Vivan Sundaram’s political coming of age, by all accounts, began during his years at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, where he landed a Commonwealth scholarship in 1966 after being mentored in the fine arts department of the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. He was deeply influenced by British pop artists such as David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and by his tutor RB Kitaj, a British American figurative artist from a generation of abstract expressionists whose cast of characters included Rosa Luxemburg, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Dreiser and T S Eliot.

Sundaram also took a course in the history of cinema at Slade. Cinema in the 60s was living up to Russian politician and theorist Lenin’s memorable definition as the “most important of the arts” with Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, Andrzej Wajda, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and others rewriting the rule book. Immersed in art and cinema, Sundaram was drawn to the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the tumultuous decade – its convulsive, liberating energy, and the spirit of freedom.

His political orientation took a dramatic turn during the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, a revolutionary Trotskyite organisation. At his memorial meeting held in Delhi on April 17, Indian economist Prabhat Patnaik spoke about the massive rally at the Grosvenor Square where he and Sundaram were both present.

They marched with Pakistani-British activist and writer Tariq Ali from Trafalgar Square to Oxford Street to Grosvenor Square where English actor Vanessa Redgrave made a surprise appearance. The espousal of radical Left politics across university campuses in the US, and in Paris, London, Berlin, Mexico City, Warsaw, Belgrade and Czechoslovakia – where tanks rolled to silence the Prague Spring, the strike of workers’ demanding better working conditions – and the virulent contestation of everyday reality left its impact on the sixty-eighters.

The paroxysms of the 1968 student politics continued to reverberate in Sundaram’s life. He lived in a commune with friends, incubating an emotional hunger for social transformation. He returned to India in 1970 after hitchhiking across North America, Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan – drawing acclaim almost immediately when his ink drawings of the Heights of Macchu Picchu, based on poet Pablo Neruda’s 12-poem sequence were displayed.

The struggle of subaltern Latin Americans reflected in drawings such as Arise to Birth with Me, Leaves of Accumulated Autumn, Plunge My Hand, Farmer Weaver Potter, Speak for Your Mouths took an even more poignant turn when Neruda, a close friend of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, died mysteriously days after Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973.

Macchu Picchu (series), 1972, ink on paper, private collection. Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram.

Sundaram’s work travelled to pop up exhibitions in college and university campuses where signed prints of portraits of Neruda and Karl Marx were sold for Rs 10. He was a frequent presence at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and that is where I first saw him in his signature blue kurta, exuding a boyish charm – our poster boy of revolutionary chic-ism.

Socially and politically engaged art was integral to Sundaram’s art practice. His reaction to the 1975 Indian Emergency, a period of incendiary politics and intellectual ferment was in the form of Flight, Ashokan Capital, Gang of Three, Oedipal Bed, Figure from History, and a host of remarkably subversive drawings exhibited at Jawaharlal Nehru University and other campuses.

The need for the creation of a space for open discussions led to the formation of an art centre in his family home in Kasauli in 1976, which soon became a vibrant hub for artists, writers, activists, scholars and filmmakers like Saeed Mirza. The Journal of Arts and Ideas that played an invaluable role in shaping the leftist cultural discourse for nearly two decades followed in 1982.

Sundaram was also one of the founding trustees of SAHMAT – Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust – an avant-garde collective that redefined the aesthetics of resistance. Reminiscing about his deep involvement with the activities of SAHMAT, artist Sohail Hashmi remarks that the artist and idealogue remained “actively involved in ideating, conceptualising and executing a large number of projects that have contributed immensely into making SAHMAT what it has become”. Later, he was the managing trustee with his sister Navina of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation set up in 2016.

Gang of Three Charcoal on paper.

Sundaram was part of a group of artists who came together for a 1981 exhibition titled “A Place for People” that was seen by critics and scholars as epochal, signalling the transition from modernist to postmodernist art in India.

They drew their inspiration, as Geeta Kapur says, from life: “lived, experienced, and articulated by real subjects”. Curated in both Bombay and Delhi, it consisted of works by Vivan, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malini, Jogen Chowdhury and Sudhir Patwardhan – “developed simultaneously and even as a consequence of the discourse on contemporary narration”.

The artist’s searing Long Night Series made after a visit to Auschwitz in 1987-’88 remains the single most important work addressing the Holocaust. His work Border Post, Allegorical Landscape, Archaeology of War, Fragmented Landscape, Night Journey and other stark charcoal drawings are evocative of the archival footage of the Second World War and of French director Alain Resnais’s poetic documentary Night and Fog, shot at concentration camps.

Night Journey, 1988, charcoal on paper, collection of Anil Bhatti. Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram

He responded to the first Gulf War by using burnt engine oil and charcoal to portray the horrors of Operation Desert Storm, one of the largest oil spills in history, destroyed cities and scattered bodies through his art. His drawings titled Wounded Land, The Tigris Devastation, Severed Head, Death of Akkadian King, Desert Trail, Imperial Overcast, Oil Slick, unravelled the murky geo-politics of oil.

Desert Trail II, 1991, engine oil and charcoal on paper, collection of Shalini Sawhney, Mumbai. Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram

He was increasingly agonised by the question of whether art, as one of the pre-eminent artistic mediums, was capable of confronting the urgent issues of the day. Sundaram’s response to the angst-ridden neoliberal era of the 90s came in the form of experimental forms and practices that carried the ability to question, were politically abrasive, and remained far from being socially deaf.

It was an invigorating period of creativity and activism infused with his incredible breadth of vision and strength of conviction. He created a range of edgy and provocative site-specific installations from an array of materials, mediums and structural forms, transforming passive recipients of visual arts into participants in a revolutionary process of awareness.

The communal riots in Bombay in 1993, triggered by the destruction of the Babri Masjid, inspired a poignant installation titled “Memorial” that transformed the gallery into a symbolic space of mourning for an anonymous riot victim seen in a grainy black and white press photograph.

Rescuing his death from collective amnesia, Vivan covered the plaster cast, life sized fragmented body with a blanket of nails, situated the iron coffin on a makeshift gun carriage and performed his burial, not once but repeatedly – restoring him to an irreducible presence.

“Memorial” continues to be part of seminal exhibitions, importantly forming the centrepiece of an exhibition curated by Geeta Kapur at London’s Tate Modern titled “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis”. Politicising the act of remembrance, it stands, in the words of Yaufumi Nakamori, a senior curator at Tate Modern, as a reminder of a single historical moment transformed into a symbolic space that grapples with the wider questions around mortality, violence and representation.

Gun Carriage, from Memorial, Installation View 2001 Silver gelatin print, acrylic sheet, iron 106 x 292 x 127 cm Collection of Tate Modern, London Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram

Sundaram’s boat-works were exemplified by the 1994 assemblage House/ boat made from handmade paper set on girdings of rusted iron and Carrier 96, a turned-over boat elevated on bars that gave expression to the idea of migration, displacement and passage – described by Geeta Kapur as a transitive condition signalling possibility, impasse, entropy-indeterminant states that conjunct loss and retrieval. This was followed by Home, an installation made with steel, paper, wood, glass, brake grease, acrylic paint and video – its walls bearing the tears and scars of communal violence.

He took what was perceived as a detour into the retrieval and reconstruction of personal history by embarking on a solipsistic journey called “The Sher-Gil Archive (1995)”. The work moves between black and white photographs taken by his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil in the 1920s, archival texts that include handwritten letters of his aunt, artist Amrita Sher-Gil, reliquary boxes containing memorabilia, fabric, closets, and several other objects reflective of the lost era.

Two books complemented the project: an edited compilation of his grandfather’s photographs, and a two-volume collection of his aunt’s letters. The precious family archive and his celebrated 1983 canvas The Sher-Gil Family were precursor to “Re-take of Amrita”: reconfigured digital photomontages using images from the family album – creating what Terry Gillian calls an imaginarium that draws the viewer into a complex web of relationships of the Sher-Gil family and in his own rather cryptic words – the drama of their self-appointed egos.

‘Young Girls’ 2001 Digital photomontage 15 x 21.3 in Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram & PHOTOINK

His requiem for close friend Bhupen Khakhar appeared in 2005. Created by tracing parts of Bhupen’s paintings on butter paper, and using thread to stitch them onto white paper, the works were quirkily and rather endearingly titled Bad Drawings for Dost.

The mnemonic site of the Durbar Hall of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Museum was used for an architectural scale installation “Journey Towards Freedom: Modern Bengal”, later renamed “History Project”. His choice of setting, in his own words, was by way of a challenge: to occupy an imperial edifice and change its orientation; to reflect upon India’s struggle for independence and the emerging nation’s stake in modernity; to engage with post-colonial contradictions through recursive narration.

The central positioning of a railtrack was not an accident – it was used for recording crucial events that were part of Bengal’s history over a 100 years. Subaltern historical narratives too remained an important aspect of the project. Displayed for three months in 1998, it also has a resonant afterlife in a documentary Structures of Memory – shot by acclaimed cinematographer Ranjan Palit and edited by Sameera Jain and a book produced 20 later that contains essays contributed by art historians and cultural theorists.

Vivan Sundaram working on History Project, 1998. Credit: Photographed by Koushik Sarkar Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram

Found objects, garbage and other ephemera became part of Vivan’s oeuvre beginning with Trash, 2008 – an urbanscape of garbage, digital photomontages, and three videos: “Tracking”, “Brief Ascension of Marian Hussain”, and “Turning” that put spotlight on the precarity of the marginalised in an urban metropolis.

He moved into the orbit of design and performance when he alchemised found objects such as diapers, discarded red bras, variegated medical accouterments, kitchen scrubs, plastic cups, artificial hair into playful and erotic sculptural garments, naming the assemblage “Gagawaka: Making Strange”.

Another work featured a gigantic float made of 8,000 discarded water bottles to draw attention to the “flood of plastic, trash and pollution unleashed by consumer mania and the business-as-usual of global capitalism” Yet another startling installation was the “12 Bed Ward”, consisting of iron-framed beds, their surface made up of disembodied shoe soles, with a dim 25-watt bulb casting ominous shadows on the floor, reflecting the trauma, alienation and violence of homelessness.

He continued to explore new forms of collaboration. His celebration of sculptor-painter Ramkinkar Baij’s work in 409 Ramkinkars, is a monumental cross genre work that brought together theatre and a creative partnership with theatre directors including Anuradha Kapur, performance art, sculpture and installation. Annotated with text that referenced the life, ideas and the radical practice of the artist, the exhibition opened in 2015 at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts with 409 miniaturised terracotta recasts of the “Santhal Family” and “Mill Call”, two of Ramkinkar’s most remarkable sculptures.

Mill Re-call, 2015, wood, metal, rubber, enamel paint, electric light. Credit: Gireesh GV Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram.

His spotlight on the 1946 revolt of sailors of the Royal Indian Navy, reduced inexplicably to a little more than a footnote in collective memory came in the form of an installation titled “Meaning of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946”, conceived by him and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha with sound artist David Chapman and film historian Valentina Vitali.

The leading-edge choreography of sound and light, in a huge 40-feet long steel and aluminium structure evocative of a ship’s hull left the audience with an ambient feeling of being a part of the forgotten slice of history.

Sundaram remained a sixty-eighter throughout his life – questing, questioning, rescuing important historical narratives and memories from the condescension of posterity. The memorial opened for public viewing once again at Tate Modern on April 3, five days after he passed on.

His work, Six Stations of a Life Pursued, is on display at the ongoing Sharjah Biennale. Composed of semi-abstract images of caged figures and close-ups of sutured flesh, it was conceptualised as a choreography of bodies that have undergone violence, experienced incarceration and lived through mourning. It also seems to invoke historian Eric Hobsbawm’s passionate plea to protest against forgetting – in a sense, the hallmark of Sundaram’s politics.

A former civil servant, Sujata Prasad is an author, curator and art-columnist.

Six Stations of a Life Pursued: Performers in the Vale, Untitled, IV 2021, Pigment print. Credit: Photographed by Imran Kokiloo and Anita Khemka, performed by Imran Kokiloo, Azah Kokiloo and Zaara Kokiloo. Courtesy: The Estate of Vivan Sundaram and PHOTOINK.

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Through destruction and reconstruction, artist Vivan Sundaram reimagines and retells history

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