Vivan Sundaram, an artist and activist widely credited with spearheading a transition in modern and contemporary Indian art from European-inspired abstract painting to multimedia forms addressing social and political realities in his country, died on March 29 in New Delhi. He was 79.
The cause was a brain hemorrhage following a long illness, said Esa Epstein, a curator who, with Sepia International, organized two of Mr. Sundaram’s United States exhibitions.
The product of a comfortably elite upbringing (he described it as “colonial”) in northern India, Mr. Sundaram studied art at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda (now Vadodara), then enrolled in the Slade School of London in 1966 on a scholarship. The four years he spent in England changed his life.
At Slade, he was tutored by the iconoclastic British American Pop figurative artist R.B. Kitaj. At the same time, he was swept up in the radical student politics of the day and became acutely aware of his own position as an outsider in a Western environment.
In London, he helped start a residential commune of civil rights activists and contemplated the idea of abandoning art in favor of full-time political organizing. Instead, he ended up combining his two passions. Following Mr. Kitaj’s example, and staying in touch with young Indian contemporary artists like Bhupen Khakhar and Gulammohammed Sheikh, he began applying a semiabstract, Pop-inspired painting style to current political subjects.
A painting like “May 1968,” with images of police helmets and flaming guns floating on blocks of bright color, was a direct response to news of the day — a period of civil unrest marked by leftist demonstrations, general strikes and student occupations — and presaged the socially conscious direction his art would take.
Returning to India after four years, Mr. Sundaram remained committed to uniting art and politics, joining the Marxist faction of the Communist Party of India and, in 1976, transforming a family home in the mountain town of Kasauli, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, into an international arts center. It functioned as a residence for artists, writers and performers while presenting seminars and groundbreaking exhibitions and producing influential publications like The Journal of Arts and Ideas.
One exhibition, a 1981 group show called “Place for People,” proved to be a landmark event. It featured six young artists whose work, departing from the Paris-influenced abstraction of an earlier generation, used figure painting to create historical narratives. The exhibition catalog featured an essay by the art historian, critic and curator Geeta Kapur, who married Mr. Sundaram in the early 1980s.
Mr. Sundaram continued to lend his energies to political causes in an India torn by religious and ethnic violence — mainly between Hindus and Muslims — on a level not seen since the darkest days of 1947, with the partition of India and Pakistan after India gained independence from Britain that year. In 1989, when the 35-year-old Communist playwright and street theater director Safdar Hashmi was beaten to death by right-wing thugs while performing near Delhi, Mr. Sundaram, with other cultural figures, organized a collective to oppose religious fundamentalism and sectarianism.
The Hashmi attack, and the building waves of nationalist violence surrounding it, pushed Mr. Sundaram’s art away from traditional painting and drawing to forms he considered more flexible and engaging. His shrine-like “Memorial,” begun in 1993 and expanded in several iterations, is an immersive room-size multimedia installation made in response to murderous riots between Hindu and Muslim groups in Mumbai after a right-wing Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992.
The work’s central component is a life-size plaster sculpture of a fallen body, an image derived from a newspaper photograph of a victim of the riots. Architectural elements surrounding the figure are made from stacks of cheap tin trunks of a kind associated with migrants and refugees. Copies of the original news photo, enclosed in vitrines and pierced with nails, recur throughout the piece like a drumbeat.
By the beginning of the 2000s, Mr. Sundaram was working with archival images of a different kind — colonial-era pictures of his family, mostly taken in the late-19th and early-20th centuries by his maternal grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh landowner.
Using digital technology, Mr. Sundaram collapsed time and place by joining disparate figures from these photos — including that of his great-aunt Amrita Sher-Gil, a famed Hungarian-Indian modernist painter — to create imaginary tableaus, some of them erotically charged. He exhibited them in a much-traveled series titled “Re-Take of Amrita.”
Vivan Sundaram was born on May 28, 1943, in the northern Indian city of Shimla when the country was still part of the British Raj. His father, Kalyan Sundaram, was a government official; his mother, Indira Sundaram, was the younger sister of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). His ancestry was broad: Hindu, Sikh, Christian and, from his mother’s side, Jewish.
He is survived by his wife, Ms. Kapur, one of India’s pioneer writers in the fields of art, film and cultural theory.
In his most recent work, also in the form of manipulated photography, Mr. Sundaram returned to more overtly political subjects. His 2022 series titled “Six Stations of a Life Pursued” is composed of semiabstract images of caged figures and close-ups of sutured flesh. He described the work as “a choreography of bodies that have undergone violence, experienced incarceration and lived through mourning.”
“The sixth ‘station,’” he said, “signifies a journey premised on the historical and rehearsed with activist resolve.”
The series was commissioned by the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor (who died in 2019) for the current Sharjah Biennial, in the United Arab Emirates, where it is on view through June 11. Simultaneously, some of Mr. Sundaram’s early works — drawings from 1972 based on poetry by the leftist poet Pablo Neruda — were centerpieces of another globalist show, the Kochi-Muziris Bienniale, in the Indian state of Kerala, which closed on Monday.
In 2018, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, in Mr. Sundaram’s home city of New Delhi, organized a retrospective, titled “Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger.” In the same year, a career survey, “Vivan Sundaram: Disjunctions,” opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. For decades he has been represented by the gallery Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai.
His visibility in the United States has been sporadic, though strong. In 1993, he was included in the group show “Out of India: Contemporary Art of the South Asian Diaspora,” organized by Jane Farver at the Queens Museum in 1998, with an installation called “House,” another response to sectarian violence. A version of “Memorial” appeared in the group show “Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India” at the Asia Society in Manhattan in 2005.
Sepia International presented “Re-Take of Amrita” as a solo show in 2006, and in 2008 it presented a project called “Trash,” for which Mr. Sundaram had assembled in his studio a huge tabletop city made entirely of consumerist refuse and photographed it.
Mr. Sundaram was much admired by his colleagues both for his formal adventurousness and his philosophical consistency.
Although his multimedia art took him in many conceptual directions, his basic drive toward experimentation had remained unchanged since his youth. “I am a child of May ’68, the kind of freedom it gave,” he said in a 2018 interview with The Indian Express. “Something in that historical moment urged me to continuously question and shift, both thematically, politically and linguistically, in terms of art. Connecting with people from different disciplines has always informed my work.”