A hundred years done and gone, Amrita Sher-gil (1913 to 1941) continues to intrigue the collective consciousness from Shimla to Lahore; from Delhi to Chennai as the first lady of the modern Indian canvas. Her iconic status remains undisputed till date. Besides her beauty, her short but flamboyant life is the stuff legends are made of. Now she is also hailed as the most expensive Indian woman artist by the price even her obscure works fetch at auctions. Her work, along with that of Rabindranath Tagore, is declared national treasure.
Occasionally, however, one finds a skeptic query from one or the other: But was she Indian? It is this query that leads one to probe the works of life of the artist who was of Indo-Hungarian parentage and studied art in Paris but chose to make her home in India and paint. The works she is best known for and those which give her the status that she enjoys in modern art were painted in India and their themes and colours are vibrantly Indian too.
These masterpieces Three Girls (1934), Bride’s Toilet (1937), Brahmacharis (1937), The Ancient Storyteller and Woman on a Charpai (both 1940) as well as Camels (1941), among many others, are born of the unmistakable Indian experience.
Her biography is an interesting mix of the East and the West. She was born at Budapest in Hungary and spent her early childhood there. Her father was a Sikh aristocrat, Umrao Singh Sher-gil Majithia, and her mother a Jewish-Hungarian opera singer, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann. Marie had come to Lahore as companion of Princess Bamba, daughter of Maharaja Dalip Singh.
In 1921, the Sher-gil family moved to Shimla and it was from there that she went with her mother in 1924 to study at an art school in Florence, Italy. At 16, her destination was Paris, first at Grande Chaumiere and later at Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1930 to 34). Amrita did set up a studio in Paris but there was a strong pull to return to India and ‘tradition’ as it were according to artist Vivan Sundaram, who is the nephew of Amrita: "One can sense from her letters that she wanted to return to India and tradition but at the same time, she did not abandon all that she had learnt from the West."
It was a return to the Indian pictorial tradition, a fascination with the Ajanta frescoes and Indian miniatures but also connected to a western schooling that had produced artists like Cezanne and Gaugin.
So with her began a fresh chapter in modern painting in India. Critic Karl Khandalavala was the first to recognise her talent. In an assessment of her contribution, he wrote thus, "The span of Sher-gil’s genius was limited to but seven years...the sheer power of her finest canvases transcended anything that had hitherto been achieved in modern painting even by the most notable pioneers of Bengal Renaissance". As a closing centenary tribute, Yashodhara Dalmia, art writer who has been one of the chroniclers of the painter, mounted an exhibition mid-February at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, called The Passionate Quest in which her masterworks are juxtaposed with her early works painted in Paris.
Yashodhara says: "Amrita’s art was a melding of eastern and western traditions that explored modernity with its roots in the Indian tradition". The exhibition brings on display for the first time her entire collection with the NGMA. Many of her earlier works in Paris after she completed her training have also not been seen before.
Yashodhara says: "These include many self-portraits. Each of these showcases her process of painting — sometimes she looks excited, sometimes reflective, sometimes troubled — but at all times, you see the involvement with the act of painting."
The transition from her Paris works is to be seen in her Three Girls in which three women in Punjabi attire sit silently with dupattas covering their heads. There the faces reflect a sadness as they sit accepting destiny but not without silent strength. Indian woman had not been painted in such abundance and sans the voyeuristic male gaze before Amrita entered the art scene.
The painting also showed Amrita moving on from the earlier realist style to using the flatter style so perfected in the Indian miniatures, and this was the beginning of seven years of humanist work of a modern sensibility. Her death at the age of 28 interrupted a journey that could have been even more significant but nevertheless she left an amazing legacy of work. Never mind what her detractors have had to say her life with the joyous and the sad is a romance that refuses to die away. Hundreds of years more to the woman who had the pluck to live and paint as she wished.