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A prolific artist, Vivan Sundaram remained a staunch supporter of Kochi Biennale from its start

Bose Krishnamachari still recollects vividly the words of veteran artist Vivan Sundaram when he was stuck with the mounting challenges at the start of the first edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012.

“He held me close and assured that he would take care of his installation titled Black Gold, which made up of the 2,000-earold pottery shards taken directly from the archaeological stie of Pattanam in Muziris. He was one of the earliest supporters of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and had supported us financially also. Vivan will always be remembered as a politically and socially committed artist, who had always searched for artistic solidarity through his various creative endeavours,” said Mr. Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, as he paid tributes to the prolific artist who died in Delhi on Wednesday.

Sundaram was one of India’s pioneering multidisciplinary artists. Social activist and friend Shabnam Hashmi said that Sundaram had been ailing for the past few months with multiple issues.

“Vivan Sundaram passed away this morning at 9.20 am. Further details of the cremation as decided will be communicated to you shortly,” read a note issued by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), of which Sundaram was a founding trustee.

Sundaram, who was among the artists to have mooted the idea of a Delhi Biennale in 2005, was elated to join the inaugural edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. He wanted to engage art with history through his installation.

“When I was invited for the KMB, I was curious about Muziris. I have been interested in journeys and boats and our relationship to the sea. Pattanam, a port town that collapsed quite mysteriously and resurfaced at the end of 20th century, may be a conjecture,” he told The Hindu in an interview in August 2012.

P. J. Cherian, former director of Kerala Council for Historical Research, who led the Pattanam excavations termed his first meeting with Sundaram as an “amazing moment”.

Artist Vivan Sundaram with his artistic reconstruction of the lost city of Muziris at Aspinwall House in 2012.

Artist Vivan Sundaram with his artistic reconstruction of the lost city of Muziris at Aspinwall House in 2012.
| Photo Credit:
K.K. Mustafah

“He came and sought about 80,000 pottery shards out of around 45 lakh of fragments excavated from less than 1% of the site. He would handle them as if we were handling a newborn baby. Only an artist of his legacy can seek them as they were having life. That image transformed all of us, who were present along with him,” he said.

Stating that Sundaram embraced the history of Muziris, Prof. Cherian said that he also told him that contemporary art is inclusive of our pre-history.  

Though he could not make it for the ongoing edition of the biennale owing to his ailments, his set of drawings titled The Heights of Macchu Picchu (1972) had gained attention as it featured verses from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem and expressed solidarity with oppressed populations. The artist and his spouse art critic Geeta Kapur had donated 40 lakh for the second edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale. 

Before getting actively associated with the Kochi Muziris Biennale from 2012 onwards, Vivan had visited Kerala in connection with the meetings of the Left front on various occasions. He had also associated with the work related to the Left Writers’ Association.

Early years and works

Born in Shimla in 1943 to parents Kalyan Sundaram, former chairman of Law Commission of India, and Indira Sher-Gil, sister of noted Indian modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil, the Delhi-based artist studied painting at MS University, Baroda and The Slade School of Fine Art, London in the 1960s.

Sundaram’s artistic practice, which moved from painting during his college years to engaging with everything from readymades, photographs, videos to sculptural installation, has been widely considered crucial in the definition and development of installation as a practice in the country.

Sundaram’s works have been exhibited in the Biennials of Kochi (2012), Sydney (2008), Seville (2006), Taipei (2006), Sharjah (2005), Shanghai (2004), Havana (1997), Johannesburg (1997) and Kwangju (1997).

His first retrospective, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger”, which brought together his 50 years of work and ideas, was held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi in 2018.

He is survived by his wife art historian-critic Geeta Kapur.

(With inputs from PTI)

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