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Vivan Sundaram, a reteller of memories

Vivan Sundaram always put people first—whether working on the family history of the Sher-Gils or raising his voice against social injustice

An installation shot from ‘Vivan Sundaram, A Retrospective: Fifty Years; Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger’, 9 February-20 July 2018, curated by Roobina Karode. All image: courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
An installation shot from ‘Vivan Sundaram, A Retrospective: Fifty Years; Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger’, 9 February-20 July 2018, curated by Roobina Karode. All image: courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

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In the 1990s, artist Vivan Sundaram moved away from the traditional form of oil painting, finding it an isolating process. And yet, to my mind, if there is one work from his extensive oeuvre that offers a glimpse into his subconscious, it is a 6x8ft oil painting from 1983-84, titled The Sher-Gil Family. I saw it when it was displayed at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in 2018 as part of the artist’s retrospective, Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger.

It had a wispy, dream-like quality. According to KNMA’s Roobina Karode, who curated the show to mark 50 years of the artist’s career, the women of the family could be seen sitting in one room, yet they seemed isolated, trapped in thoughts of their own. The artist’s late aunt, Amrita Sher-Gil, was shown in the foreground, in the middle of the act of painting. And yet, Karode feels that instead of the canvas, her gaze was directed at the viewers, as if urging them to come closer and investigate the scene further. Sundaram, who died last week, placed himself in the work as a young boy whose shadow was reflected in a mirror. A pistol on the table enhanced the sense of melancholia and impending doom. Karode had long conversations with Sundaram at the time about the melancholy in the family and the preoccupation with death.

Sundaram spent decades understanding and retelling the complex family history of the Sher-Gil-Sundaram family—of his grandfather, scholar-photographer Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, aunt, Amrita, and mother, Indira. This took the form of projects such as Re-Take Of Amrita, a series of black and white digital photomontages based on archival photographs taken by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, and the installation series The Sher-Gil Archive. In fact, the archive went on to become his favourite subject. “He had not even been born when Amrita passed away. I find it fascinating, his obsession with a person who had departed young, and his reliving of that through the archives,” says Karode.

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In the show, Sundaram placed portraits of his father and a two-channel video of his mother playing the piano. There were black boxes with photographs of family members who had died. And right at the centre of the room was a cabinet, featuring a closed briefcase. “He had an intense preoccupation with objects that had survived their owners. Some of the boxes, which he had shown earlier in Re-take Of Amrita, featured little combs. But this box lying shut was quite telling in itself—it was this idea of inaccessibility and retrieval which preoccupied him and his frequent turning to the archive,” says Karode.

Nalini Malani is perhaps the other artist from that generation who moved towards a multimedia practice, yet Sundaram’s oeuvre is very different, entrenched as it is in memory. In rough notes, penned while conceptualising the retrospective, Karode had written four words: recycle, retake, retrieve and reiterate. And now that she looks back, it definitely felt that Sundaram was focused on the retrieval of time. From publishing Amrita Sher-Gil’s letters to creating digital montages, he was trying to collapse notions of time and space. “The archive was central to his work, as he was always trying to create an archaeology of images. I found a similar resonance in his drawings, be it the ones done in graphite, charcoal or the Engine Oil series,” she adds.

'Eclipse’ (1991), charcoal on paper, enamel on acrylic sheet, from the collection of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.
'Eclipse’ (1991), charcoal on paper, enamel on acrylic sheet, from the collection of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

Born in Shimla, Sundaram studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Vadodara and at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. 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. However, certain aspects of his painting remained when he took to multimedia—be it installation, sculpture, video art or photo archival work. Karode finds threads of continuity that connect his paintings and installations—such as building and assembling disparate forms, or working with signs and symbols that come together in different spatial frames.

This breaking of the mould was a radical move at the time. “The paintings, especially the ones he made when he was part of the student protests in London (1968), helped me in understanding how he took a direction so different from that of his colleagues and friends,” says Karode.

If Karode has memories of the emotional persona behind the prolific and articulate artist, artist/photographer Ram Rahman remembers just how quick Sundaram was to stand up against social injustice. In fact, he played a crucial role not just in helping set up the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or Sahmat, in 1989 after the activist’s murder but also in conceiving programmes.

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The first exhibition the trust organised that year, Artists Alert, brought the arts community together and helped raise funds. “It was also an act of solidarity. Artists protested against what had happened by contributing their work. It was the beginning of Sahmat’s role in art activism and Vivan had a huge role in approaching artists from across India for that,” says Rahman, who worked on involving photographers in what became one of the first shows to place photography on a par with other art forms. Sahmat emerged as a platform that used art to make statements. Many programmes, such as Postcards For Gandhi and Gift For India, were conceptualised by Sundaram.

“At that time, Shamshad Hussain, I and some others were collectively discussing and conceiving ideas but the energy that Vivan brought was fantastic. Whenever there was a sense of injustice—for instance, the attacks on (the late artist M.F.) Husain, Vivan would get very agitated. He would immediately call and say, ‘We have to do something’,” reminisces Rahman. They would organise meetings, write letters to the President, and more. Sundaram, Rahman and other Sahmat members actively took their concerns to the political leadership of the day.

“Be it any issue—the attacks on students in Vadodara or ban on film screenings across India—he would immediately call and discuss what could be done. He played an important role in keeping the community aware and alert to things that were going on. He was in touch with student groups across the country through Sahmat and his call for collective action kept the art community together in a progressive space,” says Rahman. In recent years, with his health failing, Sundaram was unable to attend meetings physically, yet he was part of the statement signed by 75 artists, writers, researchers and others against the redevelopment of the Central Vista in Delhi, especially when the pandemic was raging.

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

Rahman notes Sundaram’s engagement with student groups. His interest in the practice of the younger generation impressed Karode too: “I don’t think I can say this of any artist, who has been more committed to taking on conversations with, and critiques of, the emerging artists across generations. He was a visiting fellow at Jamia Millia Islamia and conducted workshops for students. But most importantly, he was always there for them. If younger artists called him to their shows, he would make it a point to be there.”

In fact, he started the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation in 2016 not just to carry forward the legacy of the family but also to support artistic and cultural practices that deal with historical memory. Founded on the tenets of secular freedom of expression, it has offered grants to artists such as Prajakta Potnis and Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar, co-founder, Dalit Panthers Archive, in the past.

Potnis was, in fact, the second artist to be awarded a grant for photography—the theme that year being staged photography. She recalls Sundaram’s close involvement at every step of the way, from selection to offering guidance during the grant duration. “We were to give updates on how the work was progressing and Vivan would always drop in a line regarding the new challenges that someone was taking on,” says Potnis. The grant offered her the support and space to push her practice, away from the pressures of exhibition making— with Sundaram motivating her too. He would ask pointed questions about why she was using particular materials. “It really helped to have that artist-mentor, who was involved in the process. The most valuable thing for an artist is feedback, a mentor who truthfully reacts to a work. One doesn’t see a lot these days. It was a very inspiring process,” she adds.

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