Vivan Sundaram: My Experiments with Art

ArtVivan Sundaram: My Experiments with Art

One of India’s best-known artists, Vivan Sundaram turned 75 this year, and his life’s work is part of a grand retrospective being hosted in Delhi. Bhumika Popli speaks to him about his wide-ranging and wildly inventive oeuvre.


It is difficult to understand an artist’s mind. Only his work could provide you with certain linkages to his psyche, and in some cases even the work refuses to offer any real clues. With such artists, it’s best to just sit back and submit yourself to their vision. To just marvel at their creations, no questions asked.

But with Vivan Sundaram, who is one of India’s most popular artists, the critical strategy of silent contemplation doesn’t really work. It’s because the works themselves are so vocal, speaking to the viewer, always making a statement.

Sundaram has turned 75 this year, and has a long tally of awards and recognitions attached to his name. Many of his artworks are now part of a retrospective being hosted at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, DelhiThe show is evocatively titled Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger. Last week, the viewers who stepped inside the KNMA, got to meet the artist himself, who led a group of around 100 visitors through the entire exhibition.

He was dressed for the occasion—formal blue shirt, black trousers, jacket. With an elegant walking stick in hand, Sundaram walked us from one room to another, giving us a general tour of the 180 exhibits here, which include his drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, photo-montages, and installation pieces.

This is half a century worth of work. Born in 1943, Sundaram began harbouring artistic ambitions early in life. He graduated in art from the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, and did a post graduation from the Slade School of Art, London, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar. His father, Kalyan Sundaram, was the Chairman of the Law Commission of India from 1968 to 1971, and his mother, Indira Sher-Gil, was the sister of the modernist Amrita Sher-Gil. Sundaram is married to historian Geeta Kapur.

Box Family Album from the Sher-Gil archives.

The achievements of Sundaram’s artistic career, whose glimpses you get in this exhibition, are great and diverse. The way he has been able to perform equally well and comfortably in different styles, mediums and forms, is nothing short of astonishing.

At the KNMA show, as you walk from gallery space to another, you discover wholly new aspects of Sundaram’s creative practice. Take his London paintings as an example. This series of abstract works are shown in India for the very first time. “In London, when I was studying at Slade School, I was caught between the pop side of art and minimalism,” Sundaram says. “The student movement of ‘68 and American Underground films also influenced me.”

During one of his recent talks at the KNMA, titled “Time Is On My Side”, Sundaram talked about how the political earthquakes of 1968 impacted his work. “1968 was the year of the barricades. Of rallies. There was a global upsurge against US imperialism and the Vietnam War. I marched in two huge demonstrations called by Tariq Ali. And travelled to Paris and Berlin—also in 1968.” 

At this point in his life, Sundaram was inclined towards political activism, but was advised against it. “I was advised that I should not go into activism and carry on with my art full-time. I am glad I took that advice,” he says.

In 1987, he travelled to Poland for a cultural exchange programme. This was the first time visited the Auschwitz extermination camp. Witnessing the gas chambers and the crematoriums affected him deeply, and led him to begin series of works titled Long Nights, which is dedicated to the victims of Holocaust.

 Another series of his, called Engine and Charcoal Drawings, which he created in 1991, points towards the horrors of the Gulf War. Here he has used engine oil as his medium. He says, “I am always interested in expanding the meaning and language of art. So I decided to use an old medium like charcoal on handmade paper along with engine oil. A lot of my work is about the material I use. So I thought let me go from charcoal drawing to burnt oil. So it’s a mix of traditional medium with a new one. I have used the idea of staining the paper and of including a new medium on handmade paper. This has a political reference—staining the paper with burnt crude oil as a metaphor for staining the land. It is an example of action painting.”

Social issues have also attracted the artist’s attention. A Touch of Brightness, a painting created by Sundaram in 1966, is based on a play about and prostitution by the Bombay playwright Pratap Sharma. The play was banned in 1965. Incidentally, Sundaram’s painting was discovered in an attic in London earlier this year, and the artist has now re-worked it.

Sundaram’s drawings of Machu Pichu, done in 1972, are also relevant in the context of socially-aware art. “I needed a start and Neruda had just won the Nobel Prize at that time. I drew the Heights of Machu Pichu without looking at a single image of Machu Pichu. I made 23 of these, all with the help of the poems. Thank God there was no Google at that time,” he chuckles.

By the 1980s, Sundaram had found fellowship among the other emerging luminaries of Indian modern art. “The 1980s were a very intense period. There was a seminal show, called A Place for People, with great artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Nalini Malini, Sudhir Patwardhan, Jogen Chowdhary, and myself. It was mainly of figurative paintings and we were painting the things we were encountering in society and presenting a sense of the locale.”

For a 2014 show, titled Is It What You Think, a group of artists were invited to submit their creative responses to the violence Bombay had seen in the past. Sundaram sent an installation piece of his for the show, called Memorial. It was a mixed-media artwork: including black-and-white photographs, tin, iron, steel and sandstone among other materials. The theme of the piece, he says, was “moving forwards, moving backwards”. He says, “A lot of events in India, such as the rise of right-wing Hindutva, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the violence in Bombay—led me and other artists to put together a response. That exhibition provided me a flashback on my student years when I was drawn to minimalism and encountered student protests. And I think that show provided me with a welcome shift.”

Looking at his entire practice, it emerges that there are two Sundarams: the first one is an artist and storyteller, and the second is an experimenter and master manipulator of material. Of late, digital art has taken his fancy. At the Delhi retrospective, “The Family Room” displays a series of digital photomontages by Sundaram, for which he has combined the paintings of his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and the photographs of her father Umrao Singh.

Split, 1968, oil on canvas, by Vivan Sundaram.

An artist doesn’t achieve this degree of openness to experimentalism and expertise of form without the right kind of mentorship. Sundaram talks about his art teachers: “My first teacher was K.G. Subramanyan. I can never forget what he told me: ‘You must reflect on what you do.” This sentence, as I recall, has always been important to me. My second teacher was the Brtish-American painter R.B. Kitaj. Much of my larger thinking about art and its complex relationship with abstraction comes from him. His influences in literature, philosophy and politics crossed over to me.”

Now, Sundaram himself is a mentor to many. He is also known for carrying out collaborative projects. At the present show, an artwork titled 409 Ramkinkars: One and the Many, was done by him in collaboration with several students.

“This idea of collaboration was born of the statement, ‘Artist as a singular author’. Artists are always influenced. When someone refers to their art saying, ‘Sab mere andar se aata hai [Everything emerges from me], it is a romantic notion. Here I have made other people as creative participants as they are also the co-authors of the piece.”

The art critic K.B. Goel once wrote of Sundaram: “Vivan is a committed artist, but more than that his is a mind in love with itself, a mind in a permanent state of gestation.” These lines were written in 1992. And going by Sundaram’s recent output, these lines are as valid and true today as they ever were.

Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger: Over 50 years, is on view at KNMA, New Delhi till 30 June


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