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Bhaskar's Corner

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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Essay

Remembering Shiv Kumar Batalvi

By Amrita Sharma

Shiv Kumar Batalvi: Sourced by Amrita Sharma

A shayar (poet) who received exceptional fame, a poet who became the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award and a star who left too early at a young age of 36, Shiv Kumar Batalvi remains one of those few poets who lived and died within the embrace of poetic charm. Being an immensely popular poet during his lifetime who wrote in one of the Indian regional languages, Punjabi, he received international acclaim within a very brief span of time.

With around eight collections of poems to his credit and as a performer who read and sang his verses across innumerable public gatherings, Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936-1973) remains a popular subject for critical writings ranging from doctoral thesis to popular magazines. Born on July 23, 1936, in a village, named Bara Pind Lohtian, situated in the northern part of pre-partition Punjab, Batalvi spent a peaceful childhood until his family migrated to India after Partition. As a young man in his twenties, writing in the 1960s, a period marked by a new force of modernity across the world, Batalvi’s verses ranged over a vast canvas of themes and wanderings. Though largely remembered as a love poet who was fascinated with death and grief, he wrote prolifically on subjects that even remained unconventional and anti-stereotypical for his time.

As the month of May marked the time of the year when Batalvi breathed his last, this article is a revisit to his poetic style that commemorates and celebrate his poetic vibrancy. Perhaps one of his most popular compositions remains his song titled “Ki PuCHde Ho Haal FakeeraaN Da” (The Condition Of Fakirs) that opens with the following lines that grew immensely popular with his performances:

Ki puCHdiyo ho haal fakeeraaN da
SaaDa nadiyoN viCHRe neeraaN da.
SaaDa haNjh di joone aaiyaaN da
SaaDa dil jaleyaaN dilgeeraaN da!

Why ask about the condition of fakirs like us?
We are water, separated from its river,
Emerged from a tear,
Melancholy, distressed!

With a poetic sensibility that remained enchanting with its rhythmic flow and vigour, Batalvi may be credited with enriching his first language with poetic compositions that captured its cultural essence. While not losing out on the classical Punjabi style, he wrote songs that were cast in a traditional tone and yet remained a part of the emerging modern verse. For instance, the following lines from his poem “Vidhva Ruht” (“Widowed Season”) read as follows:

Is ruhte sab rukh nipatare
Mahik-vihoone
Is ruhte saaDe sukh de sooraj
SekoN oone.
Maae ni par vidhva joban
Hor vi loone.
Haae ni
E loona joban ki kareeya?
Maae ni is vidhva rut da ki kareeye?

In this season the trees are leafless,
Without fragrance.
In this season, the sun of my happiness
Has no warmth.
But even more bitter
Is my widowed youth.
Tell me,
What should I do
With this bitter youth.

With suffering and its accompanying emotions remaining closest to Batalvi’s poetic outlook, he carved verses that spoke to his readers and listeners, thus, revisiting an oral tradition. Recreating and enticing the concept of sorrow with his love for the natural, Batalvi wrote of an optimistic vision to it in a manner of a folk song, as in his verse titled “JiNdu De BaageeN” (The Garden Of Life) where he writes:

k taaN taeNDaRe
Kol kathoori,
Dooje taaN dard baRe,
Teeja te taeNDRa
Roop suhaNdaRa
GalaaN taaN milakh kare!

Remember that you have
The sac of musk,
You also have great sorrow.
Thirdly you are
Beautiful,
And your words are precious

Batalvi’s verses thus particularly remain memorable for his fascination with grief, pathos and pain.

Though having suffered severe critical dismissals, Batalvi nevertheless remained extremely popular with the masses. Majority of his compositions have been now cast into songs by numerous popular singers on both sides of the border within the Indian subcontinent. Having lived a life that often became a subject of social critique and having died at a very young age due to failing health, Batalvi perhaps remains a singularly unique poet who lived and died with  the unconventionality of his poetic romance.

While India faces a surge in the outbreak of the Covid 19 virus, we continue to alternate between emotions of anxiety and grief. Poetry by Batalvi encapsulates within itself a range of emotions that contain the charm of enticing an entire tradition of such alternating emotions, it remains endearing to remember such poets today. Difficult times as those we face today may serve to strengthen our faith in the capacity of literature that helps us look beyond our immediate surroundings. Recalling Batalvi’s poetry, I would like to end by leaving you with the following lines by him:


Ih mera geet dharat toN maela
Sooraj jeD puraana.
KoT janam toN piya asaanu
Is da bol haNDHaana.
Hor kise di jaah na koi
Is nu hoNTHeeN laana,
Ih taaN mere naal janmeya
Naal bahishteeN jaana

This song more soiled than the earth,
As old as the sun,
For many births I have had to live
The weight of its words.
No one else is able
To bring voice to it.
This song was born with me,
And will die with me.

(The texts for the poems  and their translations were taken from http://apnaorg.com/poetry/suman/index.html)

Amrita Sharma is a Lucknow based writer currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English from the University of Lucknow. Her works have previously been published in various online forums.Her area of research includes avant-garde poetics and innovative writings in the cyberspace.

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