Saturday, May 25, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Marriage on the rocks

Khushwant Singh

AS usual Scandenavians set patterns of social relationships which other western countries take a little time to follow. The latest figures adduced by Sarah Lyall in The Washington Post show that almost half the children born in Norway are born to unwed mothers. The example is set by the Royal family: Crown-prince Haako lived with his girlfriend who bore him a child some years before he married her. Sweden and Denmark follow close behind. In Iceland the figure of children of unwed mothers is as high as 62 per cent. In England and France, the figure of single parent children is around 40 per cent. Switzerland and Italy are a little more conservative though heavily pregnant brides are not an uncommon sight in Italian churches, including those in Rome, the seat of the Vatican. Even in a devout Catholic country like Ireland where divorce was legalised only seven years ago, around 31 per cent of the children are born to unwed women.

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Are governments of countries where the institution of marriage is fast vanishing doing something to preserve what remains of it? Evidently not. In most western countries the stigma of being born to unwed parents has been erased. Schools no longer demand names of both parents on admission. Children of unwed mothers have the same rights of inheritance and financial benefits as children of married parents. In Britain, Prime Minister Blair’s right hand man Alastair Campbell has three children through his lady companion. In France "there is very little difference between being married and cohabitating," reports a well-known sociologist. Only in the United States of America, the government is desperately trying to conserve the institution of marriage. But for how long?

India still remains a highly conservative society which regards marriage as a sacred union. Nevertheless, the incidence of divorce keeps going up rapidly. So also the incidence of pregnancy and abortion among unmarried girls. A vast majority of our girls are not economically independent and know if they are not virgins, their chances of finding suitable husbands are very slim. But in India, as in the West, marriage is fast losing its sanctity and may in the foreseeable future become a relic of the past.

Immortal Amrita

Much has been written on Amrita Shergil (1913-1941). Most of it, like Karl Khandelawala’s book, deals with her achievements as an artist; one by Iqbal Singh who befriended her in the later years of her life is pseudo-biographical because he knew very little of her childhood and growing years in Hungary. About the only one who bothered to dig into her past and had the nerve to expose her not only as a great painter but also a woman with uncontrolled and varied passions is her only sister Indira’s son, painter Vivan Sundaram. He inherited Ivy Lodge, a lovely cottage in Kasauli atop a ridge which commands a spectacular view of snow-clad Himalayas in the north and the sprawling Punjab plains 6000 feet below through which the Sutlej runs. It was in this cottage that Indira spent the last years of her life all alone. She died unnoticed even by her servants. For some summers, Vivan organised seminars for playwrights and actors and built an open-air theatre on the hillside for them to show their skills. He rarely comes up these days. A few days ago, he was there with his wife Geeta Kapur. He dropped in on me late one night and gave me his new illustrated book Re-take of Amrita (Tulika). He describes it as digital photomontages based on photographs by Umrao Singh Shergil (1870-1954) and photographs from the Shergil family archive. I presume it is a part of a limbering up exercise before he produces a full-length documentary on Amrita to be produced and directed by Kumar Shahani.

It so happens that I got to meet, albeit very briefly, all members of the Shergil-Sundaram family mentioned in the book. Sardar Umrao Singh was the brother of Sir Sunder Singh Majithia. They were land-owning aristocrats who also owned a large sugar mill in Saraya (UP). Sunder Singh went into politics and was Minister in the Punjab Government. His son Surjit Singh was later Central Minister in Nehru’s government. Umrao Singh was a wayward maverick with scholastic interests: Sanskrit, yoga, Hindu philosophy, astronomy, etc. Soon after he lost his first wife he ran into a Hungarian Marie Antoinette Gottesman who had come to Lahore with Princess Bamba Sutherlane, grand-daughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They got married in 1912. For her confinement she returned to Budapest where Amrita was born on January 30, 1913, and a year later Indira on March 28, 1914. The outbreak of the World War kept the family in Hungary for six years. They returned to India in 1920 and made their home in Summer Hill, Shimla, for the next nine years. It was here that Amrita started painting and Indira learnt to play the piano from her mother. To nurture their talent further, they went to Paris where Amrita joined the Ecola des Beaux Arts and Indira a music conservatoire. Amrita showed her talent early and won gold medal of the Craud Salon for her painting at the age of 20. One of her colleagues described her as immortal.

The Shergils lived in style and entertained lavishly. Old Umrao Singh added to his collection of photographs. Evidently he was somewhat of a narcissist. He took several photographs of himself in his younger days dressed in nothing more than his kachha. He added those of his wife and daughters taken at different stages of their lives in Hungary, France and India.

Though Amrita won fame as an artist, Indira was the better-looking of the two sisters. She married K.V.K. Sundaram of the ICS who ditched his wife and children from his first wife to marry her. Indira bore him two children, Vivan and Navina, a lovely-looking girl who married a German and now works for Deutsche Weller in Hamburg.

As one would expect in a family as talented as the Shergils, there were streaks of eccentricity in most of them. Amrita’s death at the young age of 31 shattered her parents. Her mother later accused her nephew and son-in-law of conniving at her daughter’s death. A few years later she shot herself in her home in Summer Hill. In his last years, Umrao Singh could be seen walking about the roads in New Delhi, with an umbrella on his shoulders and a cloth bag carrying some Sanskrit books.

The chief value of Vivan Sundaram’s book on his aunt is the way he explains the genesis of some of her paintings with photographs which highlight their essential features. For anyone who wants to understand Amrita Shergil as an artist and a person, this book is a must.


To put it plain and flat

She’s a babysitter, and is paid for that.

Plain and flat, for she can often put on the mat

My jokes and go on with her work.

One of the siblings six or seven

Unschooled, unleashed on the market at eleven

She finds her slot, and I’ve often got

A taste of her mettle as she orders me out

Of the study to dust it clean.

Keen like a hawk, ever on her guard

To pounce upon you even if affectionately

You utter a word against her ward.

So zealous of the child, so playfully naughty

Uncontrollable as she laughs uproariously,

Hardly ever enquired after by her father

Utterly oblivious of her family,

Needling my sentimentality

About a son or a daughter,

Shouting and flitting from room to room,

I watch her and wonder,

A boss in my own house

Couldn’t she be a master

At any counter,

This babysitter!.....

It’s a democratic order, after all.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)