Amrita Sher-Gil

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Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), colourful and innovative painter of modern India, was born on 30 January 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, scholar and savant, learned in Sanskrit as well as in Persian, came of an old Sikh family of the village of Majitha, in Amritsar district of the Punjab. Her mother, Marie Antoinette, was a Hungarian of noble descent with artistic leanings who possessed a gregarious, gushing manner which could charm society snobs, but bewilder those close to her. She came out to the Punjab with Princess Bamba who had, through a public notice published in London, sought a companion to travel with her to India, the land of her father Maharaja Duleep Singh and her grandfather Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Marie Antoinette made the acquaintance of Umrao Singh in Shimla and this acquaintance led to marriage. They travelled together to Budapest where their first child, Amrita, was born. To go by the census standards for determining the nationality of a child, Amrita was after her male parent a Punjabi Jatt. She first visited the Punjab in 1921 at the age of eight as World War I had prevented her parents' return to India. In the Punjab, the family lived on the slopes of Summer Hill at Shimla and in Saraya, a village in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh where her father had an estate. The scenic beauty of the surounding hills and dales coupled with the grand vistas of the Himalayan peaks near their Summer Hill residence made a deep impact on Amrita's aesthetic sensibilities.

Her English art and music tutor, recognized the young woman's exceptional talent and recomended that she should study art in Florence, Italy, the home city of the rennaisance. Accompanied by her mother the two traveled in 1924 to Florence where she enrolled in the art school of Santa Anunciata. However, she soon found that the daily religious routines, strict discipline and rigid curriculum of the school did not suit her temperament. So, after completing only one semester, she left the school and returned to India with her mother.

Studies in Florence and Paris

Three Girls, 1935, now at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi

In April 1929 she joined the Grand Chaumiere, a wellknown art school in Paris, where she again studied for one semester, shifting thereafter to the famed Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts. She made a very minute study of human anatomy, perspective and various techniques of oil painting. The encouragement she received from her teacher, Lucien Simon, who admired her talent and frequently commended her progress, stimulated her creative energies. In Paris, she frequented art studios, art galleries and art museums. She studied the original works of the great masters. From he paintings of Paul Cezanne she learned the art of compact composition and the technique of modelling to represent the depth. She found Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti with their sensitive draughtsmanship and effective use of colour, especially his technique of using flat areas of pigments to depict the Tahitian sun's risings and settings, especially appealing.

Graduating from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts, Amrita left for India in November 1934 to find her own sunshine. But her romantic vision of her motherland "voluptuous, colourful, sunny…" as she had imagined it to be soon gave way to, again in her own words, "the vision of Winter in India desolate, yet strangely beautiful of endless tracks of luminous yellowgrey land, of darkbodied, sadfaced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently, looking almost like silhouettes over which an indefinable melancholy reigns." To capture and interpret the weariness she saw on the faces of the vast numbers became the main concern of her creative vision.

In June 1938, she travelled to Hungary to marry her maternal cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. After their honeymoon in Europe, the couple returned to India. Dr Egan took up employment with Amrita's uncle, Sundar Singh Majithia, who owned a sugar factory at Saraya. Dr. Egan served there as a physician. At Saraya, Amrita went through a new phase in her creative experience. She felt that, "another period of transition is approaching, one of greater reflection, of more conscious painting, more observation and more stylization in the sense of nature." She blossomed forth into a jubilant mood and looked at her surroundings, at flora and fauna especially with fresh tenderness and excitement. Out of this period came paintings of landscapes and animals.

Tragic, unexpected death at 29

In September 1941, Amrita moved to Lahore where her husband Dr. Egan had set up his own practice. Here she started work on a painting of buffaloes in a suburban setting which was never to be completed. In Lahore she fell prey on 3 December 1941 to virulent bacillary dysentary and died two days later, not quite twenty nine years old. Trajically her death came just before her first major show was about to open in Lahore.

Amrita Sher-Gil's career, all to brief, remains a landmark in the history of the art of Indian painting. She had synthesized the techniques learned in the West with the influence of her Indian environment. The fact that Amrita Sher-Gil went to an art school in Paris and stayed there, ostensibly practising life drawing consistently for five years, shows that she made a conventional enough beginning. At that time the art schools of Western Europe considered drawing from the human body and studying perspective as the most essential qualifications of an artist. A flower had to look like a flower and figures had to be represented in scale and accurate proportions. The concrete object was exalted and the feeling which this photographic and naturalistic representation was supposed to arouse was considered the supreme test. Then a painter who could draw men and women so that they looked exactly like men and women generally won the school medals or was hung in the academies and galleries.

It is easily conceivable how Amrita began to think of India, the India that had belonged to her child's world, romantically, almost as Gauguin had thought of the South Sea islands. And, obviously, she wanted to return and apply the techniques she had learned in the studios of Paris to her paintings of India, to come and depict her dreamworld with the 'objectivity' of Cezanne, who dominated her mind as he had once dominated the art of Western Europe.

In Paris she practised drawing and sought to learn the lesson of Cezanne, that by painting still life pictures and landscapes, in which one had to concentrate on an object with definite structure, one is able to realize the objective nature of things in terms of paint and canvas. And she understood his emphasis on the intimate relation between form and colour in nature, on the necessity of design in colour, that is to say of design not as a thing in itself but as a harmony of colour.

If Cezanne showed Amrita SherGil the way to the organization of form, she took her initial cue for the organization of colour from Gauguin. But, as Mr Khandalavala has very pertinaciously pointed out, her affinity with Gauguin is superficial. For, actually, the broad planes of colour and the plastic effects which she tried to achieve in her canvases are owed to Cezanne's reduction of objects to their essential planes and to her own uncompromising quest for simplicity through her absorption of Western teachings as well as of the lessons of early Indian sculpture and medieval Indian painting.

Studio at Shimla

Amrita Sher-Gil in her studio in Shimla, photographed by father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, 1937

The first few paintings on which Amrita worked in her studio in Shimla show a sculpturesque technique, both in the folds of the dresses and the severity of planes. The still, immobile figures in Hill Men and Hill Women, thought almost static, are yet however essentially dramatic, because of the way in which they are related to each other in the composition. Already Amrita SherGil is blending the skilled draughtsmanship she has learnt in Paris with a compassionate vision of the unhappy Indian people, with a strict avoidance of rhetoric or ornamentation, and she is gathering the uncontoured forms before her, through the organization of volume with colour, into a new kind of symmetry or balance. What seems like distortion or inadequate drawing in her pictures to some people is a coherence attained through inner feeling, a kind of metaphysical aim, the mastery of nature and its use by the artist to express deep emotion. And it is clear that few artists in contemporary India have handled colour with quite the passionate joy which Amrita SherGil brought to it. And yet all these gay and bright colours are used to communicate the essential melancholy of this land and her inhabitants. In Group of Three Girls and Child Wife the colours are even brighter and the resultant sadness more poignant. For a fiery, almost searingly angry, imagination is at work, an elemental vision armed with a palette and a brush that are like fire and sword. And the curious thing is that it is precisely by eschewing obvious literary aims and concentrating on the organization of colour that Amrita has attained her imaginative aims.

The struggle to realize herself through paint dominated her and she remained an experimentalist throughout her life, waging an uncompromising war against complacence, and straining to achieve greater control over her medium. In 1936 she made pilgrimages to the shrines of Indian art. She went first to see the wall paintings of Ajanta and the nearby temple of Ellora, hewn out of rock. Then she visited Travancore and Cochin and saw the magnificent murals of the Mattancheri Palace. Her impressions of these places are characteristic. Though finding Ajanta "curiously subtle and fascinating" she thought the paintings "too involved compositionally and the details of jewellery in particular feebly painted, badly constructed." This reaction was natural from one who had made clear organization of form and colour her god. "Simply extraordinary," she exclaimed. "Dangerous stuff to take into the system unassimilated." But when she met good construction in the frescoes of the Mattancheri Palace after having seen the paintings in the Padmanabhapuram temple in Travancore, she wrote to Karl Khandalavala: "When I saw them I realized why I hadn't been colossally impressed by the ones at Travancore. I had a vague feeling that much more could be done with it than what had been done, that much greater possibilities lay in that material. And in Cochin I found that justification for that feeling. I have seldom seen such powerful drawing. It often surpasses Ajanta."

The charm and depth of the South worked on her, its rich, sensuous, intricate life with the bright colours of its flowers, the chiselled faces of its inhabitants and the grace of their garments captivated her. She wanted to stay and paint. She did actually settle down for a few days at Cape Comorin and executed the picture called Friut Vendors, the first superb result of the pilgrimages to the Deccan and the lower reaches of the Peninsula. For the new coherence of her draughtsmanship and brilliant colouring here seems to owe itself in part at least to Ajanta.

The harmony foreshadowed in the Fruit Vendors is more completely realized in three monumental pictures which she painted on her return to Shimla, and which she called her South Indian trilogy, namely The Bride's Toilet, The Brahmachans and South Indian Villagers Going to Market. All the elements of her makeup have here combined to render possible three of the most vital canvases which she was ever to paint in her brief life. The plastic to which she was always reducing her figures flows with a linear rhythm, itself completely one with her newly mixed colours and her profound sense of irony, the pity in her. And her grasp of objective truth seems to have been compelled by an intense, almost convalescent, tenderness much like Dostoevsky's, and she seems near enough to achieving what Cezanne wanted to attain, in the manner ofPoussin, poetic truth. As we gaze at South Indian Villagers Going to Market are we not meeting the very fatalism of India's malaise? Says Professor Dickinson, "Here is gathered no happiness, no laughter, but a brooding melancholy seems to beckon at us as we note those attenuated frames of old and young. Out of their eyes comes too that mute reproach to the god of seasons and unyielding crops." The sheer strain of working on the South Indian trilogy exhausted her. She had explored a new line of approach to her objectives in these pictures. So we find her now doing a series of small canvases, beginning with Women in Red and embracing Siesta, The Story Teller, Ganesh Puja, Elephants Bathing in a Green Pool and Hill Scene, before she left for Hungary in June 1938 to marry her cousin Dr Victor Egan.

In this phase other development Amrita SherGil was obviously influenced by the Basohli paintings, which she knew well from Karl Khandalavala's collection and from the Lahore Museum, as well as by the Kangra Kalam and the Mughal miniatures. Colour is more intensely the hero of her work of this period than ever before. "I cannot control my appetite for colour," she said to her friend, "and I wonder if I ever will." About the particular way in which she used colour in these pictures she wrote: "I have tried, though it is very difficult, to give all the figures... the flat relief (I am avoiding volume) of card board figurines pasted into canvas. And also of obtaining my effects of colourless by play oftighrand shade, though they are all openair things, than by the enamelled translucidity of the pate itself."

Although comparatively small, the canvases of this period are still in the mural tradition. And it is not surprising that she should choose to assimilate the intense colouring of Basohli with the Kangra designs, because the latter are mostly a reduced fresco style and not illustrative miniatures as Mughal paintings generally are. But whatever the influences which she lived with and whatever environment she chose to paint in, whether Shimla or Saraya, Amrita SherGil was always concerned to make a synthesis. During her visits abroad she painted some canvases in Hungary which, though in the European genre and not admitted by Mr Khandalavala in the Indian canon, are extremely interesting, because they reveal an unerring sense of visual relatedness in the midst of a phenomenon different from India and yet intimately connected both with Amrita's early childhood impressions and the preoccupation with paint which she derived from her Western inheritance.

The war broke out after her return to India in the summer of 1939. She painted very little in the atmosphere of uncertainty which prevailed, except Resting, which Mr Khandalavala rightly considers "one other finest achievements for its sheer colour beauty," with its gaily clad females, each a gentle flower among the natural flowers. But when Amrita settled down in the village of Saraya, where her husband was appointed medical officer at her uncle's sugar mill, she was conscious of a new phase in her work. "Another period of transition is approaching. One of greater reflection, of more conscious painting, more observation and more stylization in the sense of nature."

Elephant Promenade, The Swing, Horse and Groom, Ancient Story Teller, Woman Resting on a Charpoy, Haldi Grinders, and Camels show her experimenting with compositions more derivative from the Kangra and Mughal paintings than any of her previous work, but there is a new brightness, a new precision and a new simplicity here, without the atmosphere of a sad, elfin music, the hallmark of her tender sensibility.

When she returned from Paris in 1935, renaissance style of art fostered by the Bengal school held sway in India. Her own source of inspiration, medium and form had little in common with the Bengal school exponents of which depicted the gods and goddesses in water colour (wash method) in a strictly twodimensional form, whereas Amrita interpreted contemporary life in oils using chiaroscuro, linearaerial perspective, and other modelling derives to represent threedimensional reality. Unlike the Bengal school which painted "Bharat Mata" (personification of Mother India) giving her an anthropomorphic form, she portrayed "Mother India" as an aged, forlorn woman with an anaemic son on her lap and a sickly daughter seated next to her. This is how Amrita pictured her country in British thraldom.

In the final analysis Amrita seems to have been concerned in her art with redressing the balance of certainty and restating basic truths about human nature, human folly, and human inadequacy, about the pain and pleasure of the creative act, and about suffering and the joy of being. She developed a unique style of painting, maintaining a mysterious harmony of idea, perception and visual image. She rejected verisimilitude and refused to reproduce a mirrorimage of an actual scene and turned from an empirical to a conceptual method of representation. Her stylistic implications and colour harmonies introduced a new trend in Indian painting.

To quote Rudy von Leiden:

Art in India was never the same after her cometlike appearance.There are only a few moments in the history of art which pinpoint a new departure, a new direction. Such a moment in the history of modern Indian art was the appearance in the midthirties of Amrita SherGil with whose paintings contemporary painting in India took shape and demonstrated the possibility of a contemporary style and expression that were, at the same time, of the soil and in direct continuation of the great national past.


External links





1. N. Iqbal Singh, Amrita Sber-gil: A Biography. Delhi, 1984 2. Khandalavala, Karl, Amrita Sher-gil. Bombay, 1944 3. Muggeridge, Malcolm, Chronicles of Wasted Times: The Infernal Grove. London, 1973 4. Wojtilla, Gyula, Amrita Sher-gil and Hungary. Delhi, 1981