Vivan Sundaram (1943–2023)

Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur in their New Delhi home, 2022. Photo: Rattanamol Singh Johal.

ON A CRISP NIGHT IN NEW DELHI last December, I made my way to Vivan Sundaram’s brutalist bungalow, nested in a leafy garden and casually adorned with some of the most iconic exemplars of Indian modernism: his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil’s melancholic young women, his friend Bhupen Khakhar’s playfully awkward watch repairman, Nasreen Mohamedi’s rigorous lines, and Vivan’s own portentous portrait of his maternal family which was recently installed in the sitting room. As I took in the work’s commanding scale and muted palette, Vivan and his partner—the influential critic-curator Geeta Kapur—emerged from different ends of the house. We were convening after a pandemic-induced hiatus, and I was relieved and reassured to see them in good spirits. After being handed a generous pour of Vivan’s favorite single malt whiskey I was ushered into his studio-study where we sat together looking at images of the ambitious, new series he had just completed for the Sharjah Biennial, chillingly titled “Six Stations of a Life Pursued.”

Vivan was palpably excited about the projects he had coming up in 2023. In addition to Sharjah, his landmark installation Memorial, 1993, was scheduled to go on view at the Tate Tanks in April, and a major publication was to coincide with his eightieth birthday, in May. There were numerous setbacks in recent years on the health and family fronts (his sister, the journalist and filmmaker Navina Sundaram, passed away in April of 2022), but Vivan remained animated by his myriad ideas and enthusiasm for creating and sharing critical and experimental artworks. As evening turned to night, we moved to the dinner table. Geeta joined us, and together we parsed through news and discussed recent exhibitions as well as the work of institutions and artists of shared interest. Noticing that it was well past midnight, I began to excuse myself, pulling out my phone to order a taxi and snap a quick picture of my luminous hosts. Now, I cannot help but wish that I had lingered a little longer.

Vivan Sundaram, Memorial, 2023. Installation view. Tate Modern, London. Photo: Michael Raymond.

Vivan left this earthly realm on March 29 following a period of hospitalization in February and March which prevented him from attending the opening of the Sharjah Biennial, itself organized around the vision of his departed friend Okwui Enwezor. Obituaries and social media posts over the last few weeks—penned by friends, interlocutors, and admirers around the world—have affirmed the resounding impact this intrepid polymath made on the landscape of contemporary art and cultural activism in India and further afield. Recent retrospectives in Munich and New Delhi underscored the breadth of his artistic accomplishments, from the distinctive, Pop-inspired paintings of the 1960s; to forms of narrative figuration in the 1970s and 1980s; to his breakthrough installations using handmade paper, engine oil, charcoal, family photographs, urban detritus, and archaeological fragments often brought together in videos and assemblages. This diversity of forms and materials across decades was conceptually undergirded by a consistent and committed dialogue with strands of cultural Marxism, the lessons of May 1968, a keen interest in historical avant-garde strategies, the experiences of inhabiting an expanding megacity, and a dialectical and reflexive engagement with what Saloni Mathur has poignantly termed “a fragile inheritance.”

To everyone who knew him, Vivan’s energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity were uncontainable. He was devoted to making space for fellow artists and thinkers, to constantly challenging himself and others to make anew, and to theorizing his own work in dialogue with comrades and collaborators. This dynamic—the lived relationship between discourse and praxis—is evinced throughout his archive, in projects like the Journal of Arts and Ideas (1982–99) and the Kasauli Art Centre, which he ran at his family’s property from 1976 to 1991 and was busily reimagining for the current times under the aegis of the recently established Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation. The exhibition “Ways of Resisting” which he organized in 2002 for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (of which he was a founding member), convened three generations of Indian artists engaged in combating the Hindutva wave sweeping the country.

For my generation of cultural workers, Vivan will always remain a lodestar and a catalyst, preparing the ground on which we stand and teaching us how privilege can be mobilized to critically confront the exigencies of the present. He will be missed but he cannot be forgotten.

Rattanamol Singh Johal is assistant director of the International Program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York .