Art Vivan Sundaram has already conceptualised his installation for the upcoming Kochi Muziris Biennale. The veteran artist gives an insight into the inspiration and influences behind it. Priyadershini S.

Veteran artist Vivan Sundaram is to exhibit his work at India’s first biennale – Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB). There is much excitement at the fact and the artist says, “I am elated.” Vivan was one of the artists to have mooted the idea of a Delhi Biennale in 2005. Now preparing to showcase at KMB, he already has a precise idea of the work that he is to present. In a freewheeling chat with Friday Review, Vivan spoke at length about his artistic family lineage, being the grandson of photographer Umrao Sher Gil and nephew of artist Amrita Sher Gil, of pioneering the experimental art movement in India, of being one of the founders of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and on his engagement with avant-garde mediums of art at a time when art in India meant just painting and sculpting. Excerpts from an interview…

Art through history in KMB

I have engaged in history in my works before. I did an ambitious history project at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, 12 years ago. When I was invited for the KMB, I was curious about Muziris. I have been interested in journeys and boats and our relationship to the sea. It has been a metaphor in my work in a series, done in pastels, called ‘Journey’. Pattanam, a port town that collapsed quite mysteriously and resurfaced at the end of 20th century, may be a conjecture. But now it seems pretty certain that it was part of the Muziris heritage. Let us say that it was.

On site, I was fascinated by discarded shards of pottery, some with elements of design. The range of excavated objects is phenomenal, from glass to copper to terracotta pieces. Already, I have got a clear idea about constructing an imaginary city and landscape. It will have some connection to another work of mine called ‘Trash’ (2009). The final work will be a video installation with real objects. I hope to start constructing the set in October with post production in Delhi.

The installation for KMB

The set will be constructed in a warehouse in Kochi, in an 8x10x 50 feet space. Sometimes a little information can be to one’s advantage. The history of modernism has given us a vocabulary to construct from fragments, which is what I am going to do. I will use the terracotta shards to make sculptural buildings, a cityscape. The space will allow for both tracking and crane shots. The idea is to look at the cityscape from above, so the cameras will take aerial or top shots.

The experiential video will show a city inundated by the river water and the sea, a possible delusional past will rise to take viewers through times of a past life. The installation will involve expert camera work, light and sound effects. The video will end with lights drawing viewers towards ‘vitrines’ that will showcase some of the 2,000-year-old excavated items.

Political leanings and formation of SAHMAT

I am not an activist as I was earlier. I was a student in England during the May ’68 student revolution. As a product of that, a group of us still have a questioning, critical, anti-establishment position. I became close to people in the CPI(M) and became a fellow traveller. I continue to be a part – in an informal way. Safdar Hashmi wanted to set up an organisation that would bring people together culturally. In 1989, artists, intellectuals and theatre people did a peace march. He was instrumental in it. So when he died and SAHMAT was formed, its main agenda was to be anti-communal. It stood for cultural resistance towards the excesses of authority.

Narrative paintings of the 80s

In the 80s a group of us held an exhibition called ‘Place For People’. It was a discussion about painting persons in their context and did not deal with just the human figure. This narrative movement influenced a whole generation of younger artists who took positions vis-à-vis this. Malayali artist K.P. Krishnakumar was influenced by it. Tragically, he ended his life.

Experimental art

In the 90s my work moved away to explore different mediums. With the Babri Masjid issue, the changes in society etc, some colleagues of mine, Navjot Altaf, Rumana Husain and some others, and I felt that many areas of creative expression were not being explored in India. I shifted gradually. I responded to the new scene with a work – The First Gulf War (1991), where I used burnt engine oil. Then came collaborative art with inputs by others. The arrival of the art market in the 90s had artists positioning themselves consciously or by default to this trend. The new mediums of installation, photography and video art do not fit into conventional art. That is why growth in these areas is relatively small. In Gagawaka: Making Strange (2010) I worked with tailors, fashion designers, technicians to create an avant-garde installation. It was a great learning curve. It was made with trash and readymade or found objects.


This is my seventh visit. Earlier I have been here in connection with meetings of the Left and work regarding Left Writers’ Association. This is the first time I am here for art and I am elated.

Influences of his artistic family on his art

From time to time the personal has reappeared in my works. I remember my grandfather as a very sad old man who had a huge body of knowledge in his head. In Memorial (1993) and Sher Gil Archives in 1995 I used his photographs as analogue. I transformed them in the format and established a relationship between him and his daughter – his very long life, her very short life. (Amrita Sher Gil died at the age of 28). Later I used his photographs digitally, in Retake of Amrita (2001), to make new stories and compositions. Certain aspects of Amrita Sher Gil’s works have influenced me, such as the way she posed people. A lot of my paintings have this posing.