The little known Esther Rahim

It is not easy to place Esther, a contemporary of Amrita Sher-gil’s, in a clear category. The body of her work, though varied, commands respect, writes B. N. Goswamy

Mother and Child by Esther Rahim. 1945
Mother and Child by Esther Rahim. 1945

The painting that accompanies this piece would instantly bring Amrita Sher-gil to the minds of many, I am certain. Some might even mistake it as being hers. The flat monochromatic ground, the clear line, the subdued colouring, the subject with its honest large-eyed village woman carrying a small child, her coarse sari and averted gaze, the child’s part stricken part quizzical look, are all so reminiscent. And yet the work is not by Amrita but by a somewhat older contemporary of hers: Esther Rahim.

Since very few here might have heard of her, here are a few facts. Esther was born in 1904 at Munich to well-to-do German parents, her father a medical doctor, her mother a painter; while she grew up developing a strong interest in the arts, the family, like the rest of Germany, went through rough times on account of the Great War; her natural ebullience however saw her through the years that followed, and she went for formal University education, obtaining a Ph.D. on a theme linking psychology and pictorial creativity.

Life took a different turn for Esther in 1929, however, for in that year she met and then married a ‘foreigner’, young J. Rahim, from a distinguished Muslim family, resulting in a move to India to which the family belonged. The naturally bright Rahim was selected for the Indian Civil Service, and his job took him and Esther to all kinds of places, especially in the southern part of India.

When the couple moved to Calcutta in 1936, Esther—called Esmet sometimes—who had all along pursued her passion for painting and drawing, got the opportunity to soak herself in the cultural life of the city, mingling with the likes of Jamini Roy and Shahid Suhrawardy, and getting to meet icons such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu. A few years later she found herself in Shimla where the Rahim family had a home of its own, and this is where she met Amrita Sher-gil.

Much else was to happen in Esther’s life: sickness, tensions, divorce, re-marriage; moves that took her from India to Egypt to France and Germany, and, eventually, to Pakistan which had come to be formed by then. But through all this, remarkably, Esther sustained her interest in art, constantly painting and drawing, oscillating between landscapes and portraits, brushing against influences, taking in new developments.

At the same time she immersed herself, especially after settling down in Karachi, in whatever there was then of an art movement: becoming involved in the Karachi Arts Council, building institutions, taking on the task of reviving the art of block printing on textiles. She died, however—unsung for the most part—in far away France: neither her native country nor her adopted land, but certainly the home of art. The year was 1963.

There is much that needs to be written on Esther Rahim and her art. Sikandar Rahim, her son, Salima Hashmi, through whom I got to know her work, and Naazish Ata-ullah, have done their part in a fine recent book on her published from Karachi, Travels Mundane and Surreal. There one can read about her life, and see her work, moving as it did between sensitive drawings in pencil, carefully observed if academic landscapes, insightful portraits of herself and of those close to her, moving studies of common people in commonplace situations, and disturbingly surrealistic work in the last phase of her life.

It is not easy to ‘fix’ Esther, or place her in a clear category, for the work is so varied and ranges from the brilliant to—inexplicably—the very flat, even ordinary. But the body of her work clearly commands respect and would have an interest all its own here because of the relationship some of it bears with Amrita Sher-gil’s work.

Esther got to know Amrita in Shimla and saw her at work. She must undoubtedly have recognised much that was common between them: the early European academic training, the endeavour to ‘resolve formal and conceptual issues’ in their art, the desire to become ‘fundamentally Indian’ by seeing from close the life of the poor and the ordinary. But it went well beyond that, for Esther, senior to Amrita in years, viewed the younger artist with genuine admiration.

One picks up even affection in the tone in which she wrote about Amrita, soon after her untimely death. In an article published from Lahore in 1942, she begins by speaking first of "her luminous eyes" with which she would watch the people around her, her "amazing vitality" which "appeared to dominate all who came within her orbit", "her beauty" and "her voice" which had "an indefinable charm which none could resist". And then she goes on to analyse Amrita’s choice of subjects, her technique, above all the nature of the impact she made upon her, speaking repeatedly of the astounding "maturity and intensity of her work", all "crowded into the short space of 28 years", and of her "genius which broke down all conventional criticism and differences in taste."

All this is of undoubted interest. But, ultimately, one has to see Esther Rahim for herself, outside of the Amrita context. Salima Hashmi, who spent a long time "searching for and finding Esmet/Esther Rahim", views her against the background of the "tensions and contradictions in the careers of women who strive to find their artistic voice", and argues the case for "approaching her art in the context of a historically determined situation, further accentuated by her marriage into a strongly patriarchal culture, and her commitment to motherhood."

Whatever the case, Esther remains, as she says, an unsung pioneer and pathfinder. And there remains the regret that most of Esther’s work has never been seen in the sub-continent, "even by artists who were her intellectual successors." She is right, for here, in our own discourses, where does Esther Rahim figure? In fact, as I wondered before, how many have even heard of her?