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Vivan Sundaram: Remembering another soldier

Vivan Sundaram's new installation immerses its viewer in a pre-independence insurrection in the navy

The steel and aluminium ‘ship’. Photo: Gireesh GV/Courtesy Vivan Sundaram
The steel and aluminium ‘ship’. Photo: Gireesh GV/Courtesy Vivan Sundaram

You hardly know what to expect as you walk into the steel and aluminium “ship" stationed in Vivan Sundaram’s New Delhi studio. Inside it, three benches face each other. Once the lights dim, a 42-minute soundwork by British artist David Chapman takes over. The sounds of a dockyard come alive, a babble of voices, of naval officers and ratings—Indian and British, rise as white, blue and red lights dance through the structure.

Titled Meanings Of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, the installation looks at the events of February 1946, when Royal Indian Navy ratings, supported by Bombay’s trade unions, rebelled against the British officers. Sundaram has created the structure within which history comes alive. A collage conceptualized by cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and film historian Valentina Vitali brings together newspaper reports in multiple languages. Edited excerpts:

Vivan Sundaram. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Could you elaborate on your idea of the ‘ship’?

This structure carries forth my engagement with form and abstraction. I explored this relationship in Memorial, which was shown at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in 2014 (a digitized archive of modern and contemporary art, parts of Memorial were about the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai). (This work) also continues my engagement with a specific documentary image. The soundwork required a large abstract structure with minimal aesthetics. It has an architectural function—it serves as a holding area for a performance.

Did the stories affect your perception of the event?

We got exceptional archival recordings from the Imperial War Museums, London. Ashish also brought in recordings from Dalit poets. Snippets from Utpal Dutt’s play Kallol, based on the incident, also form part of this collage of voices. All these have been placed in a cultural context. I spent a lot of time in Mumbai in the 1970s, where I met B.C. Dutt, through his wife. He used to be a rating on the HMIS Talwar and one of the key figures in what came to be known as the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.

Dutt wrote Mutiny Of The Innocents, a first-hand account of the event. The work connects me, as an artist, to a crucial pre-independence moment. It also carries forth my engagement with performance. Two years ago, I collaborated with 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. (Then as now) I have tried to explore the relationship between installation art and immersive theatre.

At the end, as the spotlight moves over the heads of the audience, it feels like we are invested with a role in the work. Was it designed like that?

When I first thought of the idea, I wanted to put the beam directly on the faces of those seated. But because of the largeness of the structure, the beam moves above the head. Also, I didn’t want the audience to feel implicated by the beam. I was hoping for a 360-degree movement, but 270 degrees is equally good. Also, the viewers sit facing each other. There are some aspects of theatre in the work. The movement brings the unknown soldier, the unknown name, back into the circle.

The Delhi preview of Meanings Of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 was supported by the Vadehra Art Gallery. It will be shown from 17-25 March at the Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai.

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