It was 1966 and London was in the throes of a cultural renaissance. It was the era of Mick Jagger and The Beatles. And also the time when auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini made some of their masterpieces. As 23-year-old Vivan Sundaram landed in the city on a Commonwealth scholarship, he felt like he had been living in a “cubicle", cut off from all that was happening outside.

In London, he came under the influence of his tutor R.B. Kitaj, an American artist who spent most of his life in London. “He was part of the pop painting movement. But he was very much an intellectual painter, referring to political events, narratives and to theorists such as Walter Benjamin. For about six months or so that he came to see my work, he really made me think about what I was painting," says Sundaram.

It was in that period that Sundaram created some of his most significant paintings, which he now calls the London paintings. “One of the paintings that had a deep impact on me was the one inspired by the May 1968 student protests. I have often said that I am a child of May 1968," he says.

At a forthcoming retrospective of his work at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger, one will get the opportunity to see works such as these. My conversation with Sundaram is full of “flashbacks" and anecdotes, as he talks about the stories behind each of the works to be displayed.

The show is all about juxtapositions: between his past and contemporary works, between his interpretation of different mediums and materials, and the various roles that he has donned over his career, spanning more than five decades—of an artist, curator, editor and installer. As you enter the KNMA, you come across this huge 40ft-long steel and aluminium ship, in which the audience will be seated on three benches, facing one another, to listen to a 42-minute sound work by David Chapman. Titled Meanings Of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, the installation looks at the events of February 1946, when Royal Indian Navy ratings, supported by Bombay’s trade unions, rebelled against the British officers. This contemporary work was created in 2016 by Sundaram, in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and film historian Valentina Vitali. The huge surface, with broad swathes of colour, stands in direct contrast to the London paintings, which have a pronounced abstraction and dramatic colour palette.

One will also find three large sculptures in the foyer, including The Plough (2015) and Mill Recall (2015), his “retake" of Ramkinkar Baij’s seminal pieces, and a work from Postmortem(After Gagawaka) (2013)—a tall mannequin, almost reconfigured and dismembered, with her body draped in black cloth, with an arm missing. “It highlights my role of an artist as an installer," says Sundaram.

‘12 Bed Ward’. Photo: Vivan Sundaram and KNMA
‘12 Bed Ward’. Photo: Vivan Sundaram and KNMA

I ask him about the title of the show, and he mentions that it draws from his 1976 show, The Discreet Charms Of The Bourgeoisie. “I had titled an almost 8ft-tall painting, featuring smashed glass, Step Inside…. Roobina (Karode; director and chief curator at KNMA) was initially a little unsure of the title, but then she said, if it will be within quotation marks, then let’s use it. So that work will be there as well. When you enter through a glass door, there will be a photo of me standing in front of that painting at that time, looking young and happy. And behind that will be the full work," he says.

And then as you take a right, you will arrive at the London paintings. These are the kind of “jump cuts" and narratives that he has worked into the layout—reflecting the influence that the cinema of Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini has had on him. “While planning the layout, the idea was to not do a chronological hang or a linear layout," says Karode, who has curated the exhibition along with Sundaram. “I was interested in the threads running through his work—the constant appearance of boats, beds and trash, the back and forth between concepts, ideas and materials in his constantly changing practice." She felt that there was a need for a comprehensive presentation of his work in India to engage his artistic journey, to start where he started out, as a painter, a phase of his career almost forgotten, then to his moving away from it, making radical shifts in his working through self-questioning and discourse.

Cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, whose first published piece of art criticism was on Sundaram’s drawing Penal Settlement (1987, charcoal on paper), finds this courage to break and disrupt, to explore hitherto unexplored territories, significant. “To my mind, the 20-year-period in Vivan’s career, between 1970 and 1990, is absolutely magical. His engagement with Pablo Neruda’s poems, and the series of 24 drawings inspired by The Heights Of Macchu Picchu, and his Journeys series, speak of the internationalism of that moment—that reaching out, far beyond your location on the map and across disciplines," he says.

Sundaram has often said that a lot of his work is influenced by chance encounters. With this large body of work, the viewer will be able to thread these encounters with found objects and histories in his or her mind—to find connections between movies such as Alain Resnais’s Night And Fog, which Sundaram watched in the 1960s about the atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, and his Penal Settlement 20 years hence, which he made after a visit to Auschwitz.

A drawing from the series ‘The Heights Of Macchu Picchu’. Photo: Vivan Sundaram and KNMA
A drawing from the series ‘The Heights Of Macchu Picchu’. Photo: Vivan Sundaram and KNMA

Sundaram also mentions the student tours to Khajuraho, when he would start doodling and scribbling on official guide book images. “So, the found object, in a way, interested me back then as well, and I developed them later on in series such as Retake Of Amrita (2001). I am pleased to have found eight to nine works from that period as well," he says.

One of the threads running through the show is his friendship with artist Bhupen Khakhar. “At the time, I completed my BA, Bhupen had started a kind of pop aesthetic. So, the street, the graffiti, the cage and the use of household paint—all these I shared with him and did these playful, provocative, erotic paintings," he says. It will be interesting to find a reflection of this association in works from Bad Drawings For Dost (2004-05), dedicated to Khakhar.

Collaboration has been a strong hallmark of Sundaram’s practice. Which is why, perhaps, he shunned the isolation of creation that painting offered—he had his last show of paintings in 1990. Over time, the architecture of a space and the people that inhabited it—photographers, craftsmen, technicians, audience—became important to him. His work became about collective energies and synergies. According to Hoskote, in the early 1980s, artists like Sundaram, Nalini Malani and Rummana Husain felt that the painted surface was no longer enough to convey all that they wanted to express in terms of their political urgencies. “It is with this idea that I started the Kasauli Art Centre as well. I would ask Nalini (Malani) or Bhupen or Nilima Sheikh to start a figure in a painting and I would continue it," he says. This idea met with a bit of resistance at that time, as the prevalent notion was that art needs to be hung on the wall. However, Sundaram wanted to create a “cultural product" that sparked debate and discussion, and would lead to further collaborations. For instance, for Gagawaka: Making Strange (2011), he collaborated with fashion designer Pratima Pandey. “She was used to doing very delicate work, but was open to the idea of found objects such as the Chinese bras, and making a dress with those. It was a very good learning experience for her, as it was for me. The other successful and ambitious project was 409 Ramkinkars (2015), which also connected with my interest in history and historical figures. Fragments from both will be on show at the KNMA," he says.

Step Inside And You Are No Longer A Stranger will be on view from 9 February-30 June at KNMA, Saket, New Delhi.

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