Remembering an enigma called Amrita

Art exhibit

Amrita Sher-Gil has always been an enigma in the history of art in India. A girl born to an aristocratic Sikh father and a Hungarian mother in the 1930s, rich to the point of being ‘spoilt,’ a beauty who enjoyed count­less affairs with both men and women - Amrita finally registered herself in history as the artist whose corpus of work is now regarded as ‘Indian national treasure.’ And all of this, in barely 28 years of existence.

The National Gallery of Modern Art is now unravelling the various layers of Amrita’s life, personality and work in a spectacular exhibition titled ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: The Passionate Quest.’ In a never-before-seen display, NGMA has mounted its entire collection of Amrita’s paintings (over 100) on the occasion
of ‘closing of her birth centenary celebrations.’

Accompanying the artworks are explanatory notes, texts drawn from her personal diary (provided by nephew Vivan Sundaram), quotations from her biographer N Iqbal Singh and art historians Partha Mitter and Deepak Ananth. There are even
some stunning photographs of a young Amrita from
the collection of curator Yashodhara Dalmia.

The display has been wisely divided into four sections tracing her journey from India to Paris and then back, and the simultaneous evolution of her art. Amrita started painting at the age of eight. It is notable that she was expelled from her school in Shimla for painting a nude and then refusing to withdraw it.

The first section ‘Threshold’ has paintings of several nudes – both men and women, portraits of friends and ‘professionals’ who modelled for
her and the almost captivating self-portraits. This includes the well-known 1930, Oil on Canvas, where she has portrayed herself as a vivacious woman in a low-cut gown. All of these were accomplished in Paris where she had moved at the age of 16 to study art at the premiere École des Beaux-Arts.

The sections ‘Icon And Iconoclastic’ and ‘Hungarian Manifestation’ include more work from her days in Europe. Amrita had started to sketch Parisian sex-workers. Remarkably, these nude portraits betray not a hint of voyeurism but a telling sympathy towards their condition. A famous portrait she made of a prostitute haunts the viewer with the subject’s hollow, expressionless eyes and limp breasts – a commentary on her exploitation.

The Indian Journey is another very significant section of her work. After she insisted on returning to India “in search of new inspiration” in 1934, she actively started studying various Indian art forms. She toured Ajanta and Ellora, South India, rummaged through Pahari, Rajput and the Mughal Miniature paintings and absorbed them in her own aesthetics.

The products were the highly-regarded Group of Three Girls, Mother India, Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, Two Elephants and several more. Again, the way she portrayed Indian women – fully-clothed, demure and downward gazed – brought out the sensitive artist in her. It is often said that her paintings of Indian villages were once considered by the Indian National Congress to use in their election campaigns.

Amrita died an untimely death – many say, from infection from a previous abortion or a sexually-transmitted disease which had no cure then. But her artwork and her correspondence with friends and fellow artists show her as a highly intelligent woman devoted to art and searching for an identity in it. Her life, possibly, cannot be better documented than this exhibition.

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