Delhi weekend: Vivan Sundaram’s first retrospective
When Vivan Sundaram first went to London in the ’60s, he did what any Indian on a fellowship to an arts program in Europe would do – visit museums and galleries, gaze at the European masterpieces, all of them odes to the canvas and its possibilities. A couple of decades later, in the early ’90s, Sundaram gave up the idea of the canvas altogether. Since then, he has not only found new idioms, but has pushed boundaries of the language and possibilities of Indian art. His first retrospective, bringing together 50 years of works and ideas, places him as a man not only of many mediums and definitions, but someone who is as political as he is hard to categorise.
Sundaram’s retrospective titled ‘Step inside and you are no longer a stranger’ after one of his works, begins with 409 Ramkinkars, homage to the Ramkinkar Baij’s modernist sculptures through a range of his own sculptures, all placed and lit like a theatrical production, in collaboration with theatre director Anuradha Kapur “I have always, in different ways, critiqued the notion of single authorship. When I was asked to do a mural on a building designed by Charles Correa in Bombay, I immediately asked to work with Bhupen Khakkar and Nalini Malini. This was still during the ’80s. I would often ask Nalini or Bhupen to work on something, and then I would continue with it. The notion that all of it has to come from inside me, I don’t agree with and have, therefore, always tried to engage with other artists,” Sundaram says.
A majority of Sundaram’s works are not only cross-genre or multifaceted but also dedications to fellow artists or collaborations with them. Be it his close personal friend Bhupen Khakkar, the modernist Jeram Patel or collaborations with various photographers, Sundaram seeks dialogue, and finds interesting ways to present it – all without traditionalist canvases and paintings. “I think after the exhibition Collaboration Combine in 1992, where I used photographs by Dayanita Singh and Ram Rahman, my inclination towards resurrecting old objects, or using the ‘readymade’ became ever so strong. I often say to people, I don’t take photographs, I make them,” he says. Sundaram’s work with found objects derives from French-American artist Marcel Duchamp’s idea of using everyday readymade objects and turning them into art, simply by applying context to them.
That said, Sundaram’s practice, whether it is with audio-visual installations like his most recent Insurrection (2017) on the Indian naval mutiny of 1946, or Carrier from 1996 where an inverted boat conveys the desperation of the idea of a physically tangible structure as home, resists being predictable. “Vivan is the kind of artist who has never worked according to a paradigm. He defies categorisation, which does make it difficult to organise a retrospective of this scale,” says Roobina Karode, director of KNMA (Kiran Nadar Museum of Art) and curator of the exhibition. “You have to think about space, and the juxtaposition of elements. Because there has to be a thread connecting things together, all the while accounting for the space they take up. Vivan and I even disagreed on a few things, but in all it was both challenging and fruitful.” Assembling close to 200 works, and in most cases rebuilding and salvaging the damage decades have caused, has been quite the task for Karode’s team. “When you have a retrospective across 50 years, you need the artist to have an account of everything. Where a work is, whether it has changed hands and so on. We went to nearly 40 sources to get Vivan’s works. Some even refused to loan them. Considering you are doing your research all the time plus the work that goes into shipping, planning, and in the case of old works, re-creating them, putting a retrospective together is not easy,” Karode adds.
Vivan Sundaram was no stranger to the arts even at birth. Born to Indira Sher-Gil, sister of painter Amrita Sher-Gil, Sundaram’s ancestry has been both his inspiration and the subject of his work. Here in the exhibition, a section dedicated to the Sher-Gil archive serves as a tender, loving memoriam to his roots. Sundaram’s greatest influence, however, dates back to the years he spent in London, leading up to the student protests of May, 1968. “That year was significant because it brought reference to the world and to politics. It was a utopian, romantic idea to transform the world overnight and because it did not last long, they had to close shop within two weeks. But what you take away from it depends on how one wants to remember. It resonated with people because it had the spirit of questioning and protest,” says Sundarams.
Of India’s living artists, he is one of the few whose work is avowedly political. His retrospective also brings to view for the first time, works from these formative years when Sundaram was under the tutelage of British painter R B Kitaj in London. It is perhaps a coincidence of sorts that Altaf Mohammedi, another artist deeply influence by the protests of ’68, had his first retrospective only last month, not too far from Sundaram’s.
But the works of the two could not be more different. Sundaram’s methods and mediums have consistently evolved. So much so that they intimidate, given how difficult they can be to interpret at times. But patience bears fruit in looking under the layers, at times profound political metaphors. “I think Vivan’s idea of exploring space, when he gave up painting, can also be seen as the point when he revolted. He has since only questioned why something can only be said within a painting. And it is there for everyone to see, that it doesn’t have to be that way,” Karode says.
WHAT: Vivan Sundaram Retrospective: Step inside and you are no longer a stranger
WHEN: 10.30am-6.30pm (Monday closed) till June 30
WHERE: K Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, DLF South Court Mall, Saket.
CALL: 4916 0000
NEAREST METRO STATION: Saket