The Arts

The Vivan I Knew, Lively, Energetic and Pathbreaking in His Art and Life

The artist broke new ground in his work, both in form and content, signalling a disenchantment with the establishment

Vivan: derived from Sanskrit, meaning ‘to twist’ or ‘to plait’ in the context of weaving.

Also popularly believed to mean ‘lively’ and thereby, alludes to young Krishna, who performed allegorical deeds, or ‘leelas’.

In retrospect, Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023), who passed away in Delhi last week, lived up to both those descriptions. As an artist and activist, Vivan plaited together generations of Indian artists and genres of art practice from the mid-1960s onwards. Although he was about 15 years younger to my father J. Swaminathan, Vivan was one of his earliest artist friends.

In October 1963, my father and 11 of his contemporaries held an important exhibition as a group at the newly opened galleries of the Lalit Kala Akademi. They called themselves ‘Group 1890’. The exhibition was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru and the catalogue essay was written by Octavio Paz. Vivan was still a student at the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Baroda, at the time and my father’s friends from ‘Group 1890’, notably Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Jeram Patel and Jyoti Bhatt, were also from there. That was when I first saw the young, handsome and dashing Vivan. I was eight years old.

Three years later, Vivan held his first one-man show at the Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi. My father had written a short text for the catalogue of that exhibition. “Most of modern Indian art has very much been in line with the ‘glorious’. It was necessary that there were some to lay bare the putrid flesh, to present the grotesqueness of our visage in the mirror of truth, to ridicule the fake aestheticism of contemporaries …” raged my father, adding, “I am happy that there are at least a few in this God-enthralled country who are young enough not to be taken in by the wiles of the establishment. I am happy that Vivan is one of them.” Vivan was anything but God-enthralled and he railed against the establishment with much gusto, energy and passion.

After Baroda, Vivan went on to study at the Slade School of Art in London and we did not see him for some years. He was in Paris during the historic May 1968 protests, and in London, he had made friends with radical activists like Tariq Ali and the British-American painter Ronald Kitaj. His work around that time was informed by British Pop culture, painted in bright oranges, candy pinks and sapphire blues.

In 1968, the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, as the chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi at the time, had initiated first Triennale of Art in India ushering an era of government-sponsored internationalism in the official patronage of modern Indian art. One got to see a lot of what was happening in art around the world through those initial Triennales. For example, at the second Triennale in 1971, I got to see the first early sample of minimalist conceptualist art in the work of the American artist Carl Andre who had simply arranged blocks of coloured plasticine in straight lines.

However, National Awards and International Triennales could not placate the general feeling of dissatisfaction within the artists’ community with the functioning of the Lalit Kala Akademi. They felt that the system of direct patronage by the government needed to be replaced by more democratic control over state resources and government-funded bodies like the Lalit Kala Akademi. In 1969, they started organising themselves to boycott the Akademi and demand direct representation in the state run body. The Artists’ Protest lasted a couple of years and led to wide ranging changes in the constitution and the running of the Akademi.

Vivan returned to India around that time and held a simple but moving exhibition titled The Heights of Machu Picchu in 1972. Pablo Neruda whose famous poem Vivan had quoted had won the Nobel Prize for literature the year before and was to die a year later. I remember Vivan affectionately walking me around that exhibition of drawings, if I remember right, at the Kunika Chemould Art Gallery on the first floor of what used to be the Cottage Industries Emporium.

The small format was extremely detailed with pen and ink drawings of floating bodies that conjured up meta-images that had been etched and printed. Unambiguously signaling Leftist politics and his dissent against the nascent art market and the in-affordability of art for the ‘common man’, he had priced each print at a modest Rs 100. Over the next few decades, Vivan became an active participant in the art scene of the country. He was young, charismatic and full of ideas and energy. He worked in various mediums and was an early proponent of conceptual art, installation, photography and video. His home was where many artists, writers and theatre people met. His parties were much talked about.

Vivan’s father had been a very senior civil servant and his mother was the sister of the legendary painter Amrita Sher-Gil. That was also the year when I joined college and started learning classical music seriously and my interest and involvement with the contemporary art scene and my father’s life waned.

In 1989, my friend Safdar Hashmi was killed most brutally in public while performing a street play in a workers’ colony in Delhi. Safdar and I had gone to school together. In those years, I had been close to his whole family and was in and out of their home all the time. After school, Safdar went to St. Stephen’s College and I studied at the Hindu, exactly across the road in Delhi University. We continued taking the same University Special bus service every day and Safdar taught me how to read Urdu and introduced me to the stories and graves of Sufis like Sarmad, Harebhare Peer and Bedil. He was deeply involved in peoples’ theatre and was a very active member of the SFI, the student-wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Both his parents and mine had been members of the undivided CPI previously.

However, while Safdar remained a committed party worker throughout his life, I refrained from activism and studied classical music in the traditional gharana system. He once had told me I was getting to be feudal in my attitudes.

His murder shook me to the core, as it did indeed the whole creative community of the country. In his memory his friends and admirers formed the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) which is active till today.

Vivan Sundaram was one of the founding trustees of SAHMAT. With the rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party-led anti-Babri Masjid mobilisation, communalism was gaining ground everywhere. SAHMAT countered it by organising Sufi-Bhakti music festivals, exhibitions, academic seminars and street plays.

I was a senior correspondent with the Sunday Times of India at that time but took time out to help plan and organise the classical music participation for those events. Apart from Delhi, which was its base, SAHMAT organised festivals for communal harmony at Ayodhya before and after the barbaric demolition of the masjid. We also went to Lucknow, Bombay and Kolkata and many other cities and towns.  Every year on January 1, SAHMAT still marks Safdar’s anniversary and Vivan was very active in planning and execution of those events.

Years passed, I got tired of Delhi and moved to Goa taking premature retirement. We continued to meet on occasions when I visited Delhi sporadically. About five years ago, he suddenly called me out of the blue. “Kali, do you know what happened to the painting that Swami exhibited at the ‘Group 1890’ show in 1963?” he asked.

I had no idea; I was only eight years old at the time. “Swami did not have the space to store the painting after that exhibition,” Vivan told me, “So he left it in my father’s garage at 7 Race Course Road. I went away to London after that and he forgot about it. My parents had to vacate that house and they did not know what to do with the painting and somehow it got dumped at our neighbour B.K. Nehru’s garage. Recently, B.K. Nehru’s wife, aunty Fori, died and her son and daughter in law inherited her things. Malti and Ashok Nehru remembered the story of the painting and they have decided that they want to return it to Swami’s family. So please get in touch with them and collect the painting.”

The painting Vivan talks about in the story. Photo: author provided.

I did, and collected that work 50 odd years after its creator had forgotten about it!

That was one of the last interactions I had with Vivan. Farewell Comrade, Laal Salaam.

S. Kalidas has been an active commentator and participant on the Indian arts scene for well over four decades. Besides English, Kalidas can read, write and speak in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil.