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‘My art warrior’: a gallerist remembers Vivan Sundaram

Shireen Gandhy looks back at how Vivan Sundaram, the inimitable activist-archivist-artist never stopped venturing into uncharted waters

Vivan Sundaram and Shireen Gandhy at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013. All images: courtesy Chemould Prescott Road
Vivan Sundaram and Shireen Gandhy at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2013. All images: courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

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Vivan Sundaram’s friends were used to getting updates twice a day on a WhatsApp vigil group formed five weeks before his passing. Vivan had been fragile for so long, and had fought so many health battles, that it felt natural that this was just one more to fight, which he would get through. It was his 80th year, and this “art-warrior”, as I like to think of him, had big plans. He had just completed his project for the Sharjah Biennale curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, and was looking forward to the installation of his 1993/2014 work, Memorial, a recent acquisition by the Tate Modern in the UK.

There was also the Kasauli residency book, documenting the numerous art residencies the artist had organised between the 1970s-80s. To add to that, the very active events roster of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation. There was no way he was ready to go anywhere and he knew he had to battle it out. Vivan’s body, however, had other plans. Life is not fair but this is one argument you cannot win.

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

For me, the last week has been one of gathering memories. It feels like a daunting task. How does one recollect an intimate friendship and professional interactions spanning several decades? One of the first solo exhibitions I ever witnessed was Vivan’s in 1988. Titled, Long Night, the show featured dark textured charcoal landscapes of natural calamities. Many of his exhibitions in the early 1990s were held at the Jehangir Art Gallery, including his swansong to traditional oil painting, soon after which he began his foray into sculptural installations.

His exhibition in 1992, Collaboration/Combines of sculptural objects,was a monumental multi-dimensional one. If I was new to this form of art, so was my (at that time) 25-year-old gallery, run until then by my parents. Two nails on a wall with strings is how we had managed until then. Never had we had to "install" art in that way. And suddenly here we were handling an operation! We called upon students from the Sir JJ School of Art to come to our rescue. I remember Bose Krishnamachari being one of those boys who helped us. It was truly a collaboration. Compilations of postcards from friends, photographs by artists, writers, were pasted within large granite structures. A combination of materials—paper sculpture pasted on finely painted wood surfaces, large paper columns, tents made in paper and painted with engine oil, and so on. It was for many of us a wildly exciting moment of possibilities! I have a memory of the students being a big part of this excitement, which undoubtedly percolated into their subconscious.

I look back to that exhibition as a benchmark of how we would change track. Vivan opened the doors for us to welcome other artists, who began to work in mediums other than two-dimensional paintings. In my 20s, I felt like I was on to something new in the art world. I can now say, unequivocally, that Vivan was the trailblazer in all this. This was the beginning of a new chapter for Vivan—working with mediums like engine oil, or cast sculpture as he did for the seminal work, Memorial, the first fully realised installation by any Indian artist—and there was no stopping him. He would dream and he would make. There were no hesitations.

Also read: The house where Jamini Roy lived

'Bourgeois Family, Mirror Frieze', digital photomontage, 2001
'Bourgeois Family, Mirror Frieze', digital photomontage, 2001

But in all this was also Vivan the activist. Something was brimming within him and those around him. In the 1990s, art and politics were converging in a very real way. In fact, Vivan had been doing that years before with his drawings on the Emergency, or The Heights Of Macchu Picchu (based on Pablo Neruda poems). It was Vivan who introduced us to SAHMAT, (an art-activism collective started in Safdar Hashmi’s memory). India was at a tipping point in the early 1990s with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. For us at the gallery, the inclusion of our activities with SAHMAT, and the artists we engaged with, began to reflect our identity as that of a gallery-activist.

And then came Vivan, the archivist-artist, who moved from large installations to confronting the legacy of his maternal family—the Sher-Gils. Retake of Amrita was possibly the first time an artist in India was working with photoshop/photomontage; and later The Shergil Archive (making art out of the letter exchanges between his aunt and artist Amrita Sher-Gil and her family) or the absolutely exemplary, seminal two-volume book on Amrita.

Vivan was becoming a multi-disciplinary in the true sense of the word. He worked with sculptural installations, photo-based works, performances (409 Ramkinkars in collaboration with Anuradha Kapur), and more. He created interventions within a museum space with the History Project looked at fashion through his own ongoing preoccupation with trash and rag-pickers in works like Trash/ Gagawaka/ Postmortum Gagawaka). There was no stopping this Sundaram!

Also read: An art exhibition showcases the pulsating energy of Ambadas’s canvases

However, let me take you back to the personal space. I have not yet mentioned the other pea in the Sundaram family pod—his wife, his lover, intellectual partner, writer (and often title-giver), and his curator: the inimitable cultural theorist Geeta Kapur. She also happened to be Chemould’s guest curator. In fact, the gallery had the distinction of being the only private gallery that she curated six exhibitions for, especially to mark its 40th and 50th years.

While Geeta was the curator for the shows, it will be difficult to separate her artist-partner from the process. Vivan was the vital piece to our symphony, without which none of this would have been possible. He held a mirror, was that person that we bounced ideas off, the one she would confer with on exhibition design, and also the one who carried her bag! He was present with her, every step of the way, and it was difficult to tear them apart.

I look back at those times of working so intensely on exhibitions together—the privilege, the joy, the heartburns (at times), and the sheer knowledge that one gained from the combined forces of Geeta and Vivan. I look back at the confidence that they gave me (unknowingly) to look ahead at my life as a gallerist.

In such a long journey that I shared with Vivan, there were bound to be outbursts and arguments. I can recall an incident from the exhibition, Post-Mortem Gagawaka. I was a huge fan of the first iteration, Gagawaka (the trash/fashion show). However, Post-Mortem Gagawaka was not my favorite. It happens in the life of every gallerist that we sometimes don’t love everything the artist does. The said exhibition was, for me, a dark space. Anyone who knows me is versed with my issues around death and the dying. This exhibition was just that. For Vivan, however, this project was important, and I was not going to deny him the space. It was all his to install, the infrastructure was provided in totality. But somewhere along the way, Vivan began to notice my withdrawal from it.

My response was not intended to be seen or heard, but my body language spoke otherwise, and being the artist that he was, Vivan picked up on it. Naturally he let me know at some point. His hurt did not leave me untouched. What really hurt me, was how much I hurt him. Unable to articulate my thoughts in person I returned home to write a heartfelt, truthful letter of apology for hurting him as I did, but also a confession of why I disliked the exhibition. He never got back to me, but I knew the letter was enough for us to pick up our friendship and continue then on. It never was a barrier after that.

Much has been said about his engagement with his new body of work, titled Six Stations Of A Life Pursued, made for Sharjah Biennale 15; his childlike curiosity to continue to explore, to imagine, to jump into unknown terrains once again—translating ideas to those who would be his collaborators. Eventually, my being in Sharjah for the opening of the event in February 2023 (sadly, without Vivan), witnessing these conversations coming to fruition, was a moment of reckoning. The Vivan, who was yet able to combine the personal, the public, the collaborative, took me three decades back to the time of installing Collaboration/Combines.

On 27 March 2021, he sent me a random message, and I quote: “Have you read ‘X’s’ piece on the edit page of The Indian Express today, directed to you as the big guns in the world of fast-moving digital global commons for the smart young art makers, who can promote their art without galleries? He is singing your death epitaph (mine included). Love to you and Kurush, Vivan.” The piece was about NFT (non-fungible tokens) and the moving away from the real to the digital. When I think back to that message, I wonder if Vivan had had the time and energy, I bet anyone’s money that he would be in that NFT space before any other. That was him, ever-ready to plunge into uncharted waters.

Now on your onward journey, I have no doubt that you, Mr Sundaram, are going to continue to wave your wand. And we mortals you leave behind will continue to breathe the legacy that you have so richly laid the path for.

Goodbye, my brave art warrior!

Shireen Gandhy is the director of Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.

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