Indian contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram has died aged 79 of complications from a hemorrhagic stroke that occurred earlier this month. Sundaram, who has been creating work for nearly six decades, is best known for his multidisciplinary studio practice informed by activism and political awareness. Reports indicate that that the artist had been ill in the last few months before his death. News of his death was confirmed by Chemould gallery in Mumbai.
“To say that Vivan took risks is an understatement,” said Shireen Gandhy, Creative Director at Chermould Gallery Centre County Report. “If you look at his practice, there is a great connection to art history, but at the same time feels at ease when he addresses his problems with acute frankness.”
Sundaram was born in the northern Indian city of Shimla in 1943 to Kalyan Sundaram, India’s first post-partition legal secretary and second chief election commissioner, and Indira Sher-Gil, younger sister of the Hungarian-Indian modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Sundaram completed a bachelor’s degree in painting from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat between 1961 and 1965, followed by postgraduate studies as a Commonwealth Scholar at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1966 to 1968 under the tutelage of The American Artist RB Kitaj. Sundaram began studying the history of cinema in Slade and channeled this interest into his artwork throughout his life.
Sundaram was heavily influenced by his time in Europe, particularly the student-led protests in May ’68 against capitalism, imperialism and class discrimination in Paris, France. Sundaram returned to India in the early 1970s and began to address national and global disparities in his art practice, inspired by British pop art, kitsch and abstraction. Between the 70’s and 80’s the artist developed several series of works dealing with and showing solidarity with oppressed populations, including but not limited to Sikhs who suffered from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India and the Jewish Europeans who died or fled during the riots Holocaust. Sundaram invested in Marxism and also founded the Kasauli Art Center and the Journal of Arts and Ideas to provide artists and writers with more opportunities for collaboration and experimental work.
It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that Sundaram began to incorporate more unconventional materials into his practice. While theming the Gulf War, the artist began pairing engine oil traces with charcoal markings in an eponymous series of 40 works situated at the triangular interface between drawing, painting and installation. This material transition sparked Sundaram’s interdisciplinary interest in combining film, photography, collage, printmaking, and sculpture throughout his practice, culminating in mixed-media installation exhibitions such as Collaboration/Combine (1992), monument (1993) and houseboat (1994). Sundaram’s practice continued to respond to current events and ongoing injustices through the use of archival information and upcycled materials on his research topics. 12 bed ward (2005) delved into the stories and practices of Indian waste collectors through the use of worn shoe soles and rusted cot frames, an interest that has been further explored Garbage (2008).
Sundaram also explored his own lineage through his work, examining and remixing the documentation and archival information of his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and maternal grandfather and amateur photographer Umrao Singh, both artists in their own right before India’s independence. These deconstructions and reassessments of his family are observed in The Sher Gil Archive (1995) and Re-recording of Amrita (2001).
Sundaram was celebrated in two 50-year retrospectives in 2018: Enter and you are no longer a stranger at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi and interruptions at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, both of which commemorated his conceptual and material development while praising his lifelong commitment to activism and social awareness.
“He was unique in his creative and intellectual energy,” lamented Roshini Vadehra, director of the Vadehra Art Gallery, who also worked with Sundaram. “His political and activist side was one that we all admired and drew strength from.”
Sundaram is survived by his wife, art critic and historian Geeta Kapur. His last rites and cremation will take place tomorrow at noon at Lodhi Crematorium in New Delhi. A series of drawings from Sundaram Heights of Machu Pichu (1972) is currently on view at the Kochi Biennale in Kochi, India.