Vivan Sundaram and the transformative power of his art


Ashish Rajadhyaksha

Last September, five months after Vivan Sundaram passed away, a book with the simple name Kasauli Art Centre, 1976-1991 was published. It included precious archives of 15 years. Sundaram used to organise art camps, talks, workshops, conferences, theatre performances and film events at a large villa in Kasauli named Ivy Lodge, which he inherited from his mother.

A month later in October, an exhibition was curated by Latika Gupta at the Punjab University, Chandigarh, that reprised the entire Kasauli project. The art camps had been supported by the university’s Art History Department, then led by the legendary art historian B.N. Goswamy. Participating artists were expected to donate an artwork each to the department’s collection. Several of these donated works, including paintings, sculptures and prints, were on show, together with detailed documents of the events. There were letters, formal and informal, account books, photographs, diary notes, and multiple memorabilia.

Vivan Sundaram during a media interaction in Kochi in 2012.

Vivan Sundaram during a media interaction in Kochi in 2012.
| Photo Credit:
THULASI KAKKAT

The book and exhibition were also an early iteration of an artist-organiser at work. Sundaram wrote interminable, painfully typed letters to artists, galleries, consulates, government agencies organising stay and food for artists. It is indicative of a time when young artists worked together in a pure creative space.

The early 1990s brought a dramatic change in Vivan Sundaram’s work. In the late 1980s, an unexpected visit to Auschwitz, Poland, had prompted a charcoal drawing named ‘Penal Settlement’ (1987) that signalled the beginning of a definitive change, the scale of which we can only understand in retrospect. An entire series of darkly dystopian drawings in thick charcoal happened. ‘Long Night’ (1989), Engine Oil and Charcoal on Paper series, a fallout of the Gulf War, provided top-angle images of unremittingly bleak, bombed-out landscapes over which hovered an amalgam of mythic firebirds and aerial WMDs. The iconic ‘Approaching 100,000 Sorties’ was a gigantic floor-to-ceiling drawing with oil on paper and on floor, as though caught in the middle of a bomb explosion.

Vivan Sundaram with discarded terracotta shards from the Muziris excavation site at Pattanam for the Kochi-Muziris.

Vivan Sundaram with discarded terracotta shards from the Muziris excavation site at Pattanam for the Kochi-Muziris.
| Photo Credit:
K.K. Mustafa

A year later Safdar Hashmi was murdered. As one of the founders of the memorial trust set up in Hashmi’s name it saw a major shift in Sundaram’s organisational energy.

Then the Babri Masjid demolition happened and it truly widened Sundaram’s work. A relentless series of installations repeatedly returned to a photograph of the body of a man, who was killed in the 1992-93 riots, on a Mumbai street. By the late 1990s spaces in his works and the materials used increased exponentially. Most importantly, the number of people involved in his creative initiative included even academics, artisans, carpenters, photographers, filmmakers, social activists, writers, actors, technicians, and publishers.

Vivan Sundaram looked beyond the beauty in art

Vivan Sundaram looked beyond the beauty in art
| Photo Credit:
Ajay Jaiman

Art-making, and art authorship transformed into something far more radical.

At the end of the 1990s, Sundaram took over the entire Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, to make a work of history: ‘Structures of Memory: Modern Bengal’ (1998), working with historians, social scientists and artists.

In the next decade, for ‘Gagawaka: Making Strange’ (2011), he used industrial waste, collaborating with fashion designer Pratima Pandey and sound artist Ish. It included theatre-actors, dancers and tailors. ‘409 Ramkinkers’ (2015), a performance-installation-theatre piece sprawling across Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art was made together with theatre directors Anuradha Kapur, Santanu Bose and Aditee Biswas and author Rimli Bhattacharya. Filmmaker R.V. Ramani too had a major presence in it.

A young Vivan Sundaram captured on camera by Ghulam Mohammad

A young Vivan Sundaram captured on camera by Ghulam Mohammad

There were also a series of books that reflected and furthered the collaborative impulse: History Project (2017), which records the Victoria Memorial, is in a way a companion work to Kasauli Art Centre, and both books as well as Vivan Sundaram Is Not a Photographer (2019) – reveal yet another project collaboration, this time with an independent publishing house, Tulika Books.

There was clearly history to this, and a reason for a shift from what we might call the Kasauli mode into something larger, wider, spanning locations, cities, materials and collaborators. Part of it was defined by location, much of it an expansion of a curatorial impulse.

Whatever it was, by now it wasn’t those who worked with him or simply knew him as ‘Vivan’ – and numerous people did – but even viewers, all of whom had become as though his fellow art-makers. For by now when you stepped inside his art, as the title of his 2017 retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art suggested, you were no longer a stranger.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s session at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 titled ‘Remembering Vivan Sundaram: A journey through images’ will be held on January 26, 12.55 p.m.



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