Vivan Sundaram (1943-2023): Rebel, writer, thinker, artist

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

Vivan Sundaram: His was an activism that emerged from his art.

Vivan Sundaram: His was an activism that emerged from his art. | Photo Credit: Ajay Jaiman

Sundaram’s persona and works led to a major radicalisation of artistic concepts.

Time, Vivan Sundaram boldly announced in 2018, “was on my side”. He was, of course, speaking of a far more memorable moment in time than the present one. Time indeed had appeared to be on his side during the “year of the barricades”.

Vivan liked talking about this period, and he usually did it with bold strokes. He was a student in London between 1968 and 1970, and reminisced freely about the Slade School of Art, his life in the commune at 154 Barnsbury Road, London, and even his brief stint in Wandsworth jail. That March of 1968 he had been at the famous anti-war demonstration outside the American consulate in London’s Grosvenor Square. Protests had taken place in Boston, Warsaw, Nanterre, Berlin, and New York, and strikes by students and workers had spread across much of western Europe, protesting against the Vietnam war.

And yet, as he presented it that day, the era proved rather more complicated than its more conventionally romanticised portraiture of halcyon youth. For even in that time—even as he went to concerts by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and marched alongside Mick Jagger and Tariq Ali—the pulls of Indian art, and more generally non-Western art, had to be addressed too: pulls that necessarily took him to global considerations far removed from the immediacy of that particular frontline.

“Gang of Three” (from the series “Emergency II”, 1984)

“Gang of Three” (from the series “Emergency II”, 1984) | Photo Credit: Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation

History arrived as something to be recognised and retrieved from within the material he saw all around him. He recalled in that talk how he rediscovered his painting, “May 68”, from an attic and used it to inaugurate his major retrospective, “Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger”, at the Kiran Nadar Museum that was on show when he made that speech in 2018. He exhibited that painting alongside stone-pelting protesters in Paris and the scrawled graffiti “under the paving stones, the beach”—or, he might have also said, under the rubble, history itself.

And then he went further. Alongside “May 68” was Stan Brakhage’s extraordinary multimedia film, Dog Star Man. Next to it was a detail from R.B. Kitaj’s painting, “Erie Shore”. And finally, an unnamed Persian miniature. In short, possible materials for a collage of this time that needed excavation. Collage was a term Vivan carried like a badge, even as it became something of a time-machine collapsing different temporalities. A seminal work of that time, “From Persian Miniatures to Stan Brakhage” (1968) was a painting-within-a-painting, a beneath-the-surface world-within-a-world.

Pop art had arrived, he said, in Baroda as far back as 1964 (in his own work together with that of the early Bhupen Khakhar), the very year Robert Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for his silkscreen paintings. Rauschenberg remained, alongside Kitaj, his teacher at the Slade, the twin contrasting presences defining his work in this time; pop, diverse media, jostling with the demands of classic oil-on-canvas.

Collages of history

It was a strange assemblage. There were, speaking from his own 2018 indications, at least three, maybe more, directions to take as he found himself at a curious crossroads of history, at once personal and planetary. You could see, as he outlined the year of the barricades in 2018, that he was even then preparing subjectively for some kind of action.

Major arcs can now be drawn from the actions that followed. For the time that was on his side would become, both in the talk and in the 2018 retrospective, visible and interpretable as a gigantic template for projects that would be realised over the decades. One came from the ineluctable pressure of history itself. He was moving at once between monumentalism and minimalism: at one moment outward towards public art and at another inwards, into deeply disquieting inner spaces of depression, even death. In 1998, the gigantic installation at Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, now known as the “History Project”, would be precisely located here and would, with Vivan’s typical audacity, further locate Indian history of a 100 years or more into that tension.

“Year of the Barricades” (2017)

“Year of the Barricades” (2017) | Photo Credit: Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation

The once youthful jostling of pop art, abstract expressionism and classical painting would, as the years went by, reveal both immediacy and the dangers of deeply personal-political moments. There was the “Place for People” exhibition that defined the painterly moment in 1981—in many ways the best known oil-on-canvas works by several of Indian art’s major hall-of-famers: in addition to Vivan it had Jogen Chowdhury, Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan and Nalini Malani, almost all turning their gaze inwards, to themselves, their private spaces, their families and loved ones.

This deep personal would resurface in the entire series of photomontages beginning with “Re-take of Amrita”, working as always with its polar opposite, the “Trash” series. And then there was the spillover of that moment into action—an activism that emerged from the art.

  • It is commonplace to describe Vivan as “political”. It is also commonplace to go further and bestow upon him the image of forever-youthful radicalism.
  • But that would be a disservice, not because it is untrue but because it is limiting.
  • It is important to understand that Vivan’s artistic persona led to a major radicalisation of the concept artist.
  • This question, who is the artist-citizen, is especially relevant at a time when political theory in India appears to be under transformation: one to which Vivan’s work bears great relevance.

“Subject” of politics

It is commonplace to describe Vivan as “political”. It is also commonplace to go further and bestow upon him the compelling image of forever-youthful radicalism, for he attracts such an idealised image to himself. But that would be a disservice, not because it is untrue but because it is limiting. We need to get to the problem, to the knots that tied the many directions that pulled him, and to do that we need to enter what we might call the subjective condition of politics as we experience it in India. While the deeply fraught histories of conflict that have beset political art worldwide have been extensively chronicled, nowhere more so than in India, we have yet to take seriously just what theory of politics made works of art political. When we do, it takes us to the risks, indeed—as Partha Chatterjee said of that most quintessential of political artists, Saadat Hasan Manto—the dangerousness of that condition.

Such a danger is presented mainly in the way in which an artist offers their subjectivity as a space upon which to play out very large historical battles. It is an endeavour that is only partially captured by its most visible manifestation, namely, the practical, legal, political and human rights dangers inherent to confronting authority.

“Mausoleum”, from the installation “Memorial” (1993).

“Mausoleum”, from the installation “Memorial” (1993). | Photo Credit: Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation

What we need to do, then, as we recognise Vivan’s life and work, is to understand how his artistic persona led to a major radicalisation of the concept artist. It did so in the way this persona effectively evacuated its egotistical content into something of a void, an absence, and thence an invitation to enter and be a stranger no longer. Such a void became, to borrow from Vivan’s key work, the “Long Night” series, a zone, a site for struggles around a new form of political subjectivity. It was one that he sometimes occupied alone, but more often collectively assembled: shared with other artists, collaborators and eventually audiences—as for instance in the remarkable installation-performance he called “409 Ramkinkers” and staged with several actors, theatre director Anuradha Kapur, and other artists.

This question, who is the artist-citizen, is especially relevant at a time when political theory in India appears to be under transformation: one to which Vivan’s work bears great relevance. It is a political world that is more fundamental than traditional ideological disputes, more likely a subjective frontline—immensely relevant to diverse political struggles going on today in various parts of the world—an immersion of the bodily self into something far more complexly engaged with the political moment than the classically defined idea of painter-citizen working at a creative remove from the rubble of the everyday. This we saw in early and youthful mode in 1968 and this is what we have seen again and again as the decades have gone by.

Such a figure was always there in Vivan, but it emerged in perhaps his most “political” work of all, the 1993 installation “Memorial”, in which he took a news photograph of a dead man, killed and abandoned on the streets, and gave him a burial with full state honours. He did so with a repetitive action, of banging in thousands of tiny nails, of performing the same gesture again and again and again, of performing repentance in the way the state could no longer do. As the capacity to embody—I mean this literally—such a split becomes a qualification for personhood, we begin to see how even the dead, killed as collateral damage, become corporeal, posthumously demanding the state recognition of their right, if nothing else, to die.

Deepening meaning

This author was a participant-eyewitness to what was perhaps Vivan’s last work of explicitly “political” monumentalism: the 2017 installation and sound work “Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946”, a massive piece that also became the centrepiece of his 2018 retrospective. It was about the 1946 naval uprising in Bombay, mounted inside a giant ship or “container”, where the sound played to a lighting design.

The original idea was in a way wider: to do a project focused on the geographical—and also historical—proximity of the naval dockyard to the working class neighbourhoods of Parel and Lalbaug. It did not happen as planned. As it went on, and deepened, there was a shift in focus as more substantially historical questions—the “meanings of failed action”, as the title now shows—grew in significance.

“He was moving at once between monumentalism and minimalism: at one moment outward towards public art and at another inwards, into inner spaces of depression, even death.”

Several of the original links with the mills and docks remain strong: they provided the rationale for the work’s first install in Mumbai’s Coomaraswamy Hall, and for the events that took place inside the hull. Its producers now included the long-dead mutineers, whose own archives—their letters, pleas for consideration from the newly independent Indian state, the many historians and activists whose voices featured in the sound work—were now extended into conversations with historians—naval historians to city historians to historians of the Second World War —as well as artists and architects from the city, all of whom had a stake in this history and wanted to share in that moment of time.

Timeless realm

It is almost as though the finale, the work currently on display in Sharjah, “Six Stations of a Life Pursued” (2022), constitutes the culmination of a political project that he may have begun a long time ago. We are literally speaking of artist as bodily subject here, as the lacerations on Vivan’s back (following major medical procedures) turn into stigmata. But then that body merges, as it always does in his work, with other bodies—a wounded body with, as the accompanying text to the work says, “proof of torture” extending into “mourning bodies in the realm of shadows; body as miasma floating on a city lake; familial bodies in the mode of a charade; and, at the end, the iconic body that dares to represent the historical present—of a place, a nation, a territory, a people”.

It was really as though the image of a red flag gently passing over the barricades of the 1960s with which Vivan ended his 2018 talk had wafted over this at times gentle, at others horrific, landscape. Time was then, and who knows may still be, on his side.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha is a film historian.

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