Portrait of an artist

It takes a while for Navina Sundaram to recall the number of times her film on aunt Amrita Sher-Gil has been screened but talking of it still gets her excited

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:March 8, 2009 10:56 pm

Navina Sundaram talks about her aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and her work

It takes a while for Navina Sundaram to recall the number of times her film on aunt Amrita Sher-Gil has been screened but talking of it still gets her excited. “The temperature of the audience is different every time,” says the artist’s niece,a day after her 37-minute film Amrita Sher-Gil—A Family Album was screened at The Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre. An audience of over 40 was in attendance,including brother Vivan Sundaram and art historian Geeta Kapur. “They are my biggest critic,” says the Germany-based filmmaker and former journalist,as she moves her gaze towards an Amrita Sher-Gil self-portrait that is suspended on the wall of her home in Shanti Niketan. Some more self-portraits find place on the wall across and above her bed is a canvas depicting mother Indira. “She told us a lot about Amrita and we grew up with her paintings in our home,” smiles Sundaram,63.

It was some of these tales that she shared with the audience when she took the dais for a presentation that followed the screening of her film in Delhi. The slide presentation that included images of self-portraits painted by Sher-Gil as a student at Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris also featured canvases from her stint in India and the incomplete abstract that Sher-Gil was painting before her death in 1941. Pointing out to a canvas titled ‘Self Portrait as Tahitian’,Sundaram says,“This has European and Indian influence.” The subsequent phases had Sher-Gil draw on from Ajanta paintings to Mughal and Pahari miniatures. “There is so much variation in the short duration of nine years,” says Sundaram,who also visited Sher-Gil’s studio in Shimla when working on the film commissioned by Haus der Kunst. “I had considered making a film earlier and even prepared a treatment but that time I failed to get a sponsor in Germany,” recalls Sundaram,who took over a year to complete the film that was first screened alongside an exhibition mounted in Munich in 2006.

Born four years after Sher-Gil’s death,the Lady Shri Ram College graduate gathered information about her aunt through old photographs,diary entries,newspaper cuttings and letters written to her parents,sister Indira and art critic and collector Karl Khandavala amid others. “She wrote about her work in some letters,” notes Sundaram.

On her annual vacation to India,she is once again sifting through some of these letters in an endeavour to compile them in a publication that she working on along with Vivan. “It should be out this summer,” she smiles,flipping through a file that has letters in Hungarian written by Sher-Gil to her mother. While for Sundaram these pages are an integral part of personal history,for others these are means to understand the artist and her art.

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