The Story of Indian Art #5: Amrita Sher-Gil

Considered to be India's Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil was heavily influenced by Realism, and strived to portray the lives of people living within her local community.

Last month, India feted some of the country’s strongest women and their stellar performances at the Rio Olympics. This month, keeping with the flavour of August, we thought it might be a good idea to shine the light on one of undivided India’s most charismatic and powerful female painters. Let’s meet Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941)

Amrita Sher-Gil in a nutshell

She was considered to be India’s Frida Kahlo – a Mexican painter known for her self-portraits – and played an important role in 20th century India. Heavily influenced by Realism, Sher-Gil strived to portray the lives of people living within her local community.

At a glance

She was born in Budapest, Hungary on 30 January 1913 and died on 05 December 1941 in Lahore. She was the daughter of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia and Marie Antoniette Gottesmann. Amrita began painting by herself as a five year old. Seeing her precocious talent, her parents arranged for her to have lessons. When Amrita was a teenager, her mother took her to Europe to expose Amrita to various genres of paintings. In 1924, Amrita enrolled at Santa Annunziata, an art school. Here she was exposed to works of Italian art. Later, she also went to Paris to train as a painter at Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1930 to 1934, where she became acquainted with the works of European painters like Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. The confluence of East and West is evident in her vibrant canvases. The evolution of her unique style is mirrored through her paintings, influenced by Impressionist and ‘European’ style, they are characterised by an exceptional colour palette filled with unbridled and bold colour. Although her life was short-lived, Sher-Gil has left a compelling body of work behind and is today considered one of the foremost female artists of the century.

Three Girls (1938)

Significantly speaking

She painted her first major work, ‘Young Girls’ in 1932, for which she was elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. Thus, she became the only Asian to have received this honour. While she was making waves in Europe in 1934, she felt compelled to return to India. She did so and began to acquaint herself with the traditional forms of Indian art. From this point on, her work was influenced by Mughal and Pahari schools of paintings. In 1937 she toured South Asia and produced some remarkable paintings, including ‘Bride’s Toilet’ that depicted a bride getting ready for her wedding, ‘Brahmacharis’, and ‘South Indian Villagers Going to Market’, which completed her south Indian trilogy.

Bhramacharis (1937)

The nature of her work

Sher-Gil showed a strong empathy and deep engagement for her Indian subjects and depicted the poverty which blighted much of her country. Her south Indian trilogy vividly conveys her compassion for the underprivileged. Influenced by her surroundings and experiences, her paintings are eloquent symbols of the human condition, and clearly demonstrate her deep desire to express the lives of Indian people through her work. This marks a significant point in her artistic development, where she engaged with the rhythms of rural life in India, appropriating a way of life which was antithetical to her own.

Tribal Women (1938)

Marriage, Lahore and the beyond

In 1938 Amrita married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan and lived with him in her parental home in Uttar Pradesh, India. By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one and Amrita had numerous love affairs with both men and women. In 1941, the couple moved to Lahore in 1941, as it was a major artistic hub in those days. She was supposed to open her first major solo show in the city before Amrita fell seriously ill, went into a coma, and died all of a sudden. She was just 28. Though the cause of her death was never investigated or ascertained, her mother suspected Victor of murdering her.

Parting shot by Amrita Sher-Gil

“Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realized that a fresco from Ajanta…is worth more than the whole Renaissance!”

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Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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