Amrita Sher-Gil: a life in art
Amrita Sher-Gil’s work changed the face of modern art and paved the course it was to take in the country. She was able to bring her western training to the existing traditions of Indian art and melded them together to express contemporary reality.
Amrita was born of a Sikh father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil and a Hungarian mother Marie Antoinette who met in Lahore. Umrao Singh belonged to a well known family which lived in Majithia near Amritsar and being of a serious bent of mind, spent his time studying Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu texts. While Umrao was in London, he met Ranjit Singh’s granddaughter, Princess Bamba, and become quite friendly with her. She, in her turn, was attracted to the handsome, young Sikh aristocrat but when they met again in Lahore he fell under the spell of her talented travelling companion, Marie Antoinette. Umrao Singh’s attention was caught at a soirée, when the attractive young woman with flaming-red hair sang while playing the piano. They were married in Lahore according to Sikh rites on 4 February 1912 and shortly after that set sail for Budapest to spend some time with her family.
Amrita was born on a cold January morning on the Buda side of river Danube in a turn-of-the-century seven story building with painted tiles and a central courtyard where from the windows they could see the church across the street. Today, the house bears a plaque which announces that the painter Amrita Sher-Gil, of Indo-Hungarian origin, was born there on 30 January 1913.
The outbreak of the war made the family stay on in Hungary and soon, as supplies from India stopped, they moved to the family house in the countryside. The family set sail for India on 2 January 1921 after spending ten years in Hungary. They stayed in their new home in Shimla, which was to be called ‘The Holme’. Even at this early stage, Amrita would spend her time sketching but it was the visit of her uncle, Ervin Baktay which was a turning point, for on seeing her talent he persuaded her parents to send her to Paris for training.
The journey of one of the most significant artists in India can be traced from her training in Paris to its triumphant culmination back in the country. When Amrita left India for Paris in 1929, she was only sixteen. She studied for some months at the Grand Chaumiere and was then admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the primary art institute in Paris at the time. Here, she went through the drill, from studio portraits to nudes to landscapes.
The painting Two Girls (1932) made in this period had the erect, almost puritanical figure of a woman shown frontally, posed by her sister Indira, in conversation with a slouched blonde, Rubenesque form for which the model was her friend Denise Proutaux. Made in contrasting colours and in opposition to each other, the two women brought together binaries which connected diverse cultural and social traditions. This painting won her the Gold Medal at the Grand Salon in 1933, and she became an associate of the Salon which was quite an honour for a young student from Asia.
It was primarily the human figure that was Amrita’s preoccupation, and during this period she made hundreds of studies with careful attention to anatomy and posture. In testing the veracity of the form, she seemed to imbibe its essential value, thus making her work distinctive even at this early stage. It becomes clear that for Amrita it was of paramount importance that the subject reveal himself in his full state of being and this is indeed the case with her successful works like Portrait of a Young Man (1930) made of her colleague Boris Taslitzky.
The 92-year-old artist remembered her vividly when we visited him in his Place D’Italee studio in Paris in January 2003. As he stated, ‘I met her in 1930 at the Beaux Arts where I was a student. When she entered there was an enormous silence, because she had a great presence. I was nineteen and perhaps she was seventeen. I was surprised at how well she painted even at that age. I fell in love with her.’
In her self-portraits such as the one made in 1930, there is a reflection of the Tahitian in all her abandon, as it was also revealed in a nude portrait of herself. These early signs of wanting to be a part of the ‘other’ were visible in different ways in her work of this period where Gaugin became the signpost to move towards a sensuous, darker hued, a non-western figure.
It was primarily for the sake of her artistic development that Amrita decided to abandon her fairly active café and night life in Paris and return to an India she felt she was destined for. She felt she was returning to a country whose riches she had been exposed to in Paris. As she stated in a letter to her mother from Budapest dated September 1934, ‘Our long stay in Europe has aided me to discover, as it were, India. Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain, that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realized that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet is worth more than the whole of Renaissance! In short, now I wish to go back to appreciate India and its worth.’
She reached the country in December 1934, and did not immediately join her parents in Shimla, but stayed for a while in her ancestral home in Amritsar, Punjab. One of her first acts was to take to wearing the sari, which she did for the rest of her life. It was also a symbolic act, since this is the period when Amrita began to develop a new aesthetic language following her gradual exposure to the art of Ajanta and Ellora, and Pahari, Rajput and Mughal miniatures.
While still in Amritsar, she made the painting Group of Three Girls (1935) which depicts young women in unsettling reds and greens. The overview imposed on their bearing brings about a heightened awareness of their existence where their flamboyant costume contrasts sharply with their melancholic expressions and reflects the state of their existence. Even though grouped together, each one appears isolated and self-enclosed. This sense of being alone in a crowd was to be a characteristic of Amrita’s work during her stay in India.
Back in the lofty surroundings of Shimla, ensconced within the family home where she had a studio, the beauty and desolation of the hilly landscape struck her. As she wrote, ‘It was the vision of a winter in India – desolate, yet strangely beautiful – on endless tracks of luminous yellow-grey land, of dark-bodied, sad faced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently, looking almost like silhouettes, and over which an indefinable melancholy reigns. It was different from the India, voluptuous, colourful, sunny and superficial, the India so false to the tempting travel posters that I had expected to see.’
In winter that year, Amrita made two of her important paintings, Hill Women and Hill Men (1935). The melancholy faces and thin bodies of the poor folk are transmuted to figures bearing an unutterable grace and dignity. The very dignity and grace of their bearing evokes a sympathetic chord in the viewer and a heightened awareness of their condition.
Amrita was feted and fawned over in Shimla which was the summer capital of the British as well as by royalty and the upper classes. But in the evening, she would return to her studio put on her smock and set to work. As she said: ‘My studio is quite bare, a huge room with whitewashed walls, and only a couple of Chinese paintings and the work of my friend (Marie Louise Chasseny) of whom I have spoken to you…to adorn it. In addition to your the Javanese cloth painting over the fireplace, a bookshelf, a divan and a couple of armchairs to loll about in. I in my smock of blue cloth (the stuff that engine drivers wear) with my hair severely brushed back (when it is brushed, which is seldom) don’t present that delectably neat appearance you have in your short course of our acquaintance come to associate me with…’
She wrote this in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru in November 1937. She was quite close to him, and it is speculated that she was even intimately involved with him.
It was in Shimla that Amrita met Malcolm Muggeridge, the acerbic correspondent of The Statesman, whose critical writings made him unpopular with his editor and indeed the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon. She had a raging affair with him: ‘She is very sensual and made-up, was wearing an exquisite silver and black sari, is rather self-consciously arty; has studied art in Paris; paints.’ (Like It Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge, Collins, London, 1981).
The attraction of two people, at odds with the establishment, to each other was inevitable and Amrita was to paint him in the same critical manner. We see a strong, somewhat edgy person with a disproportionately large, outstretched hand. The mobile, shifting attractive face creates an unsettling effect of strangeness precisely because it defies pre-conceived notions. Malcolm left Shimla soon after in September 1935 for a job with the Evening Standard, in London, but was to write profusely about her in his books in an intense but ironic manner.
In his book Chronicles of Wasted Time (Volume 2, The Infernal Grove, Collins, London, 1973) he writes ‘Amrita had her studio there, and I sat for her; or rather lolled on a sofa, sometimes reading, or just watching with fascination the animal intensity of her concentration, making her short of breath, with beads of sweat appearing… on her upper lip. It was this animality which she somehow transferred to the colours as she mixed them and splashed them on her canvas.’
Amrita was to step outside the sheltered realms of her existence, when she decided to make a trip to the South. On her way she stopped in Bombay where she was captivated by the miniatures in the collection of the art historian Karl Khandalavala, who was to become a close friend. The works that came out of her southern trip were to mark a watershed in her oeuvre. She was spellbound by the cave paintings and sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora (5th to 8th centuries). The sonorous rhythms of Ajanta, undulating figures that seemed to rise from the deeply hewn caves, and the subtle and brilliant hues, sent her reeling on a sensuous journey. She attempted to translate into her paintings the plasticity, the colour juxtapositioning, and the classical poise of the forms.
The moulded rhythms of Ajanta begin to be assimilated in a painting like The Bride’s Toilet (1937) made on her return to Shimla. The subject has been devised by the courtly miniature traditions that were often used to enhance eroticism, with the woman adorning herself also being observed by the lover hiding, say behind a bush. In Amrita’s painting, however, the fair-skinned and obviously upper caste woman turns towards the viewer to reveal her desolation. Her hennaed hands, suggesting fertility, only serve to contrast with her distress. The earlier immobility gives way to the rhythmic gestures of ritual activity.
Amrita is moving towards surer ground with the next painting, Brahmacharis (1937), where a group of young Brahmin boys, wearing their sacred thread and white dhotis create a composition of both nobility and vulnerability. The confident handling of the figures and the juxtaposition of dark and light masses create an exceptional work of male beauty. The modulation of white against subtly nuanced amber red makes it a stunning exposition of colour. The cavernous deep background mimics the caves, providing the layered format for the rhythmic stances of the figures. It is a painting that could have been seen in the flickering light of the flame, as in the caves, where the even tonalities of the composition could reveal submerged forms. The Brahmacharis is indeed a masterpiece, perfectly poised between the serenity of ritual tradition and the turbulence of diversity.
In monumentalizing the every-day, the ordinary, Amrita reached her apogee with the South Indian Villagers Going to the Market (1937) where for the first time we have a suggestion of undulating body movement in time. With their burnt sienna bodies and their brilliant clothes, the figures appear to have stepped down from the Ajanta cave walls to go about their everyday affairs.
An intriguing duality existed in Amrita’s methods, where she depended heavily on the academic-realist method of having models pose for her while aspiring towards modernism. This went to absurd lengths, where she had a Sikh boy pose as a South Indian brahmachari, or a Pahari servant woman dress in bright clothes to be a part of the tableau of Bride’s Toilet. Yet she was moving increasingly towards simplification.
In June 1938 Amrita returned to Hungary to marry her first cousin Victor Egan despite the disapproval of her parents. During this period, she made a marvellous composition – Two Girls (1939) where extreme simplicity of form is modulated by tones of white and brown. Yet it is a complex work at the level of painterly and psychological intentions. The young women are startling in their bold frontality, but secretive at the same time. The physical and emotional longing for the women for one another has many connotations – personal, social and racial. It is also the embodiment of two aspects of Amrita’s own personality – the western and the eastern. It is a painting overloaded with significance.
In many ways Amrita was in a position of being an insider and an outsider. She was able to catch the quick of her subject’s personality, while retaining a distance. Intuitively aware of the deeply sensuous rhythms of women’s lives, she also empathised with the frustrations of their truncated selves. In a painting like The Bride (1940) for instance, the depiction is of a woman dressed in resplendent clothes that contrast with her expression of deep foreboding.
After her marriage in Budapest, Amrita returned to India and spent a considerable period at the family estate in Saraya in Uttar Pradesh where her doctor husband ran a clinic. She had an opportunity to watch village women go about their daily routine and to apprehend the rhythms of their lives. She was also able to observe women’s enuii and longing within the four walls of their cloistered existence, their feudal seclusion and the pastimes they devised to while away the hours.
In Woman Resting on a Charpoy (1940) she reflects the sequestered feminine world which was her domain and became the rich ground to represent the female body that was layered with meaning. The plunging view of the woman lying on a bed, one hand thrown back, her legs in a position of abandon expresses all the lassitude of her existence which contrasts with her bright clothes. The red suffuses and suffocates the image in both eroticized expectation and truncated desire. While the figure is often transfixed in the moment the vibrant colours are in constant movement.
The captivating duality of inertia and sensuality touch upon the essential aspects of women’s lives in India. The delineation of the female presence was to reach a dual complexity – the simplicity of form would enshroud a metaphorical and psychological richness. In The Swing (1940) the thighs of the young girl are wedged between the seat the bare foot resting on the wooden clog protruding below and the red of her clothes is picked up by the blossoms in the trees behind her as she mounts the swing. The playful act of swinging is heightened by its eroticization and the frustration of the woman evident in her body language.
Amrita now wanted to engage with a wider canvas which could reflect life as it is lived by ordinary people particularly women in India. Her involvement with the structure of the painting drew her increasingly towards the miniature tradition and to the denotation of figures as a minute component of a wider scheme of things. In Village Scene (1938), a woman sorting leaves along with her fellow workers with the soft light falling on her form is a subject of exquisite grace.
A vivacious description of women’s activities forms a rhythmic
pattern over the canvas in Village Scene. Influenced by Pahari miniatures, we
see the women engage in their daily chores and there is a swaying hum from one
side to another. Their faces are in darkness, but their body language clearly
out as individuals, separate and distinctive. In Village Scene, Amrita uses white nuanced in different ways, to spell binding effect. The white of the women’s clothes glimmers against their dark bodies, and the white walls in the backdrop create haloes around their heads, adding a quiet drama to the composition. An exceptional use of white always marked out Amrita’s paintings. She had discovered that white, if used effectively, could enliven a painting – like a flash of lightning which would illuminate the entire space.
A whole gamut of activity taking place simultaneously gets incorporated into a painting like In the Ladies’ Enclosure (1938). Far from being seductive the woman dressing herself is imbued with the grace of intimate domestic routine. The feminine figure in her works is always laced with a sense of sadness which had to do with the difficulties of her own life as well as the desolation she sensed in the life of women.
A work like The Potato Peeler (1938) for instance, made in Hungary, draws upon the desolation of peasant women once again universalized in her gaze. In this work as well as in many others there is a residual sadness for the truncated fullness of life.
But primarily Amrita’s fascination with the Mughal miniatures began to emerge ‘for their subtle, yet intense, keenness of form, acute and detached observation….’ In the Elephant Promenade (1940) for instance, she had the entire scene enacted with elephants and grooms against the wall and dome of the Majithia estate at Saraya to give her what looked like a Mughal miniature. Yet she was able to achieve the interweaving of man, animal and landscape while drawing out their essential aspects.In her overview of the subject, she was able to draw upon the essential aspect of their lives while grouping them together.
Amrita had experimented with the figure in landscape earlier, while in Hungary, and had made a masterly, Bruegelesque painting, in which an animated market scene is highlighted by a white church steeple at the back. The Hungarian Market (1938) has the wizened old man at the centre of the painting, in repose and as a counterpoint to the frenzied activity around him and is echoed by another painting, the Ancient Story Teller (1940) later, which is an exceptional work where the landscape is included as a thematic necessity. In doing so, she is moving towards more rooted work, where the characteristics of the environment are drawn in.
The white of the mansion, soothing as well as dazzling, with its impenetrable feudal existence inside interfaces with artisanal practices that continue to exist outside. The venerable old man with his raised hand relates timeless tales while the woman pounds grain in an earthen pot. The painting speaks of cyclical rhythms. In this compressed work man, animal and nature are situated as part of a wider scheme of thing.
By September 1941 Amrita and Victor had reached Lahore to set up home and after much hunting they finally rented a place near the Mall, then the fashionable part of Lahore – at Apartment 23 in Sir Ganga Ram Mansion, also known as Exchange Mansion, occupied mostly by professionals. Victor had his clinic on the ground floor, the living rooms were on the first floor, and the barsati on top was Amrita’s studio.
The pair enthusiastically set about doing up the place – at last a home they could call their own. Visitors caught Amrita and Victor in dungarees, polishing the floor or painting the doors and windows. They furnished it tastefully, hiring some tables and chairs and hanging some of her paintings on the walls, although most were still in Shimla. Victor fitted up his clinic with the appropriate equipment, and they even managed to acquire a small Ford car.
Some of India’s legendary writers, artists and intellectuals lived in Lahore in the 1930s and ’40s, and they began to congregate at their place. The writer Khushwant Singh held a fortnightly soirée at his residence, with writers and poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Shah Bokhari, Gurbax Singh, Kartar Singh Duggal, Amrita Pritam, Mangat Rai, G.D. Khosla and many others. Amrita knew most of them including the legendary A.S. Bokhari, then the director-general of All India Radio and an extremely vibrant person. Lahore’s artist community included Abdul Rehman Chughtai, B.C. Sanyal, Bevan Petman, Roop and Mary Krishna and the young Krishen Khanna and Satish Gujral. Amrita began to enjoy life to the hilt.
By this time Amrita had decided to have an exhibition in December which was to be held at the Punjab Literary League Hall, above Lorang’s cafe run by a Swiss in the Charing Cross area. It was on 3 December, however, that she took ill and passed away suddenly in the midnight of December 5th.The cause of her death remains unknown but a close friend, Iqbal Singh, who later wrote a book on her and was present in the last few hours mentions that she kept talking of colours. He quotes her husband Victor ‘she kept mumbling about colours – blues, reds and greens and violets, all sorts of colours. Unconsciously or sub-consciously, she was still thinking about colours and light and shade. Then she went into a deep coma.’ The exhibition was held posthumously at the Punjab Literary League gallery on 21 December 1941.
Colours is what Amrita’s last unfinished painting (1941) is about. A mass of deep green foliage, facades of red and yellow buildings in the distance indicated as colour rather than as mass bring in a move towards abstraction. It was a view from the window of her studio in Lahore. A woman drying cowdung cakes on the terrace, the buffaloes perched on the road, bring in the pastoral aspects of an urban city in India. But it was also the transportation of the feudal world she had known into the culture of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city which was the reality of a new emerging society. While delineating form, the leaping red at the back is like a tongue offlame emblazoning a new trail of imagination.
The painting, abruptly terminated by her sudden death at the age of 28, is a marker for an important breakthrough Amrita was about to make. But her legacy continues to influence generations of artists making her words into a truism: ‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.’
* Yashodhara Dalmia is the author of Sayed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist (2021) and Amrita Shergil – A Life (2006) among other books.