The house Vivan Sundaram built
One of India’s pioneering multidisciplinary artists died this March. His last was a book on The Kasauli Art Centre, a meeting ground for India’s first artistic avant-garde. Will it have an afterlife?
A window flutters open under the Kasauli sky and it’s time for artists staying at the Ivy Lodge attic to get down to work. Or play. At another corner of the Lodge, a painter photographs another painter holding some other painter’s artwork…. It is just another day at the Kasauli Art Centre (KAC) where from the ’70s to the ’90s, artist Vivan Sundaram carried out one of the most open-ended experiments in contemporary art. At the property belonging to his mother, Indira, sister of India’s first Modernist, Amrita Sher-Gil, Sundaram organised these annual art camps not just as a place for painters to set the easel on the mountainside, or for writers to scratch out the first or last chapters of novels in isolation, but as a lesson in collective living. Creating a space for artists to dialogue, critique and argue with each other, not just about their own art but the art of others as well.
Sundaram, one of India’s pioneering multidisciplinary artists, who came out of the political and artistic ferment of the ’60s, passed away this March. He was last working on a book, Kasauli Art Centre 1976-1991, that has been authored by Belinder Dhanoa and published by SSAF-Tulika Books in 2023.
From painters Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed and Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh to theatre director Anamika Haksar, author Geetanjali Shree to singer Vidya Rao, actor Seema Biswas, to critic Geeta Kapur and film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha—the KAC was a meeting ground for India’s first artistic avant-garde.
“Unlike other art camps, this was an artist’s initiative. The two major gains I made was that at the KAC, I began to paint and simultaneously write, elsewhere it had been frowned upon, as a painter, writing was supposedly not my business,” says Gulammohammed Sheikh at the book’s launch recently. “At the KAC, I wrote on three works of art—Diego Velázquez, Bishen Das, a Mughal painter in the court of Jehangir and Benodebehari Mukherjee---to test the waters, and many at the KAC responded.” Also, it was here at Kasauli that Sundaram pushed for the idea that India’s artists not be hands off politics; the KAC was thus also a project in artist-making and the ground from where India’s first cultural studies were birthed, outside of an academic institution.
Anuradha Kapur, a theatre maker, former director of the National School of Drama and managing trustee of the Sher-Gil-Sundaram Arts Foundation (SSAF), speaks to TMS about the book and the KAC’s afterlife.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Vivan Sundaram was the driving spirit of the KAC but it was many artists coming together that made it work. Is a KAC possible today?
Vivan imagined Kasauli as a space where disciplines and genres became permeable. Collaborations, dialogues and material work – of many hands and bodies – were imagined and articulated.The afterlife of the KAC lies, in some senses, in imagining a connection between infrastructure and art-making; in helping to keep an acute eye on the way disciplinary boundaries are once again being both hardened and narrowed in practice and teaching in institutional structures. This energy to mix disciplinary silos will have to be kept alive in the SSAF-Kasauli Art Project (SKAP), with residencies, pedagogical actions and summer schools.
How important was Ivy Lodge for the artists?
The space and the atmosphere of Ivy Lodge affected the performers, writers, visual artists in profound ways. It permeated the bodies of performers in mysterious ways. Sandeep in Ghar aur Bahar [based on Tagore’s Ghare Baire] imagines the scale of Bimala’s aanchal to be as wide as the sky. When it was performed in Kasauli on an open-air stage made of a concrete slab that appeared to levitate over the valley twinkling with the lights of Chandigarh below, and the actor stretched his hand to point to an inky sky dotted with stars, it provided the actor with a soaring action that achieved epic scale. Down in the plains and in an auditorium, the actor would need to recreate that stretch with speech and substitute that action with a sort of energy that would at least appear to rocket the action upwards through the flies and roof of the auditorium!
How did the KAC bring about the mix of artists each year? It had a goal?
The mix each year did not have a single driving energy. The organisation’s principles could be friendships as well as even antagonisms, to produce energy and conversations. The theatre camps, for instance, were more project-orientated: which kind of performer would be interested in improvising; in working collaboratively with other disciplines, whether music, painting, or writing. Not all would be interested in this. So those who were drawn to this would agree to join.
What is the legacy of KAC you carried in your work when you came back from Kasauli to work in Delhi at NSD, and beyond?
The short answer would be that collaboration as a process of art-making became the vocabulary of my theatre-making process. I found it to be the one way that eliminated fall-back vocabularies and sparked unexpected energies and unpredictable solutions in the work. That has stayed with me.
What do you think is the influence of the KAC camps on modern Indian art and all its disciplines, in the way its theory is done and in the practice of the various disciplines in art, today?
I can speak of theatre with greater confidence here. But I think two things emerge. Pedagogically speaking, looking for genealogies to read and understand the history of theatre forms. Constructing constellations rather than a linear periodisation. In that way, you think up histories again and again; you transmit them as provisional and therefore open to change while teaching and practising. Similarly, the importance of teaching and directing through dialogue and interchange, where no ‘guru’ exists and no unidirectional flow of energy is set up.