Artist Vivan Sundaram (image courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery)

Indian contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram has died at age 79 following complications of a hemorrhagic stroke that occurred earlier this month. Sundaram, who created work for nearly six decades, is best remembered for his multidisciplinary studio practice steeped in activism and political consciousness. Reports indicate that the artist had been ailing for the past few months leading up to his passing. The news of his death was confirmed by Gallery Chemould in Mumbai.

“To say Vivan took risks is an understatement,” Gallery Chermould’s creative director Shireen Gandhy told Hyperallergic. “If you look at his practice, there is a huge allegiance to art history, but at the same time feels unburdened where he addresses his issues with acute directness.”

Sundaram was born in the northern Indian city of Shimla in 1943 to Kalyan Sundaram, India’s first post-Partition law secretary and second chief election commissioner, and Indira Sher-Gil, younger sister of Hungarian-Indian modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Sundaram pursued a bachelor’s degree in painting at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat, between 1961 and 1965, followed by a post-graduate degree as a Commonwealth scholar at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1966 to 1968 under the tutelage of American artist RB Kitaj. Sundaram began studying the history of cinema at Slade and incorporated that interest into his artwork throughout his life.

Vivan Sundaram, “Flowers/Fragments” (1991), charcoal and engine oil on handmade rag content paper diptych, 30 inches x 44 inches (image courtesy Gallery Chermould)

Sundaram was deeply influenced by his time in Europe, especially the student-led May ’68 protests against capitalism, imperialism, and class discrimination in Paris, France. Sundaram moved back to India in the early ’70s and began addressing national and global disparities in his art practice inspired by British pop art, kitsch, and abstraction. Between the ’70s and ’80s, the artist developed multiple series of works addressing and showing solidarity with oppressed populations including but not limited to Sikhs who suffered during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India, and the Jewish Europeans who perished or fled during the Holocaust. Invested in Marxism, Sundaram also founded the Kasauli Art Centre and the Journal of Arts and Ideas to create more opportunities for artists and writers to collaborate and work experimentally.

An installation view of TRASH (2008) (image courtesy Gallery Chermould)

It was only in the early ’90s that Sundaram began to fold more unconventional materials into his practice. While addressing the Gulf War, the artist began coupling slicks of engine oil with charcoal mark-making in a namesake series consisting of 40 works that sat at the triangular intersection between drawing, painting, and installation. This material transition unlocked Sundaram’s interdisciplinary interests in combining film, photography, collage, printmaking, and sculpture throughout his practice, culminating in mixed-media installation exhibitions such as Collaboration/Combines (1992), Memorial (1993), and House/Boat (1994). Sundaram’s practice continued to respond to current events and persisting injustices through the use of archival information and upcycled materials pertaining to his subjects of exploration. 12 Bed Ward (2005) delved into the stories and practices of India’s waste collectors through the use of worn shoe soles and rusted cot frames, an interest that was further explored in Trash (2008).

Sundaram also explored his own lineage through his work, examining and remixing the documentation and archival information regarding his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and maternal grandfather and amateur photographer Umrao Singh, both artists in their own right during pre-Independence India. These deconstructions and re-evaluations of his family are observed in The Sher-Gil Archive (1995) and Re-Take of Amrita (2001).

Vivan Sundaram, “Six Stations of a Life Pursued: Suture, Untitled, II” (2018), pigment print 15 1/2 inches x 17 inches (photo by Gireesh NV, courtesy Gallery Chermould)

Sundaram was celebrated in two 50-year retrospective exhibitions in 2018: Step inside and you are no longer a stranger at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi and Disjunctures at Haus der Kunst in Munich, both of which memorialized his conceptual and material evolution while lauding his life-long commitment to activism and social consciousness.

“He was a rare one in his creative and intellectual energy,” lamented Roshini Vadehra, director of Vadehra Art Gallery, which also worked with Sundaram. “His politics 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 the Lodhi Crematorium in New Delhi. A series of Sundaram’s drawings from Heights of Macchu Pichu (1972) is currently on view at the Kochi Biennale in Kochi, India.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...