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Interview with Vivan Sundaram

When I meet Vivan Sundaram at his residence in Delhi, he pulls out the catalogue of his 2018 survey exhibition Disjunctures at Haus der Kunst, Munich, signs it and gifts it to me. The title suits the nature of his oeuvre, which spans many mediums and periods. The gesture suits the man: generous, enthusiastic, and proud, all qualities that have helped sustain his influence over the Indian art scene for the best part of fifty years.

 

At 75, Sundaram remains an influential figure. Sitting in his office, we discuss whether there’s a single philosophical strand that binds his practice. He demurs, saying that he’s always responding to a particular crisis, to something outside himself. Yet there is much within his own life that he has drawn on. The son of India’s second Chief Election Commissioner, Sundaram grew up in an elite (he uses the word ‘colonial’) milieu informed by the liberalism and internationalism of the early post-Independence years. Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the most important painters of pre-Independence India, was Sundaram’s aunt. His grandfather was Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh landowner and early photographer. Sundaram has provocatively addressed this legacy with paintings, installations, and photomontages that create fictional affinities between family members across generations, often suggesting erotic bonds. Another significant member of the family is the art critic and historian Geeta Kapur, Sundaram’s wife, and a woman widely regarded as one of the first people to have legitimized and consolidated the critical study of late-twentieth century Indian art. Unlike his aunt and grandfather, Kapur appears in only one of her husband’s works, Easel Painting (1989-1990), discretely tucked in behind a book. It’s an image I’m now familiar with, having discovered her reading at the breakfast table both times I call.

 

Educated in Baroda and London, Sundaram’s early work was made under the influence of pop art and the countercultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s. In the 1970s, he was part of a group of artists that brought figurative painting into the abstraction-dominated modern Indian canon. The early 1990s was a turbulent time in India—the economy had been liberalized, the mediascape was changing, and violence was afoot. In 1992, the 16th century Babri Mosque was demolished by right-wing Hindu mobs in the northern city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The event triggered two months of anti-Muslim rioting all over the country, where escalating brutality led to the Mumbai Riots of 1993, widely believed to have had tacit government support. In the wake of these events and the transformative effect they had on the country, Sundaram turned to multimedia installation to respond to the political tumult.

 

Last year a retrospective exhibition of Sundaram’s work was held at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi. The title, Step inside and you are no longer a stranger, befits an artist eager to open up about his work. Over the course of two long conversations, he unfolded his five-decade career.

Q

The White Review

— Having initially trained as a painter, in the 1990s you began producing artworks that filled up rooms and halls. What made you believe what you had to say exceeded the frame?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

— The earliest example of my installation work is the Engine Oil series (1991), which references the assault of the US-led coalition forces on Iraq in order to gain control of oil resources. Prior to this I made the charcoal drawings Long Night (1988), which reference the big concrete pillars and barbed wire at Auschwitz. The Gulf War was fought from the air, and this aerial aspect of war pushed me to dismantle the frame. In Approaching 100,000 Sorties (1991), a drawing of terrain that is mid-explosion extends from the wall to the floor, where there is a tray of burnt engine oil.

 

Q

The White Review

— The Engine Oil series has a kind of flatness, which is televisual rather than painterly. This seems to me a reflection of the aesthetic register of the First Gulf War – the first to be televised on such a massive scale. What is your relationship with the screen?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

— It’s true that the screen has informed my practice – but through cinema, rather than television. It’s an interesting point that the war was televised, but as the historian Saloni Mathur observes in her essay on the Engine Oil works Art & Empire: On Oil, Antiquities & the War in Iraq, 2008], in 1990s India, we’d only just started discovering television and video, so it didn’t really influence me. A lot of people in the West reached for the televisual aesthetic because it was part of their everyday culture, whereas Mathur noticed that I began using charcoal and engine oil, materials completely in contrast with that moment.

 

During my student years in England in the late 1960s, the filmmaker Thorold Dickinson, and Sir William Coldstream, the Dean of the Slade School and a realist painter from the Euston Road School, set up a film course. For a whole year I watched documentary films made by the Allies, the Axis group, and other films produced across Eastern Europe and America during the Second World War. It was overwhelming, because in India there’s little cultural memory of India’s involvement in the Second World War, whereas Europeans live obsessively with it. I internalised a lot of what I saw at Slade – so much so that twenty years later, when I visited Auschwitz, I could see flashbacks to Alan Resnais’ documentary about the liberation of concentration camps, Night and Fog (1956). Watching those films opened up a whole world for me, and when I moved back to painting some of their cinematic effects remained. After all, painting on one level is also like a screen.

 

Q

The White Review

—  On your mother’s side of the family you have Jewish heritage. Did this inform your visit to Auschwitz, or your wider interest in narratives of trauma?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  I can only answer with a biographical digression. Amrita Sher-Gil’s mother, who was part Jewish, was always trying to deny her Jewish background. She had both her daughters baptised as Christians. My father was Tamil Brahmin but he never went to the temple. My mother also never went to church, but there was a really strong Christian ethos in our household, which I inculcated, built as it was on this erasure of Jewishness.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The Indian art scene started to change during the 1990s, with the popularisation of interactive and spatial artworks. What do you think was the catalyst?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  Until 1993 the Indian art scene almost entirely worked within the conventions of painting and sculpture, and anything else was associated with Western imperialism. But in the early 1990s, we flipped the narrative so that new media was seen as emancipatory, and everything else was reactionary. For a long time, influential pedagogues at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, like K.G. Subramanyan and J. Swaminathan, argued for the revival and reinvention of India’s living traditions, and were dismissive of the use of any new materials. Coming as I did from Baroda, it was not easy to reject their arguments. But then the Babri Mosque was demolished and the Mumbai riots happened, which made me think that something’s got to change, something’s got to be different. And that’s how it started.

 

Q

The White Review

—   In 1993 you made the installation Memorial, which functioned as a ‘shrine’ to a victim of the Mumbai riots. The work comprised a series of objects and structures: vitrines containing photographs pierced with nails, metal trunks piled up to imitate gateways, a triangle shielding a plaster body. What prompted you to make this?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  A single photograph from a newspaper of a man who had been killed during the riots. The enormous despair in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Mosque shook the belief system of those brought up with Nehruvian ideals of secularism. There was a crisis. The right wing was rising up and the state was letting it happen. I kept thinking, how do I deal with this? I drew on the influence of minimalism that I had grappled with as a student in England, and started thinking of the photograph in spatial terms, in its most formal aspect. The fact that the photograph was a found object, and that I didn’t witness the violence first-hand as my friends in Mumbai did, added another layer: my entry into the tragedy was from a distance.

 

Memorial consisted of a number of discrete works Mausoleum, Gateway, Cross, Fallen Mortal, Burial, Iron Tent, Iron Pyre.] For Mausoleum, I converted the newspaper photograph of the dead man into a plaster cast of a figure, and placed it lying on one side inside a triangular mausoleum. The inlay on the mausoleum is actually an allusion to Sundaram’s contemporary and friend] Nasreen Mohamedi’s work, with some suprematist effects. In old Delhi I found a metalworker and someone who worked with Perspex to help me make it. I also made vitrines containing photographs pierced with nails. The first of these was Fallen Mortal, for which I pierced 3600 nails through the back into the photograph into the body of the man. I was intuitively, but also quite self-consciously, working on the grid. The nails formed a screen that prevented the viewer from touching the image.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Before you started producing installation, there was a long period during which you were involved in collective production. In 1976, you helped establish The Kasauli Art Centre work-shops in Himachal Pradesh, which ran until 1991.

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  I gave a lot of time to organising the Kasauli Art Centre. It was based at the mountain home I inherited from my mother, and we held seminars, workshops and residencies for people working in cinema, theatre, and the social sciences. We also hosted well-known theorists, historians, feminists, as well as late-twentieth century northern Indian intellectuals. There was a strong sense of collectivity, but it was very informal. I helped give a curatorial structure to what was going on. For instance, I curated the show Seven Young Sculptors, which was a culmination of the workshops held at Kasauli in October 1984. Many of the artists at Kasauli were also part of the exhibition Place for People, at Rabindra Bhavan museum in New Delhi in 1981.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Today Place for People is considered a watershed event. It marked a shift from the art of the post-Independence era, to an art situated in a new set of sociopolitical circumstances. The artists, informed by meetings and discussions at Kasauli, reacted to the abstraction and high formalism that typified the work of the generation before them. So the figure comes back, narrative comes back…

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  After ‘body’ comes the word ‘figure’. For most of the members and allies of the Progressive Artist Group (PAG) an influential group of Indian modernist painters operating between 1948 and 1956], during the period after Independence, and for a long time after that, the human figure constituted the existential, the relationship to being. Among those of us who convened in Kasauli and eventually exhibited in Place for People, however, there was a strong attempt to find subjective, social, and historical ways to locate the body. We wanted to articulate an ideological position in favour of figuration.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The cultural criticism publication Journal of Arts & Ideas (1983-1999) was produced as a direct result of Kasauli. Can the journal be seen as an index of the workshops and conversations that took place there?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  The Journal of Arts & Ideas came into existence because a group of us felt that we must raise questions about the political nature of art. Shortly before the journal was founded, there was a Youth Congress meeting of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M)] in Kerala. A bunch of us – myself, the filmmaker Syed Mirza, and the playwright G.P. Deshpande, among others – met with the Chief Minister of Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad {then head of the CPI(M) government in Kerala}, to discuss how we might realise this ambition. E.M.S. advised us against any formal affiliation with the party, because it would curb our freedom. Indian Communist parties do have affiliated groups of artists and writers, but they are often expected to run their work by the party in question, to ensure that it aligns with its ideological principles. E.M.S. could tell that we were a relatively mature and independent-minded bunch who wouldn’t toe any party line. So in one sense, you could say his counsel articulated the journal.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In 1972 you made a pen-and-ink series, titled after the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s collection The Heights of Macchu Picchu (1947). Neruda wrote much of the collection during his initiation into, and intense activity as part of, the Communist Party. Was your own relationship with the party as a young man the reason his collection appealed to you?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  In 1969, I finished the Slade course and then got completely immersed in student activism and politics to the point where I stopped making art. I wanted to come back to India and be an activist. Prakash Karat now a prominent Communist politician] was a good friend. He told me that I wasn’t cut out to be party member and that I was more useful to the cause as an artist. 1971 was the year Neruda won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had heard him in London and had read The Heights of Macchu Picchu. It struck me as a very evocative work and I wanted to imagine his descriptions and give them visual form, so my works were actually illustrations. The first place I showed them was the library of Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College in 1972. My friend, the painter Bhupen Khakhar, teased me that I had to go so far, all the way to South America, to make art.

 

Q

The White Review

—  While we’re on the subject of Latin America, in 1978 you attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana. What kind of relationships did you have with artists from other parts of the global south?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—   The World Festival of Youth and Students was founded to promote left wing, anti-imperialist ideology among young people across the world. They had a system of soliciting participation that involved governments nominating people to attend. In 1978, for the first time since Independence, the party in power in India was not the Indian National Congress – which didn’t nominate people from other parties – but one called the Janata Party. Many socialist parties, including the CPI(M), were in sympathy with Janata because their members had spent time in jail opposing ‘the Emergency’ imposed by Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in 1977. The CPI(M) nominated me to attend the festival. I was the only artist in the group.

 

It was an extraordinary experience, with 25,000 delegates from all over the world. Revolution Square in Havana was bursting with music and dance, and at the opening Fidel Castro gave his usual long speech. Buses drove us to Lenin Park and then, lo and behold, they had these big barrels full of white rum. Castro drove past us in his jeep. Then, and again in 1997 when I revisited Havana for the Biennial, the friendship with Latin American artists was exhilarating. I realised I must be open to their avant-gardes, their new articulations, which were not just about form but were very rooted in their countries and their politics. They were inventing new materials and not just borrowing the idea of the contemporary from, say, New York. That experience had a big effect on me.

 

Q

The White Review

—   Do you ever think about what it would be like if you had abandoned your artistic practice and committed yourself full-time to party work?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  Not any more, because I see that I could never have been a full-time worker. There was something in my experience of getting politicised in London – living in a commune with anarchists and civil rights activists – that I couldn’t replicate here. At that time there was a lot of romantic writing in circulation about the Naxalites {radical left wing groups in eastern and central rural India} and the Maoists. At one point I thought I would actually go to Naxalbari’s jungles, but then I met people from the CPI (M) who told me that was not my path.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The subject of ‘the journey’ often arises in your work, typified by the motif of a boat. Why so?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  For me, boats have always been a strong metaphor, as has the idea of journeying from one spot to the other. It’s a cliché that the artist faces the blank canvas, but I literally jump into some mediums, using materials that are completely contrary to those I have used before. I made a series of pastels called Journeys (1988), of which one work, Navigating the Occident, represented my continuous wish to break from the ground I’m standing on. I went to visit my sister in Hamburg and, frequenting the harbour there, started making freehand pastel paintings of abstract boats, spontaneously playing with colour and form in a modernist vein as my guru at Slade, R.B. Kitaj, might have. The series Long Night and Engine Oil made two years later are also about journeying through the Occident.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In a 2016 interview with Namita Raman, you spoke about your travels in the late 1960s through Europe to India via West Asia. It’s a journey that’s very difficult to make today, braved by migrants but no longer a route for casual tourists. What was that like?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  After finishing my studies in the UK, I visited the US and witnessed the culture of hitchhiking everywhere. When I returned to Europe, I thought: I must also hitchhike. I did not intend to continue being an artist and so I took to the road. It was the hippie era with lots of young couples on the road and I backpacked and hosteled. In fact in Germany, you could just walk into a field and sleep under a tree in your sleeping bag. After Istanbul, you had to take a train, and one of my most memorable, unforgettable train journeys was from Istanbul to Isfahan. We moved along the banks of the Euphrates, what is considered to be one of the oldest land formations, where the mountains become strange, mysterious shapes, weathered down so there are no sharp edges, and there’s not a blade of grass. From Isfahan I went to Herat and then into Kabul, and after that I had to fly to Amritsar, over Pakistan, because Indians aren’t allowed to cross the border at certain points. My travels along the banks of the Euphrates, the land of Mesopotamia, also influenced the Engine Oil works.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Your maternal aunt Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was one of the most important Indian modernist painters. You’ve revisited your family story multiple times over the years, manipulating family photographs.

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—   There have been many iterations of the family photographic archive. In 1984 I painted Sher-Gil Family, in 1994 I made Sher-Gil Archive, and in 2001 I made the digital photomontage, Re-take of Amrita. The fourth, made between 2002-03, is Indira’s Piano, an installation which includes video and sound.

 

By the time I made Sher-Gil Archive in 1994, the installation bug had hit me, and I was interested in exploring the artifice of objects. I relate in a remote sort of way to Amrita because I’m also an artist, and quite differently to my grandfather, Umrao Singh. In Re-take of Amrita, I put the bodies of Umrao and Amrita together in such a way that a very sensual, sexual, almost incestuous relationship between the two is proposed. The Sher-Gil works feature a typical bourgeois family, but the elements couldn’t be more exotic: a Sardar and a Hungarian, two daughters and a life of art. They are often read as a representation of a kind of early modern cosmopolitanism, of a romance between east and west.

 

Q

The White Review

—  When you edit the original photographs of your family, you’re altering the narrative, making interventions into other people’s stories. Do you consider this strategy invasive?

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  I accept that these works could be seen as invasive. I introduce a fiction, a new aspect using my lens and eye, that speaks to my own sensibilities. I can also understand that from a feminist perspective it might appear as if I am imposing a male gaze – that I am using my grandfather to establish a relationship with my aunt, his daughter, almost as if my grandfather is standing in for me. There are a lot of psychosexual readings possible and I open myself up to them. In one sense, the rearrangement also disturbs the patriarchal order. By placing Amrita next to her father, it is almost as if she were saying, ‘I am your equal’.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The series Trash (2005) has met with mixed responses – in particular, the video The Brief Ascension of Marian Husain. I find there is an uneasy relationship between the subject of the video, a boy named Marian Husain who works as a waste picker, and the privileged gaze of the viewer.

 

A

Vivan Sundaram

—  It’s my position to relate to issues of politics that are outside of my personal experience. I told an NGO called Chintan that works with waste pickers that I’d like for people who work there to come and work with me. Marian was exceptionally talented and he made better things with found objects than the Baroda-trained artists assisting me. Once I had the idea for the video, I got somebody from the National School of Drama to teach him to dance, and in three hours this boy was moving in a balletic fashion. So in one sense, you can say I used the body of the subaltern. But in representing him I’m trying to get at something utopian. A fine, solid body is embedded in garbage, rises and then comes back down into that cycle, but in that brief moment of ascension there is aspiration.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In the installation 12 Bed Ward (2005) also from Trash], rusty bed-frames are covered with the worn soles of shoes in place of mattresses. Soles are valuable to waste-pickers as they can be sold on for recycling. Rather than offering a romantic escape from the realities of social inequality, as The Brief Ascension of Marian Husain has been accused of, 12 Bed Ward asks the viewer to linger with the material conditions of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens.
A

Vivan Sundaram

—  There’s no doubt that 12 Bed Ward came out of my encounter with waste pickers through Chintan. For months and months, I would go to their meetings, and seeing them and hearing about their stories was illuminating. At the time I was looking for material for an installation called Tracking (2003-04), which consists of a pile of soles of shoes. I learned that it was the sole that was of value because it is what gets recycled, and not the rest of the shoe. I thought that was a poignant return to the basic form of the object.
 

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Kamayani Sharma is a writer and research associate with a Delhi-based media studies programme called Sarai (CSDS).

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