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Amrita Sher-Gil: An Avant-Garde Blender of the East & West

Bhaskar Parichha explores how the life and art of Amrita Sher-Gil was an amalgam of the best of India and the West

Much before the Punjabi diaspora spread its wings across continents, there was one woman who not only became a venerated name in the field of art but also gave art an altogether new identity in India. She was Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Born to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a great scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish opera singer from Hungary, Amrita inherited a legacy that was consummate and effervescent. 

Amrita was the eldest of the two daughters. Her younger sister was Indira Sundaram, mother of   painter Vivan Sundaram. Amrita spent her early childhood in Dunaharaszti, Hungary. She was also the niece of the Indologist Ervin Baktay. It was Baktay who guided her — by being a critique of her works — and gave her the academic underpinning that helped Amrita flourish. Ervin also taught her to use domestic helpers as models; and the reminiscence of these models eventually motivated her to return to India. 

Sher-Gil’s quest for the fine art led her to Paris, with her mother, when she was barely sixteen. She studied first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where she was taught by Lucien Simon.

In her early twenties, Sher-Gil returned to India in 1921. The family began living in Shimla. She was by now an accomplished painter, equipped with some of the most essential modules that make one a great artist. She had an unquenchable thirst to be on familiar terms with the grammar and the language of painting, a virile tenacity of purpose and the single-mindedness about her role in life. 

 In 1924, she went to Italy and joined Santa Annunciata, a Roman Catholic institution. In Santa, Amrita Sher-Gil got an exposure to the works of Italian artists. While studying in Paris, she had already been influenced by the works of European greats like Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Her later paintings would echo a strong influence of the Western artists, chiefly from the Bohemian circles of Paris of the early 1930s.

 In 1932, she displayed her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her appointment as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received such recognition. In 1934, while in Europe, she was haunted by what is known through her letters ‘an intense longing to return to India’ and ‘feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter’. 

After her return, she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which would continue till her death. It was also during this period that she pursued an affair with Malcolm Muggeridge. In the mid-thirties, Amrita Sher-Gil’s mission for exploring further into Indian art began. It was a never-ending journey and her contributions to art was a breakthrough and uniquely superb. From Mughal miniatures to the Ajanta paintings and Southern styles, the Indian influence on her work was complete and irreversible. 

 In 1936, at the behest of Karl Khandalavala, art collector and critic, Amrita pursued her lifelong passion for realizing her Indian roots. She found inspiration in the Pahari School of painting. Later, in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy paintings- ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmachari’ and ‘The South Indian Villagers’. These paintings mirror   her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for Indian subjects. Poverty and despair constitute a major theme in Amrita Sher-Gil’s works and they find plentiful representation on her canvas. Her works also showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya School of painting in the interwar years.

In 1938, Amrita married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. After this marriage, they moved to Gorakhpur (UP) and, still later, the couple shifted to Lahore where she lived till her death in 1941.

Amrita Sher-Gil was one of the most gifted Indian artists belonging to the pre-colonial era. Her works reflect her deep ardour and perception for colours. Her profound understanding of the Indian subjects comes so vividly in her works that it is difficult to find parallels elsewhere. The works of Amrita Sher-Gil have been declared national art treasures by the Government and most of her paintings adorn the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. There is also a Delhi road named after the painter — Amrita Sher-Gil Marg. 

Amrita Sher-Gil’s legacy stands at par with those of the masters of the Bengal renaissance. She is said to be the ‘most expensive’ woman painter in India. Besides remaining an inspiration to many contemporary Indian artists, she was the muse for one of the longest running Urdu plays, Tumhari Amrita (1992), directed by Javed Siddiqi, with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh playing the lead roles. Her works are also a central force in the novel, Faking It, authored by Amrita V Chowdhury. The beauty and depth of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings has earned her inordinate admiration and recognition beyond her days.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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