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Digital encounters


Vivan Sundaram's exhibit, "Re-take of Amrita", uses digital technology to create art from photographs, paintings and historical documents.

From his family `album', Sundaram has created new works of art, of encounters that never took place.


EXTENDING BOUNDARIES: Vivan Sundaram and (below) one of his digital creations.

MANHATTAN'S Sepia International, a gallery which houses the Alkazi Collection of Photography (owned by Ebrahim Alkazi of Art Heritage, New Delhi), specialises in examining the juncture between photography as an art form and as historical document. Appropriately enough, its current show, "Re-take of Amrita", is an unusual exhibit of photomontages created by the Indian painter Vivan Sundaram, whose artworks — sculpture, installation, photography and video — have usually been seen in prestigious international venues and biennales.

Historical fictions

Sundaram has digitally put together the works of his Sikh grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a pioneer of Indian photography who shot intense, narcissistic self-portraits for years before focusing a camera on his beautiful Hungarian wife and their two young daughters: Amrita Sher-Gil, the charismatic painter of India's Independence era, and Indira, Sundaram's musician mother. From this family "album", Sundaram has created new works of art — "historical fictions" he calls them — of encounters that never took place. With a digital wand, he mixes Umrao Singh's photographs with Amrita's paintings to create novel images in a subtle form, using modern technology to create art from historical documents.

This show offers many levels of interest. First, there is Sher-Gil herself. Born in Hungary, she was a self-conscious artist whose precocious talent had been nurtured at Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts, and who had won a gold medal at the Grand Salon by age 20. Then, identifying with the nationalist agenda, she chose to make India her home, met Jawaharlal Nehru, and like him, embarked on a "discovery of India". On the eve of a major show of her works in1941, she died tragically. She was 27. Today, her introspective modernist paintings — mostly of women — hang in New Delhi's National Gallery of Art. And, as an icon of feminine and artistic liberation, Sher-Gil has continued to inspire modern India's fiction writers. Aurora Da Gama, for example, Salman Rushdie's nationalist painter-heroine in The Moor's Last Sigh, is clearly modelled after the unconventional Amrita, as is the Bohemian protagonist of the Urdu play "Tumhari Amrita", played famously — and internationally — onstage by Shabana Azmi.

Then there is the documentation: Sher-Gil's semi-nude self-portraits are juxtaposed with Umrao Singh's striking black and white images. These mesmerising photographs were taken by an eccentric artist, obviously enamoured of his own exotic looks and the lushness of his cosmopolitan life — elegant wife, stunning daughters and opulent domesticity. Singh's wife Marie Antoinette was a former opera singer and the life of Europe's demimonde is richly evidenced here — at the piano, in the salon, at the beach, at parties, in elaborate costumes.

Evocative videos

Out of other still photographs in his family archive, Sundaram has created two videos that are shown simultaneously, on opposite walls of the gallery and evoke the times as vividly as any 1930s movie. As one critic describes the process, Sundaram again "condenses fragments of history into tableaux vivant". While a few of these works have already been seen in 25 cities worldwide, "Re-take of Amrita" travels to Europe and to the Taipei Biennale this fall. The catalogue that accompanies the show is richly illustrated with Sundaram's collages, and has two illuminating essays — one by critic Wu Hung, the other by Sundaram — that explicate the art and recreate the Sher-Gil family's amazing life.

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