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Vivan Sundaram – More Than His Legacy

The Vivan Sundaram Retrospective At KNMA

Vivan Sundaram has been leading the charge in ensuring his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil gets her rightful place in history as the country’s foremost artist and the one who revolutionised modern Indian art. She was born in 1913 and passed away in 1941. Vivan Sundaram was born a few years later and is an artist par excellence. Sculpture, printmaking, installations, photography, video art, curatorial work et. al. enrich a brilliant career which, to the larger public, still remains unheralded. His name has become synonymous with the legacy of his grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, considered the pioneer of modern Indian photography, and his still more popular aunt, Amrita. But to experience Sundaram’s retrospective at KNMA is a breath-taking experience for it will make you understand the sheer range of his oeuvre. 

images from: vivan sundaram – “step inside and you are no longer a stranger” at knma



Vivan Sundaram has mentioned in his interviews that he has many facets to himself – the public, the political and the social. But his work has an autobiographical depth that has enhanced his politics and hence, his art. Art activism, Fluxus, Arte Povera, progressive, avant-garde… all sit with ease on his artworks. He constructs his art across genres, deceptively mastering each with his investigations.

From his art initiatives in Kasauli to being one of the first artists to digitally manipulate photographs to his drawings weaving in Neruda and Machu Picchu or his collaborations with Pratima Pandey for ‘Gagawaka: Making Strange’; Vivan Sundaram’s immersive installations are as hypnotic as the shifting sands of the sea. It is art that is also adventurous, voicing a clear stance and utilising mediums and media in a way that showcases the artist’s deep engagement with his subject. Experimentation in his art acts as a key, translating his art story more powerfully.

Back in 1961, he went to Baroda to study art. The artist’s growing up years were fuelled by western, post-impressionist works. But under the tutelage of greats like K.G. Subramanyan, Sankho Chaudhuri and N.S. Bendre, Vivan Sundaram developed leanings towards social movements that have exponentially strengthened over the years. A ‘radical modernity’, as he calls it, that started in Baroda, consumed him during his trip to London while on a Commonwealth scholarship in 1966. Vietnam, anti-racism, equal rights were more than slogans and the era identified very closely with these concerns. The status quo was being questioned in every sphere, including the arts, and all this intensified the artist’s momentum towards creating art that was politically charged. This also led to a breaking away from the realistic leanings of European-styled aesthetics to the more subversive boroughs of art that appealed to the counter-culture that was emerging. Over the years, Vivan Sundaram has said that he considers the likes of Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel, the big abstract artists of the post-independence era, as inspirations.

Sundaram has assimilated a portfolio that is ingenious, edgy and progressive. Examining, contesting, appropriating, re-imagining, and creating visually and morally arresting art that breaks free from conventional notions. Vivan Sundaram’s work continues to align with the times, but not in the vein of a trend hunter, but more as an able investigator or auteur who uses multiple mediums effectively. As he says,” New technologies create new democracies of looking.” This strategic realignment has been constant and enables him to expand on his themes. It is work which is trying to curate an awakening. 

images from: vivan sundaram – “step inside and you are no longer a stranger” at knma

Curated by Roobina Karode, the retrospective is expansive. Superbly produced, with attention offered to every detail of the viewing experience. Space and art synergise to give you access to an undisturbed discovery of his admired and rarely seen works. There is an exciting contrast from room to room that surprises you. Unlike a linear chronological sequencing of his years as an artist which, while not without its merits, lacks the meat of this curation; one you could chew on and savour. 

It is undoubtedly an exceptional display of the work of an artist who has had a career that roils in experimentation, and triumphs in its past sufferings, in its anxieties, in its persistence and its analogies that seep in invitingly. Bold, powerful and moving statements, seamlessly transitioning from vibrant installations to starker, austere pieces and back again. The fluidity with which the artist has involved himself showcase a rare intuition to art-making that has a refreshing ingenuity and depth. There are works that dazzle and provoke an immediate response and there are works that command closer inspection, an inner reflection. And then there are works that make you gasp, not for its audacity or edginess but for its sheer artistry. The questions keep revolving around one man and his jaw-dropping range. It is political, poetic, personal and powerful.

images from: vivan sundaram – “step inside and you are no longer a stranger” at knma

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