An artist known for his collective activism, political acumen, and partisan spirit and for spearheading a radical multi-media approach to art-making when modernist abstraction dominated the Indian art scene, and a founding member of the historic Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) which became a beacon of hope at a time when liberal and secular values came under serious threat, Vivan Sundaram is known in the activist and artistic community as a man of extraordinary perseverance and political enthusiasm, wit and intelligence.
But it is rarely mentioned that death and loss, destruction and disintegration, haunted him throughout his life and career. Upon his painful departure at the age of 79, and in this difficult moment of writing an obituary for someone whom I have observed from a distance as well as befriended by sharing the same circle of friends and colleagues, it is this part of his creative pursuits that immediately comes into sharp relief. It is as if the purpose of life, no matter how enlivened and productive it has been, finally comes to a full circle through death. Incorporating this inescapable fact into the very fabric of his creative language, Vivan has also shown us how to outlive time and surpass the confines of the place from where we approach his art.
Consider the artist’s The Sher-Gil Family (1983-1984), an oil painting of a tragic family saga. The certainty of Vivan accessing the visual medium was likely inspired by his immediate family, a family of prolific artists and intellectuals, the Sher-Gils. Born in 1943 in Shimla to a Tamilian father and Sikh-Hungarian mother, Vivan’s inclination towards the arts was identified and encouraged by his teachers at an early age. Family, as a theme and source of interrogation and interaction, became prominent in various junctures of Vivan’s practice. It was not only a way for him to paint what he knew intimately but to also locate his identity. A melancholic reconstruction using shared and imagined memories, Sundaram revisits them in this painting, locating them in the family living room, with each member occupied with their own preoccupations. His mother, Indira, leans against her grand piano in a teal sari. Vivan’s Hungarian grandmother is shown, seated in the background with a pistol on the table, along with his grandfather Umrao Singh in his study, while Armita Sher-Gil, his aunt and celebrated modernist painter in pre-Independent India who died at a very early age, probes the viewer as she turns her attention away from the easel. Among them, the oval mirror locates Vivan as a young boy peering into this theatrical tableau of the bourgeois family in an attempt to relive and interact with the past.
Decades later, the boy in the mirror, the invisible artist behind his canvas, would revisit the domestic and psychological interior of his family, but this time through the lens of the camera and the interface of the computer screen. The series of these famous photo/digital collages would appear first in his Sher-Gil Archive (1995), and then in Re-Take of Amrita (2001-06). Once again, the questions of destruction and longing would take centre stage in Vivan’s investigations. Like many other works of his, the artist would juxtapose the real with one that has been there in his memory. Constantly erasing the lines between myth and fact, fantasy and historical record, it is almost as if the role of the artist as an archivist directs the onlooker to the impossible task of reconstructing the past.
If we go through the many slim exhibition catalogues of the artist, what is overwhelmingly made visible is a practice that is not just driven by numerous conceptual, thematic and material investigations. We will also be left baffled by the breaks, discontinuity and disjunctions in the development of Vivan’s oeuvre. Imbibed by his unique method of working, one would come across the profound difficulty of interpreting some of the works, as revealed by the texts in the catalogues that are loaded with art historical references, political narratives and sombreness of a disintegrating world.
How was it to engage with an artist such as Vivan Sundaram who defied classification and questioned the received notions of art and history, that too in the institutional context of a museum which has more often than not been melancholic, the site of revisiting a lost time?
The two-part retrospective of his five-decade-old practice at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, titled Step Inside You are No Longer a Stranger (2018), was a long-awaited opportunity for me to unpack the complexities of Vivan’s protracted artistic practice. After having studied Art Criticism at M.S. University in Baroda one of the creative pursuits that most intrigued me was that of Vivan. In contrast to the individualised practice, dematerialised images, and frugal work economy of some of the fellow artists, I found in Vivan’s works his growing need to engage with material, build community and activist networks, and a growing scale.
For instance, if one is to talk about scale in relation to his practice, it had several levels of meaning as reflected in his momentous History Project (1998) which was not only investigating mediums, materiality or structural forms within the confines of the imperial architecture of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, or an exploration on the durational relationship between art and viewers but it was also about the accretion of people from different walks of life in the popular and much visited public institution.
Reverting to my curation of Vivan’s retrospective: although the prospect presented me with much joy, this alacrity was also tinged with the unnerving shadow of trepidation considering Vivan’s multifaceted avant-garde practice as well as the grand scale and expansive collaboration behind many of his iconic works. I went ahead with the curatorial idea that the exhibition would actually give rise to more questions than resolutions and to my surprise, Vivan was a constant support to the project. He was deeply immersed in this exhibition-making exercise and there had been a long and active dialogue between the artist and myself over many months to really put the show into form. An enthusiastic presence in the museum, Vivan would show up promptly and spend the whole day in the exhibition space as he would curiously observe the curatorial unfolding to understand the details of the working process and provide incisive insights.
What I recall with utmost respect, was his ability to listen, with unwavering attention. As a curator, it was both exhilarating and challenging having an artist of Vivan’s stature around while the exhibition was still in making. Here was an artist who was a curator himself, a collaborator, an archivist among other things and expressly capable of understanding the curatorial angst.
For instance, from 1990, Vivan turned away from narrative painting and drawing to other aspects of art such as creating sculptural assemblages and installations, and practising photography and video. I had heard very little of Vivan as an artist engaging with the painterliness of the medium, especially about the series of acrylic works he did during his student years in London. (As a commonwealth scholar, Vivan received the opportunity to live in the UK where he studied at the Slade School of Art in the 1960s.) He had not revisited or exhibited these paintings for decades, (and there is an interesting story also about how he found some of the lost paintings and how they came back to him) but for me, it was critical that this particular body of work be shown alongside his later, more conceptual works.
These large canvases, now simply called ‘London paintings’, throw light on a few of the preoccupations that have remained rather significant throughout Vivan’s practice, for instance, the idea of the assemblage, where the pictorial or corporeal material has always defied the homogeneous space, providing multiple viewpoints, and spatially, frames within frames. If I could make a conjecture, I would say that even at the start of his artistic practice, Vivan was painting but unlike any painter. There were these disruptions in his paintings wherein isolated units would come together, perhaps to rebel against the coherence of a painterly surface.
With Vivan’s departure from the earthly realm, a line which I had written in my diary while working on the retrospective, speaks to me now more than ever. “Retrieve, Re-take, Recycle, Reiterate” these key words I had noted to think about some recurring aspects of his practice. As the realisation of Vivan’s passing slowly dawns on us, these words bring alive his unstoppable energy and intense passion to explore the infinite possibilities that art offers to look beyond the given parameters of living and life.
Roobina Karode is the director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.