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Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023): The artist-activist who found new meanings in the archive

The artist, who passed away at the age of 79, always responded to political and historical events in his multidisciplinary practice, making him one of the most important voices in Indian contemporary art

A file photo of Vivan Sundaram at his home. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 29.03.2023  |  01:30 PM IST

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Artist Vivan Sundaram often called himself the “child of May 1968". After all, it was during that period that he created one of his most landmark series of works, loosely titled the ‘London paintings’. These were inspired by the student protests in the city at the time. The artist, who passed away today at the age of 79 in Delhi, continued to respond to political and historical events throughout his practice, making him one of the most important voices in Indian contemporary art. He is survived by his wife—art historian and curator Geeta Kapur. 

His demise has seen an outpouring of grief not just from within the art world but from people of all walks of life. While he had a firm stand on political issues, he was extremely warm and embracing of those around him. It was easy to talk to him not just about art but also about philosophy, history, and more. Sundaram was extremely encouraging of his peers and younger artists as well, visiting exhibitions in the city regularly with Kapur. In recent years, it was a familiar sight to see the two figures, seated in wheelchairs, observing the artworks and asking questions of the curator and the artist. 


Born in Shimla, Sundaram studied first at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda and then at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. There, he came under the influence of his tutor R.B. Kitaj, an American artist who had spent most of his life in London. “He was part of the pop painting movement. But he was very much an intellectual painter, referring to political events, narratives and to theorists such as Walter Benjamin. For about six months or so that he came to see my work, he really made me think about what I was painting," Sundaram told Lounge in a 2018-interview. 

The student protests in London didn’t just impact his work, but also prompted him to explore politics and activism further. The artist went on to join the 1960s European students movement. Curator Akansha Rastogi, in an essay published in India Perspectives in 2010—and now available for reading on the website of the Critical Collective—talks about his continuing political commitment on his return to India in 1970 as well when he joined the Communist Party. Later, he became one of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or SAHMAT. 

Also read: Contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram dies

Sundaram continued to be one of the most vocal artists till his last breath—in 2021, he was part of a group of 75 scholars, writers, artists, and more, who called for the Indian government to reconsider the Central Vista redevelopment plan, especially given the outbreak of the pandemic.

Conversations with Sundaram had always been about “flashbacks". He would often revisit and recount stories of “chance encounters" that informed each of his artworks, spanning sculpture, installation, video art, photo archival work and painting. This urge to revisit archives of memories, moments and documentary evidence —be it historical or personal—was visible in his work as well. Take, for instance, 'Meanings of Failed Insurrection 1946’ (2016), a collaborative installation created with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and film historian Valentina Vitali, and soundwork by David Chapman. The work, housed within a 40-feet-long steel and aluminium ship, looked at the events of February 1946 when Royal Indian Navy ratings, supported by Bombay’s trade unions, rebelled against the British officers. 

“Today, there seems to be an archival fever of sorts," Sundaram used to say. He, however, delved into archives way back in the 1990s, long before the art world’s preoccupation with it, when he presented The Sher-Gil Archive. In this series, he looked at the photos taken by his maternal grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, an aristocrat from Punjab who spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge. “Umrao Singh’s preoccupation with photography was a private affair, about which he left behind no writings. He printed his negatives, experimenting with toning formulae that master printers would employ. Over 3000 vintage prints along with glass plates and film negatives have since survived. In 2001, his grandson, the artist Vivan Sundaram, made digital photomontages using Umrao Singh’s self-portraits and family portraits to create fictional narratives, and presented them as Retake of Amrita," states a note by the Delhi-based PHOTOINK gallery, which has showed Sundaram’s photo archival work in the past. 


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Also read: Vivan Sundaram and his photographic eye

In the 2018 interview he talked about how painting was an isolating process, as a result of which he moved away from it after his last show of paintings in 1990. He moved away from conventional painting after the outbreak of the Gulf war in 1991 with a series of 40 drawings, Engine Oil and Charcoal. “Occupying a place in between drawing, painting and installation, these compositions mark a pivotal moment in the artist’s practice at a crucial historical juncture… .The slick of crude oil becomes his medium, as he begins staining the surfaces of his paper with it to convey the televised accounts of the war," reads an extract from Saloni Mathur’s A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art. Duke University Press, Durham, 2019. 

The exhibition of Engine Oil and Charcoal. held at two public spaces—the Shridharani in Delhi and the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay (presented by Chemould Prescott Road) was a revelation to many. “Most of these works were sold to collectors of that time - but more than that, my strongest memory was the presence of students during the course of not only the exhibition, but also the installation of the show. I think it was a moment of reckoning both for us as gallerists and for the audience for works to be perceived in this courageous way," says Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road in a statement. 

Another significant work from that time was Memorial (1993), a site-specific installation made in response to the communal violence in Mumbai. “Vivan would be considered one of the earliest "breakthrough artists". He truly was the trailblazer. Often one considers artists who paved the way as it were, giving courage to others to walk that path, Vivan was that when it comes to installation art. It was a new term, fairly unknown to the contemporary world," says Gandhy. 

Collaboration was one of the cornerstones of Sundaram’s work. The Lounge article elaborates on how over time, the architecture of a space and the people that inhabited it—photographers, craftsmen, technicians, audience—became important. His work became about collective energies and synergies. In an interview, cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote discussed how Sundaram was not alone in the 1990s in feeling that the painted surface was no longer able to contain the powerful response by the artists to the sociopolitical issues of the times. “It is with this idea that I started the Kasauli Art Centre [as a cultural product to question and debate] as well. I would ask Nalini (Malani) or Bhupen (Khakhar) or Nilima Sheikh to start a figure in a painting and I would continue it," Sundaram had said. 

Also read: Vivan Sundaram: Remembering another soldier

Later in 2015, he engaged with theatre practitioners, Anuradha Kapur and Shantanu Bose, in the show 409 Ramkinkars, which explored various facets of Ramkinkar Baij -- as a sculptor, painter, scenographer, singer and theatre artiste. “Through with Meanings of Failed Action, I have tried to explore the relationship between installation art and immersive theatre," Sundaram had said. 

Sundaram’s work has been part of significant shows and retrospectives such as Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi in 2018, and Disjunctures held at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, between June 2018-January 2019. The show at the KNMA, curated by Roobina Karode, emerged from a need for a “comprehensive representation of his work in India", and the radical shifts in mediums in his practice. “I was interested in the threads running through his work—the constant appearance of boats, beds and trash, the back and forth between concepts, ideas and materials in his constantly changing practice," said Karode at the time. 

One of his last commissions was for the ongoing Sharjah Biennale 15: Thinking Historically in the Present, conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi. Sundaram was one of the 30 artists commissioned to develop new work. “I present a photography-based project, Six Stations of a Life Pursued (2022), a choreography of bodies that have undergone violence, experienced incarceration, and lived through mourning. The sixth ‘station’ signifies a journey premised on the historical and rehearsed with activist resolve." stated Sundaram at the time of the commission. The work, in a way, is a summation of a nearly six-decade-long practice, which never shied from experimentation and interrogation of issues that mattered.