Vivan Sundaram: Indian art ‘needed a new vocabulary’

Master Plan (1988), charcoal and photographs on paper
New Delhi, India CNN  — 

The title of artist Vivan Sundaram’s retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi welcomes the viewer in with a promise: “Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger.” Coming from one of India’s most original creative minds, it’s an assurance that is at once comforting and gently ironic.

Inside the exhibition, you might feel overwhelmed by the range of media from the artist’s 50-year career, but navigating through the images and objects also instills a sense of belonging.

Whether you’re familiar with the trajectory of Indian history or not, you will feel co-opted by this staggering body of work, which draws richly from world history and emotions of universal resonance.

At 75, Sundaram’s ambitions are still soaring. Amid the frantic activity of the show’s installation, he takes us to its centerpiece, “Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946,” a monumental “ship” created last year in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, film historian Valentina Vitali and sound artist David Chapman.

A minimal architectural structure, the work invites viewers to walk inside its shell for a 40-minute light and sound experience that is likely to leave them shaken.

Using a medley of canned noises and archival voices, the installation brings to life the Royal Indian Navy’s insurrection against the British on the eve of the country’s independence. Unlike the Revolt of 1857, this uprising has remained a footnote in the annals of India’s history. It is typical of Sundaram’s affinities to resurrect the event and mine its inherent potential.

Master Plan (1988), charcoal and photographs on paper.

“People say I’m more of a political artist,” he said, “that aesthetics always gets sidelined in my work.” This work, on the contrary, demonstrates the “dialectics” between the political and the aesthetic, he explained, expressed by the tension between the object itself and the content inside.

Art of its time

Sundaram has never been content sticking to a signature style, restlessly absorbing influences and responding with urgency to his immediate personal circumstances and the changing world.

In 1966, when he arrived at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Sundaram was mentored by R.B. Kitaj, an American artist who pushed him to reflect on his relationship with color and form. Sundaram’s friendship with the late Bhupen Khakhar had already lent a youthful exuberance to his earliest paintings, some of which will be displayed at KNMA, while feeding his taste for pop art, kitsch and erotica.

Ink drawings from the series "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" (1972).

But the student protests of 1968 – as well as his deepening commitment to communism – gave a distinct turn to his sensibilities. During his time in Britain, Sundaram was also struck by innovations in cinematic language, especially those made by filmmaker Luis Bunuel, whose 1972 masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” became one of his major influences.

Through the 1970s, he made several memorable paintings, such as “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” and the 1976 artwork from which this new retrospective borrows its name. “I find the paintings from those years beautiful,” Sundaram said. “I am proud of that work.”

But then, in the late 1980s, despite being part of a movement for narrative and figurative painting in India, he gave up the format. As contemporaries like Nalini Malani, whose work he admires ardently, made new strides in painting, Sundaram stopped altogether (except for sporadic sets of drawings, including one made with diesel oil to mark the Gulf War, and another in memory of his late friend Khakhar).

"Ten Foot Beam" (1983-85). Although he moved away from painting, Sundaram's affinity with the form is unmistakable.

“I felt we needed to open ourselves to a new vocabulary,” Sundaram said. “Around the time, upheavals were taking place all across the globe – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of Hindutva, the coming of the world into our drawing rooms through the television. And I wondered why we weren’t taking a leap in art as well.”

Shifting focus

Sundaram’s transition into installation art was mediated by the body of work he’s perhaps best known for – experiments with his family’s photographic archives. A “Family Room,” at KNMA houses “The Sher-Gil Archive” (1995), which features the portraits and personal belongings of Sundaram’s grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, his grandmother Marie Antoinette Gottesman, his mother Indira Sundaram and, most famously, his aunt, Amrita Sher-Gil.

One of India’s pre-eminent modernist painters, the latter died in 1941 at the age of 28, cutting short her luminous career.

"Safdar and Moloyashree" (1989). Safdar Hashmi, a prominent social activist and actor, and his wife Moloyashree were close friends of Sundaram's. In 1989, Hashmi was murdered by political hardliners after a street performance.

“I first found the courage to dig deep into this material when I showed it in Budapest in the early 1980s,” Sundaram said. “It’s not a sentimental piece because of its associations with my family, but (it) brings reflection, irony and abstraction to understand melancholy and mortality.”

Sundaram’s investment in archives has been an immersive affair, especially after he created “Long Night,” a series of drawings in charcoal, following his visit to Auschwitz in 1989.

That year, the artist’s life changed in other ways too. India was increasingly under siege from communal violence and political hardliners, some of whom were responsible for killing social activist Safdar Hashmi. The tragedy brought Sundaram and a number of his fellow artists to form a loose collective committed to using arts for social change.

In 1991, India’s economy opened itself to the world. But the year after, the nation was shattered by the demolition of the Babji Masjid, a historic mosque in Uttar Pradesh, by the Hindutva forces.

Sundaram has never been content to stick to a signature style. This image shows a work titled "Zip Around."

The intensifying disharmony, which began to assume a brazen pitch, provoked Sundaram to reinvent his politics through newer modes of conceptual art and the use of light, sound and performance.

He harked back to the legacies of early modernist masters, such as Ramkinkar Baij (in 2015’s “409 Ramkinkars”), who was an associate of Rabindranath Tagore and a pioneer of twentieth-century sculpture in Bengal. The past began to forge tangible, political and human links with the present.

So how should an artist respond to the India of today – of mob lynchings, the beef ban and anti-minority politics?

“The relationship between making art and the times you live in can be calibrated in terms of how near or distant you are from the latter,” Sundaram said.

“Everybody was in shock after the Babri Masjid was destroyed, but now, I feel, the linking of the ideology of the right with the ideology of capitalism has made the public susceptible to the rhetoric of the establishment.”

As an artist, Sundaram said his designs are tied up not only with political realism but with being an activist. His new show is but a sobering reminder of these twin responsibilities.

“Step inside and you are no longer a stranger” is on show at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art until June 30, 2018.