Review by Hemavathy Guha
April 15, 2018


Vivan Sundaram
Step Inside and You are No Longer a Stranger

A Retrospective: Fifty Years
Curated by Roobina Karode
February 8-June 30, 2018
KNMA, Saket

During the past few years, we have been lucky to witness several interesting exhibitions including major retrospectives of many of the artists who have carved a niche for themselves in the Indian and international contemporary art scene, which the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi has been bringing to us. This season, it has been the multi hued artist Vivan Sundaram’s turn. Although we have seen some of Vivan’s works in the same gallery a few years back as part of collective exhibitions, this season the KNMA has mounted a retrospective exhibition of the versatile artist showcasing 50 years of his oeuvre and 180 works are on display in total.

While many of us are familiar with his charcoal drawings, installations and recent works using medical wastes, very few had seen his very early works during his student days in London or the black and white drawings done in machu pichu which we get a chance to view now.

While at the entrance to the gallery we come across his installation made using industrial spare parts, LED lights, parts of cycles and bikes and the huge installation 409 Ramkinkers in terracotta which are his recent works, chronologically, the exhibition begins with his colourful and youthful paintings of mid and late 1960s as he describes them. Executed during 1965-66 they have been grouped in the category of pop kitsch paintings. Using a palette of bright colours, Vivan says ‘In London I developed a more sophisticated palette and a form of abstraction that remains distinct in my work. Encounters with anti-imperialist movements and with student politics of the 1960s widened my perspective and drew me into activism. The painting ‘Split’, (1968) juxtaposes many elements while in another painting a small rectangle in the centre in vivid green takes its cue from Persian miniatures. The vertical painting ‘Step Inside and You are No Longer a Stranger’ upon whose title the entire exhibition takes its name is displayed on a side wall. The painting divides the canvas in different frames using close ups and long shots bringing in a window in the frame. Vivan has manipulated colour and distance very well in this painting.

Indeed we do become a stranger to many of his works as we walk through the rooms as some of these works have never been seen at least in the past 25 years or so. Notable among these unseen works are the black and white drawings on government reproductions of Khajuraho sculptural images, bad drawings for Bhupen Khakkar, works rendered using pencil and tracing paper and ink drawings of Machu Pichu. One can safely conclude that Vivan has never been afraid of shifting paradigms, experimenting with materials and also working with fragile materials like tracing paper. The fact that he has also been able to sell these works adds to his credibility as an acclaimed artist.

Going back to the exhibition, Room 2 takes us to the Pop paintings of 1960s when he returned from London. Along with his artist friend Bhupen Kakkar, he explored the street culture and popular imagery in Indian cities, which he had explored through the popular culture of 1960s London. One of the interesting work during this phase is the overlaying of print outs of Khajuraho sculptures with graffiti. Some of the paintings are also marked by vivid display of religious and secular images. This was also the period when he began to use bright hues, ships and bands in his paintings. A bunk bed is also displayed along with these early works although of 1999 .The bed painted red is layered with stuffed toys. In some of the paintings titled ‘Indeternminacy’ (1967) and ‘Revolutions’ (1966), he has used the image of the many armed goddess in a symbolic manner. In the painting titled ‘Cages’ (1966), he has mixed enamel and water based paint which he seems to have poured over the sculptural figures and pillars which one comes across in caves like Ajanta or even in temples. ’Touch of Brightness’ (1966), remade in 2018 comprises of a box consisting of shelves into which are kept figures of toys and puppets and a goddess locked inside a shrine.

Another room introduces us to his quintessential series ‘Bad Drawings for Dost’ (2005-06), dedicated to his artist friend Bhupen as mentioned earlier. Vivan, returns to pictoriality rendering the drawings himself after nearly decades of dabbling in conceptual and installation art pieces. He has drawn with a pencil, used cut outs of tracing papers and also stitched them together at times or the thread seems to have been pasted across at times. Some of the works are titled as ‘Many Small Heads’(2004) and  ‘Angels and Evil’ (2004). In this work, in the top portion, a devil seems coming to lick his friend and at the bottom, two figures in tracing papers are intertwined. ’Wedding Anniversary’ (2005) done in the same media has a male and female figures with a lot of crisscrossing.

An assemblage of small and medium figures in the passageway is from the series ‘Postmortem’ (2013). This series represents an experiment in dissection as if opening the body’s internal framework. The next section leads us to the ‘Carrier’ (1966), which is a boat elevated resting on oars. The boat signifying a journey of voyages and discoveries has a video playing under it. Kamla Kapoor says of this work in 1999. “The boat thus becomes a metaphor, its limitless variety and pervasive presence a source of poetic strength. This one, lovingly constructed, an archetypal symbol, its outer surface encrusted with motifs, resembling some prehistoric crustacean form of life, an anthropological subversion of sorts, is now a shelter, a place for ‘congregation’.”

In yet another work ‘Shovel’ (1994), made with paper pulp, iron, mixed media, a shovel is pressed on handmade paper.

In the aftermath of the 1992-93 riots Vivan had created a ‘House’ after his site specific work ‘Memorial’ at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkatta in 1992 using Kalam Khush hand made paper which is displayed here. The outer portion has nails and symbols of hands embossed into the handmade paper while a vessel with water is kept inside. Vivan says: “Through the transparent base, the viewer sees the flames of burning furniture in a video loop. This notional act of destruction can also be read as the hearth being kept warm. The food will continue to be cooked for family and community the inhabitants will not be driven away.”

We move on to the work ‘River Carries its Past’ (1993). This work made with engine oil, with burn marks is displayed on the wall. The way it is displayed you can sense a boat moving along the inverted spine of an animal.

One of the interesting work in this room is ‘Approaching 100,000 Sortie’ (1991) which is a drawing on the wall cum installation of a boat with black oil on the floor. In this work, 12 handmade papers with drawings stitched edge to edge hang on the wall. The vibrant drawing is extended to the floor, which has a boat shaped vessel with black oil. This work marks Vivan’s journey exploring into the medium of installations.

The installation ‘Boat’ (1994) is also displayed alongside. The boat propped up on railway ‘sleepers’ has seemingly come to rest. On the sides of the boat, you can see marks of nails that once held down the tracks. Vivan says regarding the use of papers for sculpture, “as free standing sculpture, these paper walls provide space to enter, walk into, over the object and for circumbualting, moving into the zone of architecture.”

In a corner, there is also a two-channel science fiction video titled ‘Tracking’ (2003-04) in which the camera hovers over discarded sheets and parts from his own works.

We move into another room, which has been converted into a 12-bed ward where soles of old, worn out shoes are placed on the beds.

Vivan feels that memory also consists of archiving family histories. Coming as he is from an illustrious lineage, there is plenty for him to reminiscence and make objects out of them. Thus we find the series of works under ‘The Family’ (1975-2013).

It has a carpet designed by Amrita (1937) which was being used in Kasauli Art Centre all these years, photos of self and Amrita by Umrao Sher Gil, Amrita in various poses again taken by her father and four black boxes for the family with photographs inside.

In the work titled ‘Mother’ (1995), a box with a withered fan, photo, cotton pillow, broken wine glass is displayed. The very idea of making this box paying homage to the personal belongings of his mother could have come only to Vivan. The painting of Shergil family is also displayed here.

There are also videos titled ‘Indira’s Piano’ (2003-03) and a small suitcase and a photo of Umrao with a child inside a hexagonal enclosure. A family photo with amrita lying on grass with her parents and sister a little further away provides an interesting composition.

We move onto another room, which has huge paintings by him in 1980s on display which are another highlight of this exhibition. Some of the paintings are ‘Big Shanti’ (1982-84), ‘Guddo’ (1980), two friends, ten foot beam among others and Safdar and Molyashree  (1989). The painting Guddo has very interesting colour composition. The small brush strokes, which we find in these paintings can also be seen in his charcoal drawings later on.

 As mentioned in the accompanying brochure, he was part of the Narrative figurative school of painting that emerged from the fine arts faculty, MSU, Baroda. Along with the practices of other painters, Vivan’s figures are embedded in the social milieu and the landscape looming with a latent force, and at times with a combustive/explosive energy of some cataclysmic event.

Now we come to the Machu Pichu drawings which though were done in 1978 are displayed towards the end probably connecting his drawings. These are done with ink on paper and executed with an intensity and dexterity.

A visit to Auschwitz in Poland in 1989 provided an impetus to Vivan to start large charcoal drawings titled ‘Long Nights’. This was to be followed by engine oil and charcoal drawings during early 1990s which are very well remembered as he brought on paper his anguish on the brutalities of Gulf War, massive oil spills, which were vividly televised. Using the slick of oil as his medium, he stains the surface of his paper with crude oil. The dull brown blotch, mixes and obliterates the delicate and at times illegible charcoal drawings like in the ‘imperial overcast’ a shadow of the burnt up body and the spill becomes one.

In the work ‘Desert Trail’ (1991) with engine oil and charcoal, we find lizards, wings, bones and small strokes creating a movement and the oil providing a background.

Although a smaller one, ‘Barbed Wire’ (1987) showing the barbed wires is a powerful one.

Some of the drawings in this series are ‘Oil and Slick’ (1991) and ‘Black Rain’ (1991). Perhaps no other artist from India has worked so extensively on war.

We come to the end of the show with ‘Trash’ (2008). Vivan has used photographs taken in secondhand markets and encasing many hundreds of them in cheap picture frames and they are spread out in a circular heap. His engagement with recycled materials found an extension in creating garments from recycled material titled ‘Gagawaka’ (2011), which were also displayed by live models. A mannequin dressed in a sculptural garment with wastes and recycled materials is displayed.

As we traverse through the exhibition, we get a chance to understand his complete oeuvre, his experiments with different materials and mediums and still evincing a keen interest to create.