Amrita Sher-Gil, the fierce, independent and unapologetically sexual painter was known as ‘India’s Freida Kahlo’. It’s a tragedy that an Indian artist must always be called after someone in the west.
She stood in her own right – depicting reality and creating magic with colour. Her paintings reflected both herself and the subjects she chose. In her journey from Europe to India, she found influence in both East and West – making something that could rightfully be called her own. But she resisted all attempts to be labelled.
People in our country, when speaking of Art, are apt to think of it in terms of the various ‘Schools’—Bengal, Bombay, Lucknow, etc., rather than in terms of good Art and bad. Art. Oscar Wilde once said, ‘There are no moral and immoral books, only well written and badly written books.’
She was a child of mixed parentage – a fusion of cultures and identities. Her father was a Punjabi Sikh and her mother a Hungarian Jew. She was born in Budapest in 1913 and moved to Shimla in 1921 at the age of eight. While there, her uncle, Ervin Batkay, encouraged her to start painting from live subjects – and make use of the many servants in their home at Shimla. Ervin himself was a painter who had given up the arts to become an Indologist. Amrita kept painting and went to study art in Paris in 1929.
Until 1934, her paintings reflected the techniques she had learned. But her return to India gave her a new voice.
The impact of this people-up approach to painting is visible in all of her work. In her 1937 painting “Brahmacharis”, depicting the adolescent celibates she observed in Kerala, she approaches the subject delicately while at the same time placing herself within the painting.
The boys, who are bound to abstain from all sexual activity, seem ill at ease, their body posture suggesting a mind placed elsewhere – perhaps thinking about what they miss. All except the one in the centre, who perhaps had the greatest conviction in what he was doing. But you cannot miss the one boy in the back, turned away. It’s a deeply human, perhaps psychological portrait, by an artist who was a far cry from practising celibacy.
Her Parisian training gave her the technical ability of a post-impressionist painter – but it was in India that she found her muse, the people of India, and perhaps even herself. Post-impressionist paintings emphasize the artist’s perspective on the subject. She blended this reflexive view with the miniature tradition found in India. Occasional bold and bright colours break apart the otherwise composed monotony of everyday life.
She had a sharp eye that missed nothing of the caste based discrimination within society. In “Bride’s toilet”, a woman is tended to by her servants – each darker than the other. In “Mother India” it’s the ‘huge, sad eyes’ that dominate the sight of a mother tenderly holding her two children.
As she wrote:
I realized my real artistic mission, to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience… to reproduce on canvas the impression those sad eyes created on me.
But it was not just images of what she saw in others that she painted. Her brushstrokes captured stunning moments that show who she saw herself to be. Her self-portraits are markedly different from the subjects she paints. Her bold, red lips and beaming smile reveal a woman in the throes of a bohemian life. She had an eye for suffering and sexuality. In her depictions of Indian women, this sexuality is somewhat barely repressed. In her self-portraits, it bursts out of the seams.
Her paintings found few buyers while she was alive, but are among the most expensive works of any Indian artist today. This regrettably led to yet another label, that of India’s ‘most expensive‘ woman painter.
Amrita’s work by itself provoked endless commentary and reaction when it reached acclaim. But it was her life that led to the most tributes and recollections – mostly from former lovers, which range from Malcolm Muggeridge to the son of the Nawab of Akbarur and ultimately her own part-Hungarian cousin.
Celebrated author and journalist Khushwant Singh devotes a whole chapter to her in his “Book of Unforgettable Women”, despite having met her only twice. Singh, no apologist for sexuality himself, called her a ‘genuine case of nymphomania’ who reduced Malcolm Muggeridge ‘to a rag’. Her outspoken nature often made her enemies, in Singh’s case, that of his wife.
It was something only Amrita could do. At a party where all other guests were cooing over Singh’s eight-month-old son, she remarked “what an ugly little boy!”. She was promptly banned from returning to their house by Singh’s wife, provoking Amrita to vow that she would seduce Khushwant Singh – a vow (much to Khushwant Singh’s disappointment) that she never fulfilled.
She was someone who would refuse to praise art for its own sake. When she visited the Nizam’s Palace, a host to Salar Jung II (who was then putting together the world’s largest one-man collection) she refused to appreciate the paintings already in his collection, costing her paintings his patronage, as she would later muse.
She died young at 28. It was 1941, in Lahore, where she had settled after marrying her Hungarian cousin. The circumstances of her death were shrouded in conspiracy and gossip – it was very sudden as she had paid house visits only a day earlier. Her husband was immediately accused of the act – with rumours that she died during a botched-up abortion attempt. The tragedy was that the very next day was to be her first solo-exhibition in Lahore.
Today her paintings have influenced countless artists, plays, and even postal stamps. Until 2006, her paintings were the most expensive in Indian art history. But her life reminds us that taking a slice of the ordinary, adding a level of introspection and empathy and backing it all up with a good sense of taste – is indeed a recipe for immortal art.
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