‘A free spirit,she also wanted to return to tradition’

On the birth centenary of painter Amrita Sher-Gil,her nephew,artist Vivan Sundaram,looks back at her life and works.

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi | Published: March 31, 2013 1:20 am

On the birth centenary of painter Amrita Sher-Gil,her nephew,artist Vivan Sundaram,looks back at her life and works.

Amrita Sher-Gil was a liberated woman who had strong opinions and expressed herself in her art as well as personal life. She imbibed a kind of modernism which was not the avant-garde type but a sort of realism that evolved between that period of the two World Wars,and in a sense,that informed some of her perspectives on the human figure.

She died two years before I was born,in 1941. I know her from her writings and from what I heard about her. My mother Indira did not talk too much about her but we were surrounded by her art. A year older than my mother,Amrita had an astute observation from the very beginning. She started keeping a dairy early on,and from her writings,she comes across as someone with an independent perspective,who responded to things in a very adult way,including the silent films she was seeing as an eight-to-10-year-old in Shimla in the early ’20s.

She started drawing and painting in watercolours from the age of five. Her mother,Marie Antoinette,would narrate Hungarian fairy tales to her,which she would illustrate. For the first eight years of her life,which she spent in Hungary,she was not sent to school. A private tutor taught her to read and write Hungarian,the only language she knew then. When they moved to Shimla,Amrita was put into a convent. She disapproved of compulsory church attendance and told her father that she was an atheist. The mother superior came to know about her views and expelled her. So Amrita learnt more from culture within the family and her own preferences. Even at that age,she asserted her opinion about musicians,authors; not so much about art because there wasn’t much available for her to see then. Her father was a great admirer of Tolstoy but Amrita preferred Dostoevsky. In 1926,her uncle Ervin Baktay visited the Sher-Gils in Shimla and he was quick to recognise Amrita’s talent. He guided her to move away from her highly emotional early paintings to draw from reality,emphasising structure rather than naturalism. Under her uncle’s direction,her lines started to become strong and angular. It was a period of self-expression.

She studied in Paris,set up her studio there,and had the option of never coming back to India but one can sense from her letters that she always wanted to return. Her mother was Hungarian and Amrita was born in Hungary,so that connect was there,but Amrita also wanted to retain the connection she had with India through her father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil,a Sikh aristocrat. The free bohemian spirit did not make her a Parisian artist; she wanted to be a conformist and come home to tradition. At the same time,she did not abandon everything from the West. There was a constant tension between the two identities that also defined her art. Three Girls (1935) was one of her first major paintings after returning to India. She began to move away from the academic,realist style of painting,in which she was schooled,towards a flatter,more modern composition. In one of her letters to art critic Karl Khandelwal,she mentions that she did not think much of Rabindranath Tagore as a poet,but thought he was a fine artist. She faced criticism for painting in oil,which wasn’t a practice in India then,but she continued,undeterred. Some,including the Maharaja of Mysore and Nawab Salar Jung of Hyderabad,rejected her work,but there were those who appreciated her too. Art critics were writing about her work.

Amrita was deeply influenced by her visit to Ajanta. In one of her letters,she describes the frescoes at Ajanta as “vital,vibrant,subtle and unutterably lovely”. Her paintings of the following few years reflect her growing ambition to create a modern style of painting which was at once quintessentially Indian,yet entirely her own. South Indian Villagers Going to Market,which draws both upon the influence of Ajanta and her travels through southern India,is considered by many to be among her most significant works. Two Girls was painted in Budapest in 1938-39,when she went back to marry her first cousin Victor Egan. For me,it’s a remarkable painting because it depicts her various aspects. She did not foreground much the relationships of women in an overt sense,it speaks about how a woman represents a woman and how a woman is able to also represent a relationship between the European and the Indian. Amrita built a close connection with her women subjects,it was an intimate connection. She was always interested in the female body,and in India,she went on to paint working women as well as women of her class.

She had a flamboyant lifestyle and was aware of her beauty in more ways than one. Her romances are recorded and written about. After my mother Indira got married to a civil officer,my grandmother wanted Amrita to also marry someone in a position of power. She did not think much of the institution,and decided to marry her first cousin who was a doctor and would look after her. They came to India and lived in the ancestral house in Saraya,UP,where the family owned a sugar mill. They moved to Lahore later,but within a year,Amrita died. Her last work is an unfinished abstract,indicating a new direction. Initially,the Sher-Gils had made Shimla their home. If they had opted to settle in Lahore instead,a more natural choice,Amrita would have received a richer and more complex cultural orientation,in contrast to the colonial elitism of Shimla. Even after her return from Paris in 1934,in Lahore she would have found herself amidst the most developed art scene of northern India,among India’s most radical writers and intellectuals. In her short life of 28 years,she was constantly revisiting her art practice. She can be called one of the pioneers of modern Indian art.

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