In 1968, while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London on a Commonwealth Fellowship, artist Vivan Sundaram created a few paintings which no one has seen so far in India. “Even I stumbled upon those works very luckily, or found them rather, in the custody of a family whom I had asked to store the paintings while I was in London,” recalled Sundaram. “The daughter recently helped me find them in their attic. As a student back then, I had no place to keep them.”
These early paintings, influenced by pop art and made between 1965 and 1968, along with a cache of nearly 200 other works, will be on display at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art for the next four months as part of an exhibition titled Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, the first-ever comprehensive overview of Sundaram’s multifaceted practice.
Curated by Roobina Karode, the museum’s chief curator, the retrospective traces the virtuoso’s repertoire created over a period of 52 years. The exhibition is slated to travel to the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich later this year.
What is in a name?
The title of the retrospective stems from one of Sundaram’s earlier works – Step inside and you are no longer a stranger – currently part of the Punjab University Museum collection. This work was presented in 1976 in his solo exhibition of pictures, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, shown in Baroda, Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta. (That was also the year Sundaram founded the Kasauli Art Centre in his family house in Himachal Pradesh, where over the decades, several artists workshops, residency programmes and seminars have been organised.)
“I was thinking about a title, and Step inside…has a somewhat performative injunction to it,” said Sundaram. “The aspect of entering a pictorial work is then evident in different ways. For instance, The Sher-Gil Family is a large 6 feet x 8 feet painting ― the viewer enters an empty space, and the four members of the family are positioned before you. It is then like a passage that invites the viewer. And then of course, with installation art, you enter the work; it is three-dimensional.”
Explains Karode: “The title is metaphorical – there is a constant play between context and content, between materiality and spatiality.”
Woven into the exhibition and its concomitant spaces are works that backtrack Sundaram’s practice as a painter, sculptor, installer, conceptualist, collaborator, interlocutor, archivist, and video-maker.
A layered practice
“Vivan’s work is complex and has various layers to it, some of which could be abstruse,” said Karode. “His practice embraces a wide expanse of references and sub-themes. However, the form that the work has taken is exciting, and the spectators are hence drawn towards it.”
The artist’s experimentation with different mediums can be exemplified through several seminal works: a series of drawings titled The Heights of Machu Picchu (1972), inspired by the Pablo Neruda poem; Riverscape (1992-’93), a body of sculptures employing the use of charcoal, engine oil, and steel; Memorial (1993), a poignant response to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, which was followed by communal riots in Bombay; and 12 Bed Ward (2005), an installation comprising 12 beds strewn with old, dusty, torn soles of shoes, as a figurative expression for urban decay.
“Vivan’s works are laden with political and historical references, embracing both Indian and global contexts,” said Karode. “He has repeatedly dealt with the ideas of wreckage, journeys, conflict, and dislocation – with House/Boat  for instance. These have always been part of his leitmotif but perhaps not in a conscious way.”
Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 (2017), an immersive sound installation comprising a 40-foot long cavernous container made out of stainless steel and aluminium, designed to resemble the hull of a ship, occupies a key position in the exhibition’s visual theme. Created in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, sound artist David Chapman, and film historian Valentina Vitali, it draws attention to the turbulent occurrences of February, 1946, in Bombay, when sailors of the Royal Indian Navy revolted against the British. “It takes you back to the early works as it has a metaphorical connotation,” said Karode.
Engaging with the archive
The installation, the Sher-Gil Archive, preserves the artist’s personal and family history, including his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings, as well as photographs made by his grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil. A repository of paraphernalia, forms of correspondence, and other ephemera, the autobiographical work forms the kernel of the Family Room in the exhibition. The associations Sundaram has had with fragments and facets of the Sher-Gil Archive take on colours of fading memory in his work.
“The Archive is important because it has always been one of Vivan’s preoccupations,” said Karode. “He worked with the material from the Archive to create [digital] photomontages [assembled into a publication titled Retake of Amrita; 2001-2002], and his artistic language has constantly engaged with the Archive.”
Karode added: “Some of his work has largely been embroiled in the idea of memory, such was the influence of the Sher-Gil Archive. The Archive cannot be viewed as a separate entity. He has always been deeply invested in it and has attempted to make it part of his art.”
A montage of jump-cuts
Material, form, and expression are all very fluid across Sundaram’s practice, which is perhaps marked by impulsive, instinctive building blocks.
“Artists like Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani have been instrumental in breaking the mould of painting and establish a multimedia practice for themselves,” said Karode. “With Vivan, the centrality of painting gradually disappeared after the early 90s, and that is what interested me.”
The collection of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, however, does not include Sundaram’s early works, and this has hence impeded the process of reconstructing the complete trajectory of the artist’s oeuvre.
A series of ink drawings, known as the Mexico series, which Sundaram created during the late 1970s, will be on public display for the first time. With 409 Ramkinkars (2015) – a re-creation of artist Ramkinkar Baij’s famous sculptures, co-authored with theatre practitioner Anuradha Kapur and the Delhi-based arts collective Vivadi – an element of theatricality enters the exhibition.
“While putting together the show, the idea was to capture the shifts and breaks in a practice that is constantly evolving,” said Karode, comparing it to stringing discordant notes together with measured precision. While Sundaram’s work is always annotated with political and topical transitions, he knows when to jump-cut, and when to hold on a moment, she said.
One of Karode’s concerns was to approach the exhibition in a way so that it fulfils its role of communication, outreach, and education. “For instance, how can the wall text on a particular work serve as an aid to the viewer?” she asked. “ Should it give out clues to the people to read into the works? To what extent can I say something without having to refer to sub-texts? And to be able to do that, the constant question playing on the curator’s mind is – how will the viewers respond?”
The anatomy of the exhibition is not chronologically structured. “There is a non-linear trajectory to the show,” said Sundaram. “My work is constantly questioning the practice or breaking the disjuncture, both in terms of imagery and material. The viewer could be surprised, could be confused, or could be elated by the juxtaposition of the works.”
The exhibition, Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, is on display from February 9 to June 30 at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, New Delhi.