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The Arts

Seeing the World Anew With Vivan Sundaram, Artist-Explorer

Sundaram’s retrospective exhibition is but a commemorative pause, celebrating the rich vitality of an ongoing quest.

The popular image of an explorer is invariably that of a swashbuckling figure roaming the ends of the Earth to discover its well-kept secrets. Some would say an artist is an explorer too – especially one who seeks to re-imagine the world in radically new ways, enabling the viewer to see disquieting truths usually masked by civilisational hubris.  

In over 50 years of art practice, Vivan Sundaram has been just that kind of artist-explorer. His ceaseless experimentation with new mediums, materials and forms, so as to engage with his immediate context and the ebb and flow of the world, marks him out as a singular presence among his contemporaries. As does his passion to trace the shadow of the past – history – over the present through the idea of the archive and memory.

This is borne out by the grand sweep of the artist’s first-ever retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, titled ‘Step inside and you are no longer a stranger’. Curated by Roobina Karode, it showcases around 180 works, including paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, photo-montages and regal installations. From his earliest pop kitsch paintings (1965-68) and drawings (1970s) to the latest collaborative installation, ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’ (2017), the retrospective marks the shifts in Sundaram’s artistic practice – moving away from the preeminence of painting, painterly material and the wall, towards the conceptual rigour of installation art in the 1990s, exemplifying a paradigm shift in Indian contemporary art.

Unlike most retrospectives which have a sense of finality about them, Sundaram’s retrospective is but a commemorative pause – he is 75 this year – celebrating the rich vitality of an ongoing quest; a retrospective which even as it describes the journey thus far, points unerringly to the future.

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As one enters the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), something clicks in the mind. It’s interesting that an artist who has consistently challenged the spell of distraction perfected by mass cultures should be showing his body of work at a gallery which happens to be located in a larger mall complex holding out the usual promise of never-ending consumption for all.

On second thoughts, there couldn’t be a better place for the retrospective of an artist and agent provocateur who demonstrates a rare ability to ambush oppressive and opaque contexts – political, social, economic and environmental – by coaxing new meanings through his artistic practice.

Taking the artist at his word – ‘Step inside and you are no longer a stranger’, which is the title of the show – you enter the gallery. Inside, the only way to describe Sundaram’s layered body of work (1965-2017) is as a mighty flow, with multiple eddies: a delightful glimpse of a young artist’s irreverence and political education; the search for friendships deepened with artistic associations and collaborations that are visible through the years, like a fine running stitch; a grand arc of contemporary conversations across art-historical time; an attempt to deal with his Sher-gil family lineage, where the personal and the historical overlap; and reflections on the post-colonial experience – the interplay between contemporary politics, history and memory.

By placing the works in a non-chronological fashion, the exhibition creates the possibility of new conversations; it also allows the viewer to create her own ‘trail’.

‘House’ (1994), an installation by Vivan Sundaram. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

‘House’ (1994), an installation by Vivan Sundaram. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

Perhaps it is to do with the virulent intolerance sweeping across our country that the first work to catch one’s eye is a stunning architectural installation, ‘House’ (1994, Kalamkhush handmade paper, steel, wood, water, glass, brake grease, acrylic paint, video). It carries echoes of the communal violence in Mumbai in 1992-1993, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The ‘House’ is a basic cube structure, with walls of thick handmade paper produced at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. Inside, in stark contrast to the soothing white of the inner walls is a black box on which rests a vessel with a transparent base. Through the transparent base can be seen a video loop of leaping flames devouring household furniture, in a reference to a more virulent form of communal aggression determined to occupy centre-stage.

It is on the walls that one sees the relentless marks of violence – stray limbs, shuttered windows, the sharp curve of weapons and a mineral shade of colour reminiscent of dried blood. Such is the tactile quality of the handmade paper that a slash across it is akin to the sensation of tearing flesh – a puncture in the paper becomes a lacerating wound on the body and the body politic (reminding you of Somenath Hore’s famous ‘Wounds’ series). The house is at once the family hearth, the demolished monument and the country itself. Even as the artist mourns those killed, he hopes that the flames of destruction will once again become the nourishing fire of the hearth, sustaining family and community.

In this conceptual work it is not possible to separate the political aspect from the aesthetic of materiality – it is through the latter that the artist’s political intent is immediately sensed and internalised. ‘House’ and earlier installations like the acclaimed ‘Memorial’ (1993) marked Sundaram as one of the first among contemporary artists in India to explore installation art.

‘Imperial overcast’ from the series ‘Engine oil and charcoal drawings (1991) by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

‘Imperial overcast’ from the series ‘Engine oil and charcoal drawings (1991) by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

In the next room is something equally powerful: ‘Engine oil and charcoal drawings’ (1991) on the first Gulf War, which take off from the first ever live coverage of a war. Gazing at the drawings is to be sucked right into the vortex under a sky raining bombs, suffocated by the smoke and noise. Many of the drawings show an overhead view of the landscape, echoing the aerial view of bombers raining destruction on a land known as the cradle of civilisation by the west. The titles say it all: ‘Land of the Euphrates’, ‘Soldier of Babylon’, ‘Oil Slick’, ‘Black Rain’ and ‘Desert Trail’.

The drawings carry dark stains, most dramatically in ‘Imperial Overcast’, where a malign shadow of an imperial power looms large over the land. The stains are the result of the artist’s experiment: pouring used engine oil on handmade paper kept flat on the ground, to ‘show’ what was being touted as a civilisational war was actually about oil.

It was a master stroke to use engine oil both as medium and content. As one makes the connection, the several layers of handmade paper absorbing the thick, sticky liquid seem to signify, rather become, the map or landscape of a country absorbing the impact of an oil war brought upon by a new global geopolitics. Sundaram calls it a ‘relationship of spill and stain’ – the oil spills, and a land stained by an act of violence, an act of war.

In places, several layers of the paper have been ripped off to create or isolate a form, resembling an undulating topography, again a powerful act of materiality. Two-and-a-half decades later, these searing drawings appear as relevant, if not more so – as maps of a landscape condemned to be at the mercy of an accelerated, historical greed for oil.

The engine oil drawings are placed alongside stark images from the ‘Long Night’ series (charcoal drawings on paper, 1987-88) that the artist created following a visit to Auschwitz. Almost photographic in detail, like black and white Second World War images, and reminiscent of Resnais’s Night and Fog and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the dark charcoal drawings evoke the claustrophobia of an almost ‘industrial’ terrain of extermination where humans are but clinical remains. These drawings hint at the artist’s desire to move to simpler material, which evolved into a powerful aesthetic in the coming years.

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It was in the early 1990s that Sundaram decisively moved away from painting, turning towards conceptual art, exploring installation art with architectural elements and the use of video and photography. Further, moving away from conventional fine art material, Sundaram started using everyday ‘non-art’ material for his installations. He turned to the aesthetic of the ‘found object’ or ‘readymade’ – ordinary, everyday objects, including discards, used with little or no modification. For the artist, the notion of making an artwork from something that already existed was the base. It was a challenge to see how he could re-invest the objects with a different sort of meaning. This art generated a movement away from the wall to the centre, pulling the viewer too within that space, making her a participant.

It was a time when old certitudes were getting demolished both in India and across the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was flexing its muscles in a unipolar world. The Indian economy was being opened up – ‘structural adjustment’ was the key word – and along with it the electronic media was poised to expand as never before.

Simultaneously, a new cycle of right-wing politics, intolerant of any oppositional voice, was commencing after the Babri demolition. Artists like Sundaram felt that painting could no longer grasp the granular reality of these changes. Conceptual art provided artists like him a subversive vocabulary for political and social critique and for comprehending new realities. Multi-media installations also enabled multiple voices with which to catch the complex nuances of contemporary existence. An installation like ‘House’, thus, becomes a ‘container’ for new meanings.

‘Meanings of failed action – Insurrection 1946’ (2017), installation-cum-sound work by Vivan Sundaram, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and David Chapman. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

‘Meanings of failed action – Insurrection 1946’ (2017), installation-cum-sound work by Vivan Sundaram, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and David Chapman. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

Considering that Sundaram’s works are triggered by the desire to subvert authoritarian contexts, one can’t help wondering if it was a desire to pierce the prevailing climate of political despondency that triggered his latest, majestic collaborative work, deepening the idea of subversion and resistance by recalling a heroic moment in pre-independence India that has found no place in collective memory. The reference being to the revolt of more than 10,000 Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy who rose up against their British officers – the empire – on February 18, 1946, protesting against the poor quality of food and racial discrimination. Titled ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’, the installation cum-sound work is a collaboration between Sundaram, cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and sound engineer David Chapman.

Occupying pride of place near the entrance is an immense 40-feet-long and 10-feet-tall steel and aluminium structure resembling a ship’s hull. Its exterior, painted in bands of red, yellow, green, black, brown and blue, communicates a carnivalesque air somewhat reminiscent of the colour bands of Sundaram’s ‘May 68’ phase. As you step into the ship’s ‘hold’ you are immersed in the thick of action. Amidst a pulsating choreography of sound and light, a 40-minute sound piece drawing upon archival and contemporary recordings, re-stages a remarkable moment in history.

In an adjoining space, the co-authors have painstakingly put together a collage of graphics and pictures from newspapers, political pamphlets, student journals, national and international newspapers to put forth diverse points of view. There is also an archive of documents from India and Britain pertaining to that time, and books on the subject.

In that instant you wonder how and why this all too palpable, potentially radical moment, supported wholeheartedly by Bombay’s working class and ordinary people, could not become history then. It is the artist’s hope that a re-presentation of this unresolved moment triggers subversive interventions in contemporary political contexts that have become strangleholds.

The idea of the archive dominates Sundaram’s work. As he sees it, an archive is not something static; it is constantly reinvented as material is pulled out and engaged with, coming to you as memory, as fragment with which to contest prevailing narratives.

‘The Sher-Gil family (1983-84), oil on canvas by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

‘The Sher-Gil family (1983-84), oil on canvas by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

In fact, it is quite significant that the other substantial archive presented in the retrospective is Sundaram’s exploration of his maternal family, the Sher-Gils. What’s more, the melancholic ‘Family Room’ installation is located exactly at the centre point of the display – in fact it is the core of the exhibition. In this house of spirits, through photomontages combining his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings and grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s pictures, personal belongings of family members and handwritten letters of Amrita Sher-Gil, Sundaram explores complicated family relationships, a phase of modernism that Amrita was linked with, and the experience of straddling two very different worlds.

Dominating the room is a mesmerising 6×8 feet oil painting, the ‘Sher-gil family’. Umrao Singh is a shadowy figure in the doorway; the female members are sitting in their own delineated spaces, in a tableau effect; and young Vivan is just a face reflected in the mirror as a death in the family is awaited. The artist uses devices of a hexagonal cabinet (allowing you to peer in the past); coffin-like containers for images of the Sher-Gils; box-like ‘photo albums’ with photos floating in water, the seepage showing accretions of time. These structures give a form of containment and distancing for the viewer to engage with them like found objects, says the artist. They also add to the depth of the room, giving it the air of a film mise en scene. And the Sher-Gil family waits for the spell to be broken.

’12 Bed ward’ (2005), an installation by Vivan Sundaram. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

’12 Bed ward’ (2005), an installation by Vivan Sundaram. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

When artists like Sundaram adopted the idea of arte povera –‘poor art’, or the use of everyday material – they were challenging the idea of commodification of art, for the fate of a site specific installation is to be dismantled. However, just as the artist used oil as both medium and content for his drawings of the Gulf War, he has used recycled waste material to politically articulate the question of inequity and disparity, displacement and distress migration.

Take the intense installation work, the ‘12 bed ward’. In an ill-lit room are placed 12 iron-framed beds, their surface made up of shoe soles placed in a crisscross weave. The bodies of the shoes are missing. There’s an air of brooding or disquiet in the room, a heaviness that bespeaks violence of many kinds. As to where this ward is – in a hospital, institution, camp – is not very clear.

In truth, the soles have been salvaged and recycled. They are proof that waste pickers have created some order in a decaying urban landscape affected by the consequences of excessive consumption. Yet, even as they do so, their own lives remain as fragile as ever, and as ‘disembodied’ by the blow of invisible policies.

In these abstract, conceptual works, leavened by a sharp political articulation inseparable from their tactile materiality, there is no typical human figure to be seen. Yet all you can sense in these powerful works is the presence of the human who is invariably rendered invisible by the overhang of grand narratives, be it colonial, neocolonial or neoliberal.

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One is curious to know just how far back this political instinct can be traced in Sundaram’s practice. Now the artist’s early work becomes an archive through which his history needs to be excavated! The earliest works on view date back to 1965-66 – when he had just emerged out of the Baroda school of art, mentored by masters like K.G. Subramanyan – to 1968, reflecting his time spent at the Slade School in London, under the watchful eye of influential artist R.B. Kitaj who greatly influenced British Pop.

From these early works it is clear that a desire to experiment with material to re-present the world has always been part of his make-up. It shows in an early act of irreverence of overlaying tourism material with graffiti: an apsara from Khajuraho with her hand on her forehead bears a Sundaram caption, “If your head’s aching, take Aspro” (1965-66). Below the title ‘Khajuraho’ is the legend – ‘through the eyes of an iconoclast”. These publications would perhaps be called found objects today; then it was part of the aesthetic of collage which the artist has always preferred for the layers of references – even oppositional – it allows. Similarly, his colour-drenched paintings, giving a touch of robust pop to religious and secular kitsch, like ‘Cages’ are largely done in household enamel paint.

Vivan Sundaram standing next to his painting ‘May 68’ (1968). Credit: Ajay Jaiman

Vivan Sundaram standing next to his painting ‘May 68’ (1968). Credit: Ajay Jaiman

The burnished paintings of the London period show a more expansive arc of experience – experiments in geometric abstraction and figuration fuse with the exultation of an awakening of political imagination. On one wall the youthful vitality of ‘May 68’ remains undimmed as the drama on canvas captures the drama on the streets – parallel bands suggestive of the Paris barricades, the defiant human figure in white and the hint of a red sickle starting from the region of the brain (consciousness). On another wall, in the painting From Stan Brakhage to Persian Miniature (1968), the artist explores the aesthetic of Brackhage’s experimental, non-narrative cinema based on emphasising the very materiality of film.

‘Chain/LinK/Step/Knives’, ink drawing from the Machu Picchu series (1972) by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

‘Chain/LinK/Step/Knives’, ink drawing from the Machu Picchu series (1972) by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

To watch the unfurling of political imagination through visual explorations is an absorbing exercise. From the colour rush of ‘May 68’ to ‘black and white’ ink drawings from the 1970s reflects a phase of Sundaram’s growing artistic engagement with Marxist organisations in India at the time. The ‘Mexico series’ emerged from a visit to the country with a vast heritage and radical mural tradition. Alongside are Sundaram’s exquisite filigree-like ink drawings tracing the epic cadence of Pablo Neruda’s ‘Heights of Macchu Picchu’ (1945). The almost ‘aural’ visuals are inspired by the poem; the artist had not even seen any photographs of the Inca citadel. In the stunningly intricate work is a quest to match the poet’s progress – where an impassioned ‘spiritual’ journey to the heights of Macchu Picchu is transformed into an act of Communist solidarity with the oppressed of Latin America.

Sundaram’s search for a similar sense of artistic solidarity, or community, takes you to a room full of large paintings (1981-1991). It is titled ‘A Place for People’, which happens to be the title of a seminal exhibition organised in Delhi and Mumbai in 1981 by a group of artists such as Sundaram, Gulam Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Jogen Chowdhury and Sudhir Patwardhan (all hailing from the Baroda school’s narrative figurative style). The group came together on the basis of similar concerns – to address issues arising from their urban milieu or context, social, political and personal.

Here, in the churn of Sundaram’s richly painted universe you see topical social issues reflected in ‘Guddo’ (based on the Mathura rape case) and a circle of friends and fellow activists – radical artist K.P. Krishnakumar, who tragically committed suicide, and theatre activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered in 1989 during the performance of the street play Halla Bol, leading Sundaram and other artists to form the cultural platform SAHMAT.

‘Wedding anniversary’ (2005) from the ‘Bad drawings for dost’ series; pencil, tracing paper, thread on paper; by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

‘Wedding anniversary’ (2005) from the ‘Bad drawings for dost’ series; pencil, tracing paper, thread on paper; by Vivan Sundaram. Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

One of the most delicate yet strong threads running through the retrospective is the expression of Sundaram’s long-lasting friendship with Bhupen Khakhar. ‘Bad drawings for dost’ (2005), made after Khakhar’s death, is a requiem for a friend for which Sundaram got back to drawing after nearly a decade taking an unusual approach – tracing parts of Khakhar’s paintings on butter paper and sewing them on to white paper, the stitches signifying a connection at various levels. The fluorescent shades of Khakhar’s paintings have now assumed the gossamer whiteness of remembrance (at the artist’s insistence on the delicacy of his tribute, the floor too was of white linoleum).

While the drawing is on the tracing paper, the pencil lines give the impression of veins visible beneath the skin, like a last lingering whiff of the friend. The works also remind you of that faithful friend of memory – old world photo albums in which butter paper would be placed between two leaves. The drawings have been placed in a space right next to Sundaram’s riotously coloured pop paintings from his Baroda days, which inaugurated his friendship with Khakhar. Between the bright shades and whiteness is a lifetime of association mediated through sociable and discursive artistic practice.

‘409 Ramkinkars’ (2015), miniaturised terracotta recasts by Vivan Sundaram and a group of young artists. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

‘409 Ramkinkars’ (2015), miniaturised terracotta recasts by Vivan Sundaram and a group of young artists. Credit: Ajay Jaiman

Sundaram firmly believes that artistic conversations across time – art-historical assessments – are crucial for an artist’s creativity, for “an earlier/older artist can inspire a leap into the unknown”. At the very entrance to the show is the artist’s striking tribute to the modernist master Ramkinkar Baij, which takes on the qualities of just such a dialogue across time. Across a swathe of space 33 feet long, cut like steps to indicate a kinetic movement, is the striking sight of 409 miniaturised terracotta recasts of two of Baij’s iconic, fluid sculptures – ‘Santhal family’ (1938) in a migratory mode, and ‘Mill Call’(1956) which shows the Santhal family becoming part of the factory workforce. The latter was made at a time when Baij, following the Great Bengal famine and the work done by Indian People’s Theatre Association, had become a fellow traveller on the Left.

In the striking sweep of the terracotta recasts prepared by Sundaram with a group of artists for a collaborative performance-cum-installation work in 2015, one notices something different. The vertical scale and singular concrete mass of Baij’s sculptures has given way to a horizontal mass of Baij ‘readymades’ signifying a burst of chaotic energy through replication, catching the dynamism of movement that appealed to Baij. The effect of ‘one’ becoming a multitude is startling. As the artist sees it, the Santhal family and the working family have come together once more. Surely, this artistic intervention spells hope for the possibility of visualising a radical opening in politics as well?

Instead of merely “duplicating events, beliefs, politics and affiliations” in tribute to a master, Sundaram seeks to put them “into a type of dialogue with the contemporary and for the contemporary, for the way events or people are “remembered, written, archived, staged and performed, helps to create the history they become.”

There is another image from the retrospective which stays in the mind like a dream, a myth, a wish, a quest. In one of the rooms is an upturned boat held up by the oars to form a shelter (‘Carrier’, 1996). Its sides are encrusted with the objects needed to sustain everyday life. Painted white, it makes you think of a pristine snowscape in a film, awaiting the first footfalls of congregation, conviviality and conversation – a new, human world.

One leaves the tactile presence of Sundaram’s works with a feeling of having seen the world anew. It’s true; you do not feel a stranger after stepping into the gallery. To see the work of an artist true to his material is to catch a glimpse of a politics that is life affirming. Even when you step out of the exhibition, you are no longer a stranger.

Chitra Padmanabhan is a journalist and translator.