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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller

Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021), who lived to be 87 and passed on from normal causes this April

“I have now read the stories of Manoj Das, with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan (R K Narayan). I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”

Graham Greene.

“Whenever people praise Paulo Coelho and the like, I always think of Manoj Das. What a great prolific writer we have. He could have easily reached the heights and beyond of the one Coelho reached. But he preferred the silence, simplicity and serenity to fame and glory. In this, he has lived the very values he gave us through his stories.”

— Aravindan Neelakandan, Indian Journalist

With the passing away of Manoj Das, Indian literature has lost a master storyteller who wrote bilingually — in English and his mother tongue Odia — with equal affluence. Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, columnist and a sadhaka, Manoj Das will be remembered by generations of Odias for his literary outpouring for over half a century. Odisha-born (in a village called Sankhari in Balasore district bordering West Bengal), his fame went far beyond terrestrial limits.

Manoj Das began   writing quite early. His first work — a book of poetry in Odia — Satavdira Artanada (Cries of a Time) was published in 1949 when he was barely in high school. In 1950, he launched a literary magazine, Diganta (Horizon). His first collection of short stories Samudrara Kshudha (Hungry Sea) was published the following year. Manoj Das often cited Vyasa, and Valmiki and Fakir Mohan Senapati, as his early influences.  

He took active interest in student politics while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Cuttack’s prestigious Ravenshaw College. A youth leader with radical views, he even spent a year in jail for his revolutionary undertakings. After graduating from Puri’s SCS (Samanta Chandra Sekhara)

College, he received a postgraduate degree in English literature from Ravenshaw College. He was also a delegate to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1959.

After a short stint as a lecturer in Cuttack’s Christ College, Manoj Das came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1963, where he had been professor of English Literature at the Ashram’s International Center of Education. Pondicherry (modern Puducherry) became his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ and his abode of sadhana. His quest for devoutness motivated him to become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram of which he was an integral part till his end.

Manoj Das wrote expansively and in various genres. Poetry, novel, short story   travelogue and books on India’s history and culture dominated his works. Shesha Basantara Chithi (Spring’s Last Epistle ),Tuma Gam o Anyanya Kabita (Your Village and Other Poems) Dhumabha Diganta ( Dusky Horizon), Manojpancabimsati (Twenty-five short stories) and the most recent one, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhanare (In Quest of  the Last Tantric), are among the Odia works he is best known for. His writings in Odia have mesmerized readers for decades. 

Manoj Das has often been known as the Vishnu Sharma of modern Odia literature —   for his magnificent style and effective use of words. His   oeuvre displayed many dimensions of human nature. He was a truth-seeker, a thinker-writer whose works are defined ‘as a quest for finding the eternal truth in everyday circumstances’.

He began his English writing in 1967 with the publication of the short story collection A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. It was followed by Short Stories of Manoj Das. Both attracted commendation from literary doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, K P S Menon and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Some of his other notable works in English are ‘ The Escapist’, ‘A Tiger at Twilight’, ‘The submerged Valley and Other Stories’, ‘The Bridge in the moonlit Night’, ‘Cyclones’, ‘Mystery of the Missing Cap’, ‘Myths’, ‘Legends’, ‘Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India’. He wrote his memoir ‘Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004.) 

After the publication of ‘The Submerged Valley’, Graham Greene, whose appreciation of contemporary Indian fiction was limited to R K Narayan, wrote to Dick Batstone, publisher of the book, expressing happiness at his discovery of Das. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.” 

Manoj Das is best known for his dramatic expression as well as satire. His writings dealt with various social and psychological issues: displacement, natural calamities such as floods, people’s belief in ghosts and spirits, duplicitous politicians, et cetera. While his writings were social commentaries on post-Independence times, the short stories, novels, essays and poems blended physical experiences with fantasy and left an indelible impression on Indian literature.

An exponent of the philosophy of ‘Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’, Manoj Das wrote weekly columns in almost all national dailies: The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. A whole generation of readers grew up reading his columns, which were contemporaneous and dealt with emergent issues. His newspaper writings — revealing the subterranean truth — are treasured by many.

He wrote for academic journals and periodicals too; and his international appeal grew most in the 1970s and 1980s when The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint published his numerous stories. He also edited a cultural magazine, The Heritage, published by Chennai’s Chandamama group.

Awards came to Manoj Das effortlessly:  the topmost being the Saraswati Samman, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan for his lasting contribution in the field of Literature and Education. Kendriya Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest award on Manoj Das. He was Member, General Council of Sahitya Akademi, and the Author-consultant, Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore in the early eighties besides leading an Indian delegation of writers to China.

In 1971, his research in the archives of London and Edinburgh brought to light some of the little-known facts of India’s freedom struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century led by Sri Aurobindo for which he received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (Kolkata).

Being a bilingual writer, when someone asked about the language he envisaged before writing a piece, he answer back:  “In the language of silence — if I do not sound presumptuous, the creative process ought to be allowed some mystery. Inspiration surely precedes articulation through any language. This is absolutely true in regard to good poetry and substantially true in regard to good fiction. Without this element of inspiration, which is beyond language to begin with, literature can hardly have a throbbing soul.”

From a disenchanted Marxist to an ardent humanist, Manoj Das was an ingenious author. His creative works – running into a thousand and more — dealt with the Indian psyche and were so spontaneous that it impressed both the Indian and the Western reader — for the authenticity and the diversity.

Manoj Das had an uncanny capacity for presenting the serious and the serene in a way that was amusing, often arousing a lasting humor. Elements of fantasy as metaphor have a domineering presence in his fictions.

 P Raja, author of Many Worlds of Manoj Das, has a deeper insight into his works: ‘Mystery in a wide and subtle sense, mystery of life, indeed, is the core of Manoj Das’s appeal. Born before Independence, he has thoroughly used in his fiction. His experiences, gathered at an impressionable age, of the epoch-making transitions through which the country was passing. Thus we meet in his works lively characters caught up in the vortex of India’s passage from the colonial era to freedom, the impact of the end of the princely states and the feudal system, and the mutation of several patches of rural India into clumsy bazaars.’

For thousands of men, women, and children of the past three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of courtesy and bliss. His words have inspired countless readers and have instilled a faith in the purpose of life.

Glossary

Sadhaka – Someone who pursues a certain discipline with devotion.

Sadhana — Meditation

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Oh, That Lovely Title: Politics

Bhaskar Parichha debuts his column with a witty collection of quotes that he has picked up with his wide reading, arranged in a way that they take the reader through a series of thought-provoking comments on contemporary issues

Cartoon by Mario Miranda in the November 8th,1987 issue of Illustrated Weekly.
Photo courtesy: Bhaskar Parichha

We, in India, are in the throes of a big political churning right now. No one knows who the victor and who the vanquished will be. But politics — and obviously elections in India — are as multi-hued as they are rancid.

Adore it or loathe it, politics has its own share of quotable quotes. From the funniest quotes to the dumbest one, here is an uplifting list of famous lines said by equally famous people. 

Niccolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth century florentine philospher, has a very pertinent line for the present day politics. He said, “Politics have no relation to morals.” Charles de Gaulle’s take on politicians is so sensible! “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.” Two other famous literary figures — the Irish George Bernard Shaw and British novelist George Orwell — too were scornful of politicians. Shaw said, “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”

Orwell remarked, “In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” 

American comedian George Carlin had a terse remark on that country’s politicians: “Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.”

There is so much of coaxing and wheedling to take part in elections. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, observed, “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Elections in India have become so expensive that ordinary mortals like you and me can’t think of fighting them even in our dreams. Will Rogers said, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Gore Vidal has a different take on this issue: “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” 

US President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Politics is not an end, but a means. It is not a product, but a process. It is the art of government. Like other values it has its counterfeits. So much emphasis has been placed upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service.”

What New York City writer Christian Nestell Bovee who relished the intimate friendship of Washington Irving, Longfellow, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes believed politics is interesting: “Political aspirants make too much of the people before election, and, if successful, too much of themselves after it. They use the people when they want to rise, as we treat a spirited horse when we want to mount him; — for a time we pat the animal upon the neck, and speak him softly; but once in the saddle, then come the whip and spur.”

Finding the right candidate in elections is next to impossible. Cartoonist Kin Hubbard too had the same dilemma when he said, “We would all like to vote for the best man but he is never a candidate.” Edmund Burke’s caution on gentlemen despising politics is worth the while. Eighteenth century statesman and thinker Burke said, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” NOTA (none of the above) has been added to the preference for voters in the EVMs (electronic voting machines) these elections. American comedian, WC Fields , once said, “Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.” 

Why there is widespread abhorrence of politics is easy to fathom. According to radio commentator, political commentator, author, columnist, Cal Thomas, “One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s aim. Election and power are.” Lord Acton’s famous quote hardly needs mention. He said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was Henry A. Kissinger who rather pithily observed: “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” Groucho Marx , a humorist, opined, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”  

What essentially should a political party have? According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.”

Winston Churchill’s famous take is worth remembering today ever than before: “Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous … In war, you can only be killed once. But in politics many times.”

American Novelist Edgar Watson Howe thought, “If you have sense enough to realize why flies gather around a restaurant, you should be able to appreciate why men run for office.”

According to the former US president Barack Obama, “We’ve come to be consumed by a 24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative ad, bickering, small-minded politics that doesn’t move us forward. Sometimes one side is up and the other side is down. But there’s no sense that they are coming together in a common-sense, practical, nonideological way to solve the problems that we face.”

And, finally, Columnist and Editor Doug Larson has this warning against the political class: “Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL