A tribute to multiplicity: Remembering one of India's leading artists Vivan Sundaram
Vivan Sundaram’s obituary in the New York Times honoured him as “a political and pivotal, figure in Indian art”. The maestro who died in March this year aged 79 was a seminal figure who delved into spaces that were political and highly inter-textual. At the inaugural edition of Art Mumbai last weekend, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) paid homage to the multi-disciplinary genius. On show were drawings, sculptural objects, and photographs from his expansive body of work. In her curatorial note, Roobina Karode, director and chief curator at KNMA, writes, “One of the most influential figures of his generation, Vivan Sundaram articulated his position as someone who constantly pushed for the agency of art. Having transcended the confines of space and time, he now re-lives his presence in and through his art that remains open-ended, inviting more conversations and interpretations.”
Born in the illustrious Sher-Gil family—his mother Indira Sher-Gil was the sister of noted modernist Amrita Sher-Gil—Sundaram studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda in 1961 under the influential KG Subramanyan, who called his protégé’s debut exhibition “the living scene”. Five years later, the young artist enrolled in a course in the History of Cinema at the Slade School of Art, London, where the works by American filmmaker Stan Brakhage made a lasting impression.
In fact, his 1968 series, From Persian Miniatures to Stan Brakhage, drew from this inspirational encounter. He began his career with painting, but soon started pushing boundaries. “He had a precarious art practice; it was never the same,” Karode says, adding that it was a practice in transformation. Sundaram opened up to the multiple references coming into his work and experimented with varied mediums. “He combined drawing, painting, installing, montaging, and collaging. The medium became more important for him, because it was also in one sense, repurposing the meaning for him,” the curator shares.
Sundaram’s archival impulse led him to create his own interpretation of history, or a cultural era. For instance, in his 2001 pigment print-on-paper series Re-take of Amrita—black and white photomontages based on archival photos of the Sher-Gil family—he collapses the boundaries of time and space. His main preoccupations were: Retake, Recycle and Relive. At the same time, he was not disconnected from the reality. The growing waste in the cities concerned him to the point where he started working with waste pickers.
He went on to build, as part of his series titled Trash, an installation made with discarded objects to make a master plan for a city, which was photographed from several vantage points. A 1996 video installation Carrier shows a raft made with discarded plastic bottles floating on the Yamuna River—Sundaram’s attempt to draw attention to plastic waste choking the waters. Active till the very end, he worked on a photography-based project, Six Stations of a Life Pursued, for the Sharjah Biennial’s 30th anniversary edition.
“Vivan’s work in the recent decades was thought-provoking and necessary, pointing out our misdemeanours, the caprices of human life controlled by a few, the mass migrations, our consumptions, our avarice poised against our need. He was the Arundhati Roy of the art world, the keeper at the door holding up a coruscating mirror to our times and lives,” says Kishore Singh, Senior VP, DAG. The connection Sundaram formed with activism from his early student days—he was an active participant in the students’ movement of May 1968 in France and helped set up a commune in London where he lived till 1970—found a voice in his works.
The Gulf War series uses crude engine oil and charcoal on paper as a comment on the massive oil spills. “Oil was money; oil was power, and so he used engine oil to layer it with charcoal which also produced a smoky effect,” Karode explains, adding that Sundaram’s inter-disciplinary work and his commitment to addressing socio-political issues through art make him an important contemporary Indian artist, whose presence and influence will be felt by subsequent generations. “His work pushes the envelope of art practice—working with fashion designers to make garments out of garbage or working with film directors or architects,” she says.
This collaborative practice is the way forward.