Vivan Sundaram: Between Matter and Memory

Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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It is his humanist engagement with politics that sets Vivan Sundaram apart

MINIATURE terracotta figurines idle by the wayside. I am tempted, but do not dare touch them. As I await Vivan Sundaram’s arrival, his artist-assistants, Arun and M Pravat, keep me company. They are responsible for producing this sculptural queue lining the entrance of Sundaram’s massive, warehouse-like studio in Aya Nagar on the border between Delhi and Gurugram. It is half past noon, but the April sun is still forgiving.

Intriguingly, each sculptural unit seems compelled to wait too, which is ironic, since the premise behind their production was to interpret the urgency of movement through the gesture of repetition. They are perhaps best described as ‘hybrid beings’, the result of a compositional mutation or mutilation, depending on where you stand on the purist spectrum. Their sources are two-fold, though the progenitor is the same—Ramkinkar Baij’s Santhal Family (1938) and Mill Call (1956). Santhal Family is considered the first instance of public Modernist sculpture in India. A life-size ensemble of a Santhal mother, father, and child, with their dog, is cemented in a moment of transit, as they carry their belongings in an act of re- location; an image that resonates only too familiarly all these decades later. Mill Call, too, is based on animation, friezing, as it does, a Santhal family rushing to work, the title suggestive of them having suddenly heard a siren announcing it’s time to be at the factory.

Pravat informs me this freshly baked sculpture is being re-created for Haus der Kunst, a contemporary art space in Munich, later this year, where Sundaram’s retrospective, Step inside and you are no longer a stranger—currently showing at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA)—will open. One edition of these miniatures is on display just as you enter the retrospective at KNMA, past his other two more large-scaled tributes to Baij. Titled 409 Ramkinkars, the genesis of the sculptural assembly is the eponymously titled performance-cum-art piece staged in 2015, in Delhi, Sundaram’s collaboration with theatre veterans Anuradha Kapur and Shantanu Bose.

“The idea was that we created sets in relation to the theme, and the actors came in and performed in each of them simultaneously in 12 spaces,” Sundaram tells me after we’ve entered the massive, high-ceiling, quasi-factory like warehouse upon whose floor sits the remainder of the still-evolving congregation of miniature Ramkinkars.The goal was to interpret Baij’s work “very” freely. “As you can see, his is 10-feet high; this is on average one foot so we reduced the scale and changed the material. That is cement; this is terracotta with a wooden base. That is singular, monumental and epic; this is a collective, or multitude coming together, and both Santhal Family and Mill Call are now moving together.”

HIS INTEREST IN working across mediums and disciplines makes it possible to have a space such as this, and also “to have good professional people who know how to help me”. Step Inside… makes abundantly clear the 75-year-old artist’s unabashed faith in the spirit of collaboration as well as his maverick relationship with material, both of which have fundamentally shaped his art-making practice. The existence of this particular studio since 1999 has been pivotal to the realisation of some of the more ambitiously scaled works in Step inside… including Tracking and Trash. It is also a storehouse for certain significant works that seem to have been mindfully excluded from the 50- year spanning retrospective curated by Roobina Karode, such as Stone Column Enclosing the Gaze (1992) and Memorial (1993), alongside excerpts from newer series, notably, wearable sculptures from Gagawaka: Making Strange (2011) and Postmortem (2013).

In my paintings, all my figures are static. In 80 per cent of cases, they are previously photographed, else posed

“Artists now have big studios, but this was a fairly early big studio,” says Sundaram, who cheekily acknowledges finding out about the site through the “superstar” artist, Bharti Kher. “When I came back from the Shanghai Biennale [in 2004], I remembered a conversation with this Japanese artist. He was describing how Chinese artists and even the art schools have studios for photographers as big as my studio. They make huge sets, like a tableau, and they have people posing in them,” Sundaram recounts. “In my entry into photography, I thought of making a set to take the photograph. The installation would be one part, but the main intention would be to think of it in photographic terms. In Early Renaissance paintings, the painter used to go on a hill to capture depth of field. I took that view. The other was the top angle view, or the planned view, where everything gets flattened out. I would make designs and patterns which would appear in the photograph as clearly as what was here, and digitally enhance it.” Sundaram is referring to his iconic 14-panel work, Masterplan, each panel measuring 91.4 x 91.4 cm, which was part of his 2005 solo, Living it. out. in. delhi. The photographs reveal an aerial view of a miniature- scale city composed entirely out of trash, a commentary on the mindlessly consumptive, consumerist nature of the capitalist ideology that engenders the time we live in.

Even though the studio has been responsible for many significant large-scale works, Sundaram also acknowledges his previous and present engagement with various forms of labour outside its environs, from welders to marble inlayers to technicians to rag pickers. His series House/Boat (1994), also on display at KNMA, encompassing sculptures in paper, steel, glass and video, reflecting on issues of migration and nationalism in the aftermath of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992, was facilitated in large part by a “crazy welder” named Vishwakarma who was based in Paharganj, Delhi. Sundaram says, “What you need, you go to different places to source, you find different skills, or the skills come to you, or your studio goes there to make the object.”

This resourceful temperament has been Sundaram’s definitive strategy. The ensuing interactions, which he admits relies on one’s ability to surrender to the creative intelligences of his collaborators, have shaped the outcomes of his artworks.

Though his most famous collaboration dates back to 1989— while creating a glass mural for Shah House, Bombay, he’d invited his contemporaries Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakar as co-creators—he had been actively fostering the spirit of co-authorship and residency-based work since 1976, when he established the Kasauli Art Centre in his hometown of Shimla. It held some the earliest contemporary art camps, international artist residency programmes, seminars, and workshops that encouraged a cross-disciplinary exchange between artists. “At Kasauli, quite a few paintings that I made were begun by others,” says Sundaram. “Bhupen [Khakar] was around, so I would say, ‘The canvas is there, why don’t you make a figure’, and then I’d say, ‘You leave it. I’ll finish it.’ Or Nalini [Malini] would, or Nilima [Sheikh]. And it remains more or less as it is with some overlaps. The idea of an inclusive intervention by different creative and skilled hands has always informed the practice.”

The engagements he enabled at Kasauli had a lasting impact on Sundaram’s own artistic trajectory, allowing him to move away from painting at the time when the medium still constituted the crux of the art market. His access to sculptors like Nagji Patel and Krishnakumar, combined with his exposure to early installation art as a student of Slade School of Fine Art, London, back in the 1960s, where he was mentored by RB Kitaj, following his years at Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda, made him consider more seriously alternative mediums of artmaking focusing on the found object.

In Early Renaissance paintings, the painter used to go on a hill to capture depth of field. I took that view. The other was the top angle view, or the planned view, where everything gets flattened out

What did it really imply, I ask him, this movement ‘away’ from painting? Was he seduced by the idea of representing a kind of spatial movement that painting didn’t necessarily allow? “In my paintings, all my figures are static. In 80 per cent of cases, they are previously photographed, else posed,” Sundaram confesses. “If I can add a reference to Ramkinkar Baij, Santhal Family was done in 1938, Amrita Sher-Gil’s Villagers Going to Market was also done in 1937, and he makes a jibe at her, saying hers are all like wooden figures, there’s no movement in them. That’s not incorrect, because she’s posing all the figures. Even using a title like ‘Going to Market’ when there’s a most minimal sense of movement. It’s like the early Renaissance paintings, they’re almost wooden-like, just a gesture of movement, it’s not like when you get into High Renaissance where they’re not only moving, they’re flying. For me, also, I was always very diffident in drawing,” he explains, suggesting that when he compared himself to his two good friends and fellow collaborators, Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakar, he fell short as a painter.

Sundaram had an epiphany then, that he was good at structure, and he sought the fluidity that oil on canvas couldn’t afford. The minute he moved into non-painting, using charcoal or soft pastels, he felt his work became much freer. His works made with these mediums are characterised by the same irreverence, sense of play and intensity that marked his Khajuraho doodles exhibited in 1966, when he was in his early twenties, which are a treat to behold at the ongoing retrospective.

Eventually, context began to define Sundaram’s choice of material.

“By the end of the 80s, in a very, almost informally, unproblematic way, when we [Bhupen Khakar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jogen Chowdhury, Nalini Malani, Sudhir Patwardhan] proposed Place for People that went on for a whole decade, it was very strongly about the human figure and the context was painting and sculpture to some extent. So I felt restless. Even in this decade, I paint slowly, I didn’t do a huge number of paintings, and the few I did are on display at KNMA,” he says.

“But, when I go into another context, I go to visit my sister in Hamburg, it’s very sunny, and Geeta [Kapur, his partner] has introduced me to soft pastels, and the sea is there, so a series begins about the sea. So, something about Place for People is context; it is local, it is ‘national’ or ‘Indian’. I felt I needed to not be national or local or Indian. And soft pastel is really a delight. It isn’t sticky like oil pastel. It is pure pigment.”

People often ask him whether he gets the idea first and then decides on the medium. How did engine oil come into his hand, I ask. “The Gulf War,” he says, but the back story relates to a previous series in charcoal, called The Long Night, after a trip to Auschwitz. “[NN] Rimzon always used to tease me, ‘Vivan, you’re always looking for disasters. You have to find it in your soul and your spiritual being,’ and I said, ‘You’re Rimzon and I’m Vivan.’”

Sundaram’s engine oil works, embedded in the narrative of the Gulf War, are perhaps the retrospective’s biggest revelation. They mark a defining point in his trajectory, as the art historian Saloni Mathur writes in her essay Art and Empire: On Oil, Antiquities and The War in Iraq: ‘For the first time the artist abandoned conventional painting; his pictures began to slide off the walls to inhabit other forms and relationships to the gallery space.’ The series, viewed alongside The Long Night and House/Boat, hints at Sundaram’s simultaneous roles as provocateur and activist, revealing also his key role in the founding of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) as a collective response by writers, painters, photographers, designers, cultural activists and journalists to the murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi.

Above all else, across mediums, materials, languages and studio sites, at the heart of Sundaram’s practice is his humanist engagement with the politics of memory. Even while ‘making strange’ through what he terms the process of ‘distantiation’, his oeuvre is speckled with seemingly quiet, minimalist gestures that are actually attempts at laying something to rest through a visual burial. One such work in Step Inside… is steeped in this poetic act of entombment. It is tucked away in an archival section that is an annexe to the massive, ship-like container in which the 2017 sound work, Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, recounts the symbolic act of resistance that was the naval ‘mutiny’ in Bombay that year. A printed photograph taken by Sunil Janah lies within the vitrine, its surface covered with layers of glass. “Rarely do you see 30 bodies just thrown into this hospital, and Janah just jumped up and photographed it,” Sundaram says. “I thought, once you take these layers of glass, it acquires a green edge. At least it covers the bodies to give them a decent burial.” n

(Vivan Sundaram’s Step inside and you are no longer a stranger is on view at the KNMA, Delhi, till June 30th)