Vivan Sundaram, one of India’s pioneering video and installation artists, brings together 50 years of his work in “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”, a show that opens at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi on February 8. The 74-year-old talks about archives and history, his political leanings and how the 1968 strikes and agitations in universities and factories in France shaped him. Excerpts:
Through your career, you have switched several mediums and themes. Is this changing aesthetic deliberate?
I am a child of May 1968, and the kind of freedom it gave. One did not need to have a particular style. I did not think, ‘I have to find my style and for the next 40 years I will have that stamp on my work’. Something in that historical moment urged me to continuously question and shift, both thematically, politically and linguistically, in terms of art. Connecting with people from different disciplines has always informed my work.
When the May 1968 protests happened, you were in London, at the Slade School of Art. What kind of work were you making then?
The exhibition has some of my works from London. A lot of my early work was influenced by pop art, but in London, the surface and colours became more refined than garish. I was confronted in direct and indirect ways with racism. Enoch Powell (British politician and scholar) started making racist speeches; said the fees of the foreign emigrants should be four times [what natives pay]. The Vietnam War and the movement around it began growing. I started attending political meetings, found myself in front of Grosvenor Square shouting slogans against the Americans. I lived in a commune and encountered a range of people. After London, I went to Paris. When I finished my studies, I felt an urge to return to India. I connected with what was happening here. My politics shifted towards the Communist Party. There was a student movement in Delhi, and I found people who I could connect with.
You recently delved into history for the installation Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, where you recalled an incident where the Indian navy stood up to the Raj. There was a period when we saw a lot of political references in your work. For instance, Memorial responded to the December 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya — but that is no longer the case.
I did it after Babri Masjid and I have always believed that ,sometimes, the references come later. Some people say my art is topical, I am always responding to crisis. The insurrection has become a footnote in Indian history, but when it happened, it shook the British government. Over 200 people were killed on the streets of Mumbai, but no one seems to remember. I worked with Ashish Rajadhyaksha to create this massive ship installation, where the viewers watched a movie that featured photographs, letters of the British officials describing the event, sound clips, newspaper clippings, historical material sourced from the British Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and from archives in Delhi.
Could you talk about your long-standing association with the archives, particularly the Sher-Gil family archives, photographs and letters of your aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil?
For a long time, I did not really look into the family archives. In the early ’80s I did a large painting called The Sher-Gil family. When I did the exhibition “The Sher-Gil Archive” in Budapest in 1995, I started looking at it as material. I gained confidence to show it in India only after Budapest. I felt people here would think I was just presenting my family photographs, but now it is well-accepted that these images are also a documentation, and have a language that is more universal.
At the very beginning of the show, you have installations that are your reinterpretations of Ramkinkar Baij’s works, created in 2015, when you paid tribute to Baij in the theatre presentation 409 Ramkinkars. How did that project evolve?
Ramkinkar was doing many things simultaneously. When asked what medium do you work in, he always said, ‘I work in all mediums, painting and sculpture’, but he never mentioned his relationship with theatre, which was very dynamic. He used to invite the audience to come on the stage and look at it, as if it was an artwork. I wanted to explore his crossover, his relationship with Indian modernity. I reinterpreted some of his seminal works: Mill Call became Mill Recall, where the industrial workers are responding to the factory siren, I am playing on that energy. The Santhal Family became Santhal Couple in wood, where the material too gains significance. The production was a collaboration between me, Anuradha Kapur and Santanu Bose.