New Delhi

Vivan Sundaram, 12 Bed Ward (detail), 2005, steel, shoe soles, string, wire, lightbulbs, dimensions variable.

Vivan Sundaram, 12 Bed Ward (detail), 2005, steel, shoe soles, string, wire, lightbulbs, dimensions variable.

Vivan Sundaram

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Vivan Sundaram, 12 Bed Ward (detail), 2005, steel, shoe soles, string, wire, lightbulbs, dimensions variable.

A crashing of waves precedes the grinding of machinery. Searchlights flash and sirens wail. Soon other sounds rend the air: sailors’ ditties mixed with the staccato beat of Morse code and chants of “Kill the British” and “Quit India.” Staged within the interior of a gigantic ship-like structure fashioned by Vivan Sundaram, this forty-two-minute, eight-channel sound piece by artist David Chapman (made in collaboration with cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha and film historian Valentina Vitali) creates a gripping immersive experience. Staged in the interior of Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, 2017, it is composed of recordings sourced from Indian and British archives, spliced together with more recently recorded speech and poetry. The sound work sketches a little-known incident in India’s colonial past, the Bombay Mutiny: In 1946, on the cusp of India’s independence the following year, Indian seamen of the Royal Indian Navy, bolstered by Bombay’s trade unions, rose against British officers. Sundaram’s artistic reimagining of this historical event is the centerpiece of his retrospective, “Step inside and you are no longer a stranger,” curated by Roobina Karode.

History, memory, and the archive have formed some of the now-septuagenarian artist’s key preoccupations; his interest in collaborative practices is long-standing. Offering a shift from public events to a more private archive is a room designated “The Family 1975–2013,” in which Sundaram’s investigations into his own Indo Hungarian lineage are on display. The Sher-Gil Archive, 1995—three wooden boxes showcasing personal memorabilia—creates spaces of intimacy. In one, an old handheld fan, a broken wineglass, and a piece of lace sit beside a photograph of Sundaram’s Hungarian grandmother, while the other two contain images of his mother, Indira, and her sister, the celebrated modernist painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Elsewhere in the room hang digital photomontages Sundaram created from photographs taken by his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil.

Echoing Sundaram’s nonlinear excavation of his family’s past, the retrospective eschews chronological order. More akin to cinematic jump cuts, the breaks in the narrative signal shifts in the artist’s practice. Placed close to his most recent installations is, for instance, a body of paintings that Sundaram created in the 1960s as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. These canvases, with their bright and cheerful patches of color, demonstrate a Pop sensibility that suggests the influence of Sundaram’s teacher R. B. Kitaj.

Elsewhere in the show, however, color is downplayed, notably in the series of large charcoal drawings in the section “Long Night, 1987–88.” Created after a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1987, works such as Penal Settlement, 1987, possess a dark and brooding quality. This mood also manifests in the eerie installation 12 Bed Ward, 2005, which consists of beds fashioned out of steel, string, and the soles of old shoes, each lit by the naked glare of an electric bulb. Engine oil and charcoal serve as a metaphor for the fight over oil in the installations A River Carries Its Past, 1992, and Approaching 100,000 Sorties, 1991—seminal works that remind the visitor of the pioneering role Sundaram has played in the history of installation art in India.

Sundaram’s activist streak is evident in his paintings Safdar and Moloyashree, 1989, recalling the murdered theater activist Safdar Hashmi, and Guddo, 1980, based on the custodial rape of a young girl by two policemen in 1972. Guddo acquires particular urgency now against the backdrop of a nationwide outcry over the brutal gang rape and murder earlier this year of an eight-year-old girl, covered up by corrupt policemen. The painting forces us to ask what, if anything, has changed for women in India in the nearly forty years since it was made.

Meera Menezes