation, intertexuality and the convergence of disciplines was to characterize Sundaram’s practice. Kasauli as a laboratory incubated a number of ideas which drew in artists, film makers and intellectuals. One outcome of the collegial exchange was the Journal of Arts and Ideas, with a cohort of five editors including Geeta Kapur, which ran with degrees of regularity, from 1983 to 1999.
By the early 1990s when Indian art was still entrenched in painting and sculpture, Sundaram made a pitch for installation, creating the work Combination /Combines (1992). It integrated the work of the young photographers like Dayanita Singh and Ketaki Sheth and his own painting and sculptural work, Homage to KP Krishna Kumar, radical Kerala artist who had made some pathbreaking sculptures in the Kasauli camp, and who committed suicide in 1989. Sundaram’s post colonial enquiry also integrated artistic collaboration with varied materials and methods, to reflect on history. As a visitor to the Durbar hall, Victoria memorial, where he staged his History Project (1998), I was struck by its sweeping ambition of scale, as well as its subversive intent. The stately hall of the former imperial powers was transformed to stage tribal uprisings, revolutionary poetry, Durga puja idols, and a plethora of materials reflecting on the history of Bengal. With the heavy imprint of globalization, his address of consumerism and waste led to the sculptural ensemble GAGAWAKA : Making Strange, of outlandish clothing made of used capsule strips, and photographs and video works, titled Trash. Arranged and shot in his studio from a crane, these installations resembled unpeopled, dystopic cities of plastic waste. Perhaps his most ambitious work was 409 Ramkinkars, that involved theatre, audience participation and art installations in New Delhi’s sprawling Mati Ghar, invoking Ramkinkar’s work as painter and sculptor but also as set designer, and theatre performer. Importantly, it flagged many of Sundaram’s shared interests in modernity, in Arte Povera, and in the agency of the artist to reinvent language.At the same time, many of his own skills were diminishing. On the death of Bhupen Khakhar he made a series of drawings titled Bad Drawings for Dost (2004-5), the lines jagged, with the effects of neurological disorder, marking the fading of his own drawing career.
In retrospect, these manifold interventions using found and made objects, with a cast of designers, sound artists and performers appear like quicksilver changes borne of his position in an age of globalization, as much as his own troubled health.
Sundaram as an archivist drew on the submerged history of protest, thereby arriving at works such as the monumental Meanings of Failed Action : Insurrection 1946 (2017), on the naval insurrection which has been written out of Indian text books. He worked frequently with certain kinds of forms, such as beds, boats, containers, and vessels, marking passage, and expanding their interpretive value and civilizational associations. However his most widely recognized work lay within his own family archive. Unlike much of his work which is constructed, the Sher-Gil Archive series of works involved a reconstruction entirely in the image field. Realising the narrative potential of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s photographs and Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings, he produced digitally sensuous and evocative photomontages, using these images as legacy, and fixing their narrative into new and complex arrangements. That Umrao Singh photographed his wife and daughters posing in the interiors of the family homes allowed Sundaram to domesticate and revivify the family narrative, imbuing it with the intimacy of the shared gaze between the father and daughter, while we the viewers align as onlookers with the auteur, Vivan Sundaram.
Such a complex and polyvocal practice, that spanned five decades, reveals a muscular energy and inner vulnerability that was unique to Sundaram. The many bodies of works like constantly realigning moving parts render his practice a dynamic grid, that allows for different points of entry, even as they bear the imprint of a possible future. His readings of our presents return like a haunting, or even a forewarning. Writing of the fallen figure, photographed during the post Babri Masjid Bombay riots, which forms the centre piece of his work Memorial (1993) Andreas Huyssen speaks of the apocryphal reading of violence embodied in Sundaram’s work: “The fact thatin2014Sundaram recreated this installation in an extended form for a retrospective show in Delhi only adds to the urgency of the protest, which the work embodies up to this day.”
Memory Art in the contemporary World ; Confronting Violence in the Global South,
Andreas Huyssen, Lund Humphries, 2022