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UEL academics collaborate with renowned Indian artist Vivan Sundaram

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Art piece produced by international collaboration is now exhibiting in Delhi

By Lee Pinkerton

Arts staff from the University of East London (UEL) have collaborated with renowned Indian artist Vivan Sundaram on a major exhibition which is being shown in museums in Mumbai and New Delhi to commemorate 70 years of Indian independence and partition.

Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 is an art project by Sundaram (pictured above right), cultural historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha (pictured centre) ; UEL sound artist Dr David Chapman (pictured second right); and UEL film historian Professor Valentina Vitali (pictured left).  It revisits an episode of India’s struggle for self-rule: the 1946 insurrection of Royal Indian Navy sailors. The piece is a central component of a major retrospective of Sundaram’s work at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

The work is presented in the form of a monumental installation comprising Sundaram’s modernist reconstruction of a ship which can seat forty people. Inside the ship is a light installation and Dr Chapman’s 42 minute, 8-channel sound piece, which is based on material sourced by Professor Vitali from UK and Indian archives, including oral history, written memoirs of navy personnel, witnesses’ and sailors’ letters, government documents and recorded interviews.

The piece also has a forty foot mural made of contemporary newspapers and a library of the material collected during twelve months of research by Vitali, including facsimiles of books published after the insurrection.  

Dr Chapman’s sound piece included voicings of written testimonies by UEL colleagues Dominic Hingorani, Simon Miles and Jo Shoop, and PhD candidate Rishabh Shrivastav.

How did Professor Vitali and Dr Chapman come to collaborate with one of India's most respected modernist artists?

Professor Vitali said, “I first met Ashish (Rajadhyaksha) twenty years ago, and we have since then been in constant dialogue on cinema, culture and politics, in India and elsewhere.

“When the idea of this project first emerged two years ago, Vivan and Ashish asked me to do the research for the installation. As research progressed we worked together with David on the sound piece's script. Ashish and I also wrote the exhibition's catalogue and curated the archival section of the show. 

“This collaboration thus rests on two decades of friendship, mutual interest in each other's work and long-term commitment.”

The geographic separation meant a lot of discussion was based on Skype calls and the exchange of material online. 

The four artists came together in the same room for the first time only when Professor Vitali and Dr Chapman travelled to Delhi to put the final piece together in Mr Sundaram’s studio. 

Dr Chapman said, “The collaboration provided a crash course for me into many new aspects of Indian art and culture, and specifically interesting differences in terms of the use and understandings of sound. 

“A lot of material had to be jettisoned, and compromises made, in order that the final work could operate as not only an impactful art installation but also present and analyse the Naval insurrection of 1946 to an audience, many of whom might be unsure of the details of an event that has been downplayed in many post-independence accounts of Indian nationalism.”

Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 is at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, until June 2018. Part of the installation’s archive can be accessed via the show’s website