Amrita Sher-Gil: Often overlooked Indian art pioneer

With her paintbrush, Budapest-born Sher-Gil explored the sadness felt by people, especially women, in 1930s India, giving voice and validity to their experiences.

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Amrita Sher-Gil: Untitled self-potrait -Photo: Sothebys
By Tariro Mzezewa | NEW YORK TIMES |

Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneer of modern Indian art, used her paintbrush to depict the daily lives of Indian women in the 1930s, often revealing a sense of their loneliness and even hopelessness.

She painted women going to the market, women at a wedding, women at home. Sometimes she showed women bonding with other women. At times the works seemed to convey a sense of silent resolve. It was a rendering rarely seen in depictions of Indian women at the time, when portrayals tended to cast them as happy and obedient.

The melancholic painting “Three Girls” for instance, shows women wearing passive expressions, their solemn brown faces a contrast to the vibrant reds, greens and ambers of their clothing. The mood is despondent, as though the women are waiting for something they doubt will ever come along.

With her style and her emphasis on women, Sher-Gil became known as the “Indian Frida Kahlo.” 

Amrita Sher-Gil: Self portrait (middle) and The Little Girl in Blue (source: Sothebys)

Amrita Sher-Gil Biography

Born in 1913 in Budapest, Sher-Gil grew up in a cultured and intellectual family who initiated and supported her early interest in art. Her mother was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and her father was an Indian Sikh aristocrat and scholar. She lived in Hungary, India and Paris during her lifetime and due to her bi-racial and bi-cultural upbringing, and her constant travels between India and Europe, her work comes across as an immersion, absorption and very detailed understanding of aesthetic styles and traditions of the West and the East.

From an early age Sher-Gil had shown an aptitude for drawing. “It seems to me that I 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.” (Amrita Sher-Gil, ‘Evolution of My Art’, Y.Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil Art & life, A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2014, p. 3). Sher-Gil moved to Paris in 1929 when she was 16, studying at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière and later at the École des Beaux-Arts. Whilst in Paris, she was exposed to the work of Paul Cézanne, Amedeo Modigliani and Paul Gaugin. She was particularly enamoured with their uncanny ability to blend the old with the new. Much like Gaugin’s depictions of Tahitian women, Sher-Gil’s paintings were stylistically simple yet visually complex.

In November of 1937, Sher-Gil’s works were unveiled in an inaugural exhibition at Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. The landmark exhibition would fundamentally change the perception of Indian audiences towards contemporary art forever. Embodying a bohemian combination of East and West, Sher-Gil’s work belonged to no particular school or style of painting. She forged a revolutionary new path informed by her experiences in Hungary, Paris and India, creating a body of work that was simultaneously aggressively modern and decidedly Indian. At a time when most artists portrayed women as content and compliant, Sher-Gil’s treatment of female subjects was singularly unique, revealing their loneliness or silent resolve. This was perhaps a reflection of her own isolation in a life caught between different worlds. Nonetheless, she came to be seen as an arbiter of style in India, a symbol of the glamour of the inter-war years. When the elites of Lahore arrived to view her exhibition in 1937 they are said to have come as much to see Sher-Gil, as to view her art.

Amrita Sher-Gil is considered to be one of India’s most important early modernist painters. In December of 1976, India declared her a national treasure with regard to her ‘artistic and aesthetic value’ and prohibited the exportation of her paintings outside the country. Sher-Gil’s constant travels not only resulted in her meeting and engaging with people of great artistic and intellectual temperament, but also resulted in an absorbing of influences from varying cultures such as French, Hungarian, and Indian that shaped and impacted her oeuvre. Her natural talent, education and observations made during her stay in Europe enabled her to start a dialogue with the then veterans of modern Indian art, such as Karl Khandalavala, and allowed her to create for herself a very significant position in the history of modern Indian art. She wrote several essays on art and penned innumerable letters to her family and friends vocalising expansively her thoughts and vision on the form and image she felt modern Indian Art must acquire. She thus played a vital role in the articulation of twentieth century Indian art and was a seminal influence on generations of Indian artists.

There are a very limited number of works made by Sher-Gil before her sudden and untimely demise at the age of 28. In total, 172 paintings have been documented and of those, 95 are in the permanent collection of museums and institutions within India, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and will never be allowed to leave the country.

In life and art Sher-Gil was a woman both within and ahead of her time, breaking boundaries that make her one of India’s most compelling figures of the 20th century. – Source: Sothebys website

 

She understood the loneliness of her subjects well, since their moods were a reflection of her own. Because of her upbringing, she lived between worlds, often searching for a sense of belonging.

Sher-Gil was born in Budapest on Jan. 30, 1913, to the Hungarian-Jewish opera singer Marie Antoinette Gottesmann and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit. She began taking formal art lessons at age 8, when her family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla, in northern India.

At 16, she moved to Paris and continued studying art, first at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and later at the École des Beaux-Arts. She had early success.

Her 1932 painting “Young Girls” received a gold medal in 1933 at the Paris Salon, the renowned art show. It depicts her sister, Indira, wearing European clothing and a look of confidence while sitting with a partially undressed friend, Denise Proutaux, whose face is obscured by her hair — one woman bold and daring and another reserved and hidden. The painting reflects the different aspects of Sher-Gil’s personality — outgoing and sociable, as she was known among those who encountered her at Parisian parties, or tucked away and painting vigorously.

In addition to paintings of relatives, lovers and friends, she created self-portraits that showed her “grappling with her own identity,” one of her biographers, Yashodhara Dalmia, wrote in Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (2006).

Read the full story, ‘Overlooked No More: Amrita Sher-Gil, a Pioneer of Indian Art’ (New York Times, 20 June 2018), here.

 

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