Vivan Sundaram: Pioneer who welded sculptures, art, photos

By, Mumbai
Mar 29, 2023 11:42 PM IST

It’s perhaps a testament to Vivan Sundaram’s great passion for life and for his art that at the time of his death, following an illness, bravely borne over the last few years, his latest works were on display at two ongoing biennales at Kochi and Sharjah

It’s perhaps a testament to Vivan Sundaram’s great passion for life and for his art that at the time of his death, following an illness, bravely borne over the last few years, his latest works were on display at two ongoing biennales at Kochi and Sharjah. Though at Sharjah, his exhibition, Six Stations of a Life Pursued, gave the audience a sense of his bodily struggles. He used elaborate photos of his scars and images of a wounded body trapped in a narrow Kashmiri wooden casket, fusing the idea of art with the pain of the artist.

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HT Image

Mumbai gallerist Shireen Ghandy recalls her last meeting in December 2022 with Sundaram at his Delhi home. “He had just emerged from a brutal spine surgery for his arthritis and despite the pain he must have been in I encountered an absolute child-like enthusiasm in him. He was bursting with ideas for his next show.”

Poet, editor and publisher of the art magazine, Gallerie, Bina Sarkar Ellias calls Vivan Sundaram one of India’s greatest artists but she too is equally admiring of the manner in which he dealt with his debilitating illness. “He fought his illness bravely and valiantly over the last years but the last month had been especially difficult…He is now relieved of the suffering he so patiently bore these last 5 weeks.”

Shireen Ghandy says one of the earliest exhibitions she handled upon her return from the UK after completing her education was Vivan Sundaram’s 1992-’93 exhibition in which he integrated diverse materials, collaborating with photographers. “It was a very heavy exhibition to mount. We called students from the Sir JJ School of Art to help us. More than an audience and assistants, they became a part of the project. He had a very intense way of drawing. In ‘Paper column’ he created a sculpture with paper – without drawing anything he was creating a presence. There were columns carved out of granite and stone, within which he used postcards sent by friends and fellow artists,” she recalls.

While Vivan Sundaram attracted early acclaim for these large structures, he also found a way to simultaneously work with and yet break away from his famous legacy. On the one hand the works he created were uniquely his, on the other he delved deeply into the works of his grandfather – Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, considered one of the pioneers of photography in India, and his maternal aunt Amrita Sher-Gil, the avant-garde artist.

One of his most remarkable work remains Retake of Amrita, a book of digital photomontages. Sundaram wore his privileged Doon school education and good looks lightly. In her tribute to her childhood friend, posted on social media, Delhi-based doyenne of Indian crafts, Laila Tyebji, recalled that photographs of a young Vivan Sundaram “at the district sports, hair flying, were in hot demand” by her Welhamite schoolmates. She goes on to talk about the impact Sundaram subsequently had on her life. “Finishing school, I was all set to join the J J School of Art in Bombay when Vivan arrived to spend the weekend. (We were in Aligarh by then). Pooh-poohing the idea and JJ as “far too commercial,” he tore up my admission forms and persuaded my parents, (who loved him and were early supporters of his talent) that I should go to Baroda instead. He was already in his third year there himself. In Baroda too, with me still awkward and terribly shy, he acted as a real elder brother, supporting, counselling, taking me out, introducing me to his friends - pushing me to being more outgoing and confident. He was the one who persuaded Bhupen Khakhar, then an awe-inspiring senior doing his MA, to give first year me his thesis (on Eclecticism in Indian Art, wasn’t it?) to edit, saying my English was the best in Baroda! He confided in me too, flatteringly asking my advice, on the romantic and sometimes complicated ins and outs of what seemed to me a galaxy of exotic, accomplished, sophisticated and delightful girlfriends. Asha Putli, Maia Kulshreshta, Anita Seal, are some I recall…and then, of course, later and permanently, the beauteous and brainy Geeta Kapur, who added a whole new dimension to his life, thinking and oeuvre.”

For her part, Ghandy says Vivan Sundaram’s large exhibition titled ‘Assault’ for which he used engine oil and charcoal to delineate the horrors of the Gulf War was when she first felt the pull of his art. “There were trays of oil kept all around the gallery space, which was interpreted in many ways. For me it was an awakening into a political consciousness. He broke away from norm, using paper for sculptures, installations, videos and photo-montages, which would become a mainstay from then on.”

Actor Naseeruddin Shah was so influenced by Vivan Sundaram’s works that he famously named his first-born son Vivan Asad after his two great heroes Sundaram and Mirza Ghalib.

In his latter years, Vivan depended heavily on medicines to keep going. Ghandy harks back to a 2012 show titled Gagawaka in which he used the learnings from his personal health condition, and collected trash and medicinal material – tampons, condoms, gauze, capsule covers, surgical masks -- to put out a line of costumes, which was showcased in Delhi and Mumbai. Sangeeta Chopra choreographed the show and top models of the time walked the ramp.

“It was a no-holds-barred exhibition and very impactful. Vivan believed is going all out and never held back.”

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