Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023): A pioneer whose work fused art with activism

His work was crucial in defining and developing installation as artistic practice in India.

Published : Mar 29, 2023 13:26 IST - 4 MINS READ

Indian contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram during an interaction in Kochi in August 2012.

Indian contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram during an interaction in Kochi in August 2012. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Vivan Sundaram, one of India’s pioneering multidisciplinary artists, breathed his last on the morning of March 29. He was 79.

“Vivan Sundaram passed away this morning at 9.20 am. Further details of the cremation as decided will be communicated to you shortly,” read a note issued by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), of which Sundaram was a founding trustee.

Social activist and friend Shabnam Hashmi said that Sundaram had been ailing for the past few months with multiple issues. “The last three months he was going in and out of the hospital,” Hashmi said.

Sundaram was born in Shimla on May 28, 1943, to parents Kalyan Sundaram, former chairman of Law Commission of India, and Indira Sher-Gil, sister of noted Indian modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda (1961–65) and at the Slade School of Art, London (1966–68) where he also studied History of Cinema.

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Active in the students’ movement of May 1968, he helped set up a commune in London where he lived till 1970. On his return to India in 1971, he worked with artists’ and students’ groups to organise events and protests, especially during the Emergency years.

Sundaram’s artistic practice, which moved from painting during his college years to engaging with everything from readymades, photographs, and videos to sculptural installation, has been widely considered crucial in the definition and development of installation as a practice in the country.

“He was one of the finest artist, activist I have known for over 35 years. His demise is a big loss to the art world and also to the creative cultural resistance. He was a rare person, generated extremely interesting ideas, meticulously planned them and worked round the clock to implement them,” Hashmi wrote in a Facebook post.

In 1981, Sundaram participated in the seminal group exhibition, “Place for People”. Since 1990 he made installations that included sculpture, photographs, and video: “Memorial” (1993, 2014), an elaborate work made in response to communal violence in Bombay; a monumental site-specific installation at the Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, now referred to as “History Project” (1998); continuing work on his family, which includes the installation, “The Sher-Gil Archive” (1995), and digital photomontages, “Re-take of ‘Amrita’” (2001–06), based on photographs taken by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil.

A series of exhibitions using found objects include “Trash” (2008), an installed urbanscape of garbage, digital photomontages, and three videos: “Tracking” (2003–04), “The Brief Ascent of Marian Hussain” (2005), and “Turning” (2008). Garbage and found materials were used to make garments, and the work crossed over into fashion and performance in “GAGAWAKA: Making Strange” (2011) and “Postmortem” (2013). In 2012, “Black Gold”, an installation of potsherds from the excavation of Pattanam/Muziris in Kerala, was made into a three-channel video.

Sundaram seen with one of his artworks.

Sundaram seen with one of his artworks. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

He co-authored a project on the artist Ramkinkar Baij, “409 Ramkinkars” (2015), with theatre directors Anuradha Kapur and Santanu Bose. In 2017, a public art project on the uprising of the Royal Indian Navy and Bombay’s working class, titled “Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946”, was co-authored with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and sound artist David Chapman.

Sundaram’s first retrospective, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”, which brought together his 50 years of work and ideas, was held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi in 2018. A solo survey exhibition titled “Disjunctures” showed at Haus der Kunst, Munich, from June 2018 to January 2019.

Most recently, Vivan Sundaram was one of 30 artists specially commissioned to make new work to mark the Sharjah Biennial’s 30th anniversary edition. The ongoing Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present (February-June 2023) includes Sundaram’s photography-based project, “Six Stations of a Life Pursued” (2022), signifying a journey with periodic halts that release pain, regain trust, behold beauty, recall horror, and discard memory.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar felicitated Sundaram during a Kala Divas programme in October 2016.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar felicitated Sundaram during a Kala Divas programme in October 2016. | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

Sundaram had solo shows in many Indian cities, as well as in London, Paris, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Budapest, Copenhagen, New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. His works were exhibited in the Biennials of Kochi (2012), Sydney (2008), Seville (2006), Taipei (2006), Sharjah (2005), Shanghai (2004), Havana (1997), Johannesburg (1997), and Kwangju (1997).

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Sundaram was an initiator and organiser of varied and inventive projects as an extension of his artistic practice. He had a long-standing identity as an artist-activist engaged with artist groups and collectives, and used different artistic strategies for collaboration and activism—some of it straightforwardly political. As a founding member of the Kasauli Art Centre, he organised artists’ workshops and seminars at the Centre from 1976 to 1991. He contributed to the Journal of Arts & Ideas (1981–99) as a member of its editorial collective from its very inception. As a trustee of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), he initiated and conceived art projects and curated exhibitions.

Sundaram was the editor of a two-volume book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings, published in 2010; and managing trustee, with his sister Navina Sundaram, of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation (SSAF), set up in 2016.

He is survived by his wife art historian-critic Geeta Kapur.

(with inputs from PTI)

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