A look at Vivan Sundaram’s legacy

Ashish Rajadhyaksha pays tribute to the late Vivan Sundaram, one of India’s most prominent contemporary artists, and his role in shaping modern Indian art

Updated - January 26, 2024 09:10 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 03:35 pm IST - CHENNAI

Ashish Rajadhyaksha unravels the life and legacy of artist Vivan Sundaram at The Hindu Lit Fest festival 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Friday.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha unravels the life and legacy of artist Vivan Sundaram at The Hindu Lit Fest festival 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Friday. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

“When an artist passes away, you see their entire life work in a flash… It’s as though the artist and the artwork meld, fuse into a familiar whole,” said art scholar, curator, and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha on Friday. He was paying tribute to the late Vivan Sundaram, one of India’s most prominent contemporary artists, during a talk at The Hindu Lit Fest titled, ‘Remembering Vivan Sundaram: A Journey Through Images’.

Sundaram passed away on March 29, 2023, leaving behind a legacy that merged seamlessly with his art, reflecting India’s political, cultural, and social transformations. Mr. Rajadhyaksha’s talk delved into Sundaram’s life, exploring its evolution and the broader impact on Indian art. 

Mr. Rajadhyaksha began his talk by remembering the days after Sundaram’s demise, and noting how so many people had simply referred to him as Vivan. Social media and the internet were flooded with personal and deeply-felt tributes to a man who had defined the Indian era of modern art and is often described as the artist who brought the concept of installation art to India. “It was startling to see how many people felt like they knew him, and felt like they’d lost someone they knew,” Mr. Rajadhyaksha said.

The Kasauli years

Using images of Sundaram’s work and clips of movies exploring his projects, Mr. Rajadhyaksha took the audience on a journey of the artist’s life and work. The first painting he projected for the audience was a 1980s oil work that brought together luminous colours and a distinct treatment of landscape that would later become Sundaram’s distinctive style, along with a specific reference to the defining image of the 1970s depicting the custodial rape that came to be known as the Mathura rape case.

The talk expanded to Sundaram’s Kasauli years, where he used a villa inherited from his mother to organise events focusing on art, theatre, and film. Mr. Rajadhyaksha highlighted the documentation of this period in the book, Kasauli Art Centre 1976-1981 (Tulika Books), and emphasised Sundaram’s shift from the innocence of the 1980s to a more radicalised understanding of political art. More modest early evidence of this transformation was evident in works like Penal Settlement, inspired by Sundaram’s visit to Auschwitz. 

While displaying another work from a series called Engine Oil – darkly dystopian drawings in thick charcoal – made in the middle of what was the planet’s first post-modern war, Mr. Rajadhyaksha said, “Nothing had prepared us for this shift... [to a] darker, more threatening representation of state totalitarianism”.

Evolving artist

The audience was then taken through other examples, from Gang of Three, an emergency period work featuring Indira Gandhi’s visage atop a mushroom cloud, to Safdar and Moloyshree, created in the wake of Safdar Hashmi’s death. By then, Sundaram had shifted much of his organisational energy away from Kasauli; he stopped making oil paintings and the Kasauli events, and turned to expanded art, truly exploding the era of the national modern.  

Mr. Rajadhyaksha next took the audience to Sundaram’s massive project titled Memorial, made in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots that followed, that took over the entire Victoria Memorial hall. Sundaram’s works had by now become massive, and the nature of his materials had increased, as had his collaborators, from photographers and filmmakers to technicians, publishers, carpenters and artists. Later, Sundaram would work on another breakthrough project titled, Gaga Waka: Making Strange, a culmination of his growing interest in using waste matter in his installations.  

Mr. Rajadhyaksha ended the talk with a larger overview of Sundaram’s legacy, emphasising how it had changed from the Kasauli mode to something larger and wider – spanning locations, cities, materials, and collaborators.

It was not limited to those who worked with him and knew him as Vivan, he said; now, it also included viewers who became fellow artmakers, and as soon as they stepped into his work, they were no longer strangers. 

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