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The alluring bodies, ardent eyes and wistful expressions evoke not just a passion rooted in empathy, but also leave behind a raw emotion for the viewer, steering clear of sentimentality, yet touching the depths of one’s soul.
(Amrita Sher-Gil, smiling with her 3 paintings)
One of the most important Indian artists of the 20th century, and the most expensive female Indian artist, Hungarian-born Amrita Sher-Gil’s art was very much like her life - unorthodox yet compelling, intense yet captivating. Stepping away from the then prevalent perception of India as the “Exotic East”, bedecked in riches and splendour, Sher-Gil won over the art world with her truthful portrayal of the country, as it stood at the threshold of emerging from the long and laborious grasp of British rule.
(Brahmacharis by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1937)
(Mother India by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1935)
The European Influence
Born on 30th January, 1913 to a Hungarian-Jewish singer mother and a Sikh-Punjabi father who was a scholar, most of Amrita Sher-Gil’s early childhood was spent in Europe. The family moved to the hill station of Shimla in India in 1921, and it was here that 8-year-old Amrita formally began to learn painting, receiving tuitions from an Italian sculptor residing in Shimla. And when he moved to Italy, Amrita and her mother followed suit in 1924, where Amrita was enrolled into Santa Annunziata, a catholic institution in Florence.
(Amrita Sher-Gil with her younger sister, Indira)
Here, Amrita was exposed to the works of Italian masters and other European painters, and the influence continued to grow on her when she began studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, where she was particularly taken by the works of Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. In the early 1930s, Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings had a strong Western influence, especially the kind found in Parisian bohemian circles. She made several self-portraits, portraits of friends, nudes and still life paintings during the time.
(Nude by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1933)
(Self Portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1933)
It was in 1932, at the age of 19, that Amrita painted her first important work, ‘Young Girls’, which got her a gold medal at the Grand Salon of 1933 in Paris, and led to her election as an Associate, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition. The painting was of two young women – her younger sister, Indira, on the left, and a French friend, Denise Proutaux, on the right. The painting is now part of the large collection of Sher-Gil’s works at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
(Young Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1932)
While it was in Europe that she began her journey as a painter, it was India that changed Amrita Sher-Gil’s life. Haunted by an intense longing for the country, Amrita wrote that she felt “in some strange way that there [India] lay my destiny as a painter”. She moved to India in 1934, later declaring to a friend, "I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque.... India belongs only to me".
Extensively travelling across the country, and drawing inspiration from the rich elements of India’s artistic culture such as that of Mughal miniature art, the Pahari school, and Ajanta Cave paintings, Sher-Gil began developing an artistic style that was much influenced by Post-Impressionism, but came with a distinct, original character, full of intensity and emotion, that was Indian.
(Group of Three Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1935)
In 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous trilogy of paintings titled Bride's Toilet, Brahmacharis and South Indian Villagers Going to Market. This was a conscious attempt by Sher-Gil to experiment with classical Indian art, revealing an extraordinary colour palette and a passionate empathy for Indian subjects. By this time, the transformation in her work was complete, and it became Sher-Gil’s ‘artistic mission’ to express Indian life and people on her canvas.
(Bride's Toilet by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1937)
After marrying her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan, in 1938, Amrita Sher-Gil moved with him to the small village of Saraya in Uttar Pradesh. Her works from this time, focused strongly on depicting rural life, and include the famous Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure and Siesta.
(Siesta by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1938, inspired by the miniature school of painting)
In September 1941, Sher-Gil and her husband moved to Lahore in then undivided India, where she breathed her last on 5th December, 1941, just before the opening of her first solo show in Lahore.
A Life Less Ordinary
Often referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil raised eyebrows by putting ordinary women’s bodies at the centre of her extraordinary art, often showcasing women’s inner desires through pensive expressions and languorous poses.
(Hungarian Gypsy Girl, 1932. Painted by Sher-Gil while on holiday in Hungary)
It was not just her art; Amrita Sher-Gil’s life too, was rebellious and unorthodox. As a child, she was expelled from her convent school for declaring herself an atheist. Her road to self-discovery was not without scandal either. Known to have multiple lovers, both men and women, it is often insinuated that her death, the reason for which was never ascertained, was the result of a failed abortion. Her painting titled ‘Two Women’ is allegedly a portrayal of herself with her female lover Marie Louise.
(Two Women by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1935)
Perhaps this is why, in an India that was still outwardly conservative, while her works were acclaimed by art critics, Amrita’s paintings found few buyers at the time she was alive.
Only 28 at the time of her death, Amrita Sher-Gil left behind a legacy that established her as one of the foremost artists of the 20th century. Her oeuvre has left an impact on Indian art, that is only matched by that created by masters from the Bengal School, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy. Such was the brilliance of Sher-Gil’s work, that it went on to inspire generations of artists, including masters such as S.H. Raza.
(Camels by Amrita Sher-Gil, 1941; from the NGMA collection)
There are only 172 documented Sher-Gil paintings in the world, of which more than 100 belong to permanent collections at museums and institutions in India, the largest of which is at the NGMA, New Delhi. Acknowledging the enormous impact she had on art, the Government of India has declared Amrita Sher-Gil’s works as ‘National Art Treasures’.
(A photograph of Amrita Sher-Gil painting)
Re-defining India’s artistic language through a rare talent and an even rarer boldness, Amrita Sher-Gil truly was one of the most extraordinary painters to have ever graced the Indian soil.
Copyright © 2018 Artisera
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