Self Portrait – the many faces of Amrita Sher-Gil, demure Indian, bohemian European (1930)
“It seems to me that I have never began painting, that I have always painted. And I have always had, with a strange certitude, the conviction that I was meant to be a painter and nothing else. Although I studied, I have never been taught painting in the actual sense of the word, because I possess in my psychological makeup a peculiarity that resents any outside interference. I have always, in everything, wanted to find out things for myself.”
~ Amrita Sher-Gil
It is rare indeed that one gets a chance to watch nearly 100 works of Amrita Sher-Gil, all under one roof. Works that portray her journey from her articulations of European classical ideals in Paris, to her exploration of human paucity in Hungary, to finally her finding herself and her place in art in the lives of the poor and downtrodden in India. In 1937 she wrote to a friend “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque… India belongs only to me.”
Born on 30 January, 1913, of a Sikh aristocratic father who was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar, and Jewish Hungarian mother (an opera singer) in Budapest, Amrita Sher-Gil’s life was short, emotive and revolutionary, never really achieving any artistic fame whilst alive. Painting on the themes of women’s sensuousness and their truncated lives, and later the plight of the poor, just days before her first solo showing in Lahore she went into a coma and died around midnight on 5 December 1941, aged 28. She left behind 150 paintings and is to date the ‘most expensive’ woman painter of India; her painting Village Scene sold for INR 6.9 crores at the Osian’s auction in New Delhi.
Educated at the finest European schools, and studying art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1930-34), Amrita Sher-Gil had many lovers, both men and women, and married her Hungarian first cousin Dr. Victor Egan in 1938, moving back to India with him.
She was painting at age 5, and it shows. She often said that she never ‘started’ painting but was always painting. Her Young Girls (1932) dates back to when she was just 19. It led to her election as Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and only Asian to receive this recognition.
Her travels through India to discover her roots in 1934 and the resulting visit to the Ajanta Caves were the inspiration for the famous South Indian trilogy of Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market. The smooth classical lines, earth colors, and despair and poverty were her new found ‘artistic mission’ which was, according to her, to express the life of the Indian people through her canvases. This further evolved into the richness and depth of rural life portrayed in her Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure and Siesta painted just before her death.
Surrounded by her paintings on three levels of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), one gets the inexplicable feeling of being surrounded by the throbbing vitality of the multiple facets of her life – on one side is the European bohemian audacious woman, and on the other the introverted, Indian, passionate yet melancholy soul. All the faces, people she worked with, loved, including her own many self portraits, jump out of the canvases, recounting the story of her quest to find herself.
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Amrita Sher-Gil: The Passionate Quest is on display at the NGMA, Fort, Mumbai till 30 June, from 11 am to 6 pm.
Self portrait continued: As Tahitian (1934); The elegant Parisian
Young Girls (1932). This painting, painted when she was just 19, led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris
The Hungarian exploration – Left: Hungarian Market Scene (1938)
Left: Two Women (1935); Right: Group of Three Girls (1935). From 1935 onwards Amrita Sher-Gil only wore Indian clothes
The South Indian Trilogy: Bride’s Toilet (1937). The Trilogy is considered to be her finest works, capturing her unique style
The South Indian Trilogy: Brahmacharis (1937)
Woman on Charpoy (1940)
[All images courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art]