Remembering Vivan Sundaram through images of his works displayed in a 2018 retrospective at Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi.
In its tribute piece, the New York Times refers to Vivan Sundaram as “a pivotal, and political, figure in Indian art”.
Sundaram, the philosophical, adventurous and free-spirited artist who died on March 29, was an activist to the last. Indeed, while in London in the 1960s, he had briefly contemplated abandoning art for full-time activism. He was dissuaded but Sundaram remained intimately in tune with social issues throughout his career, a child of the 60s and of “the kind of freedom it gave”, as he once said.
Returning to India, Sundaram responded to its kaleidoscopic complexity by embracing a multitude of forms and materials, charcoal, paint, found objects, photographs, and videos. But it was as a visceral response to the Safdar Hashmi murder in 1989 that Sundaram pivoted towards the eclectic, iterative and edgy installations so closely identified with him, a form of which he was one of the early pioneers in the country and which he made distinctly his own. A form he clearly saw as being most receptive to his own quicksilver artistic responses to the world unravelling around him.
In 2018, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi organised a retrospective titled “Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger,” curated by Roobina Karode.
The title was the same as one of Sundaram’s paintings, which is displayed in the Punjab University Museum. That the painting was made in 1976, the year he converted his Kasauli home into an art centre, seems emblematic of the wide-open arms with which he invited the world into his art and his art into the world.
The retrospective was an extensive showcase of the artist’s multimedia practice, with works sourced from 42 collections, both private and public. There were 180 artworks—drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, photo montages, and installations. For the first time, visitors could see in one space the vast range of Sundaram’s oeuvre and his evolving experiments with modernism, semi-abstraction, pop art, montage, installation, etc.
Seeing each work as pieces of the continuum of the artist’s career, one which would continue well into 2022, visitors could become keenly aware of how he entangled memory and material, history and news, dreams and perspectives to create a unique way of interacting with and responding not just to social and cultural issues but also with his viewers and with fellow artists. Thus, his installations were pieces that provoked but at the same time allowed the viewer to enter them and be immersed inside. He often quoted his artistic inspirations and peers—Amrita Sher-Gil, Bhupen Khakhar, R.B. Kitaj, Nalini Malani, or Himmat Shah.
The multiplicity of media and genres he played with meant that many of his projects owned distinctly different aesthetics. As a result, as a note released at the retrospective said, “Consciously marking and articulating his position in art-making as someone who is ‘not afraid of being elsewhere’ and as someone who has continuously pushed the agency of art, Vivan Sundaram’s oeuvre cannot be categorized in any single paradigm.”
All but one image in this photo essay are from the 2018 retrospective and form in themselves a moving tribute to the late artist.
Ajay Jaiman is a photographer, designer and programmer. He manages a digital publishing company and a web-solutions consultancy. He can be reached at: www.jaiman.org