Biographical Notes: A Film on Amrita Sher-Gil

  • B.D.Garga
  • 2310 Words

Knee-deep snow  lies on the picturesque zig-zag streets of Buda, that famous fourth -century old quaint  town of the beautiful Hungarian capital of Budapest, situated on the banks of the Danube. It is Sunday, the bright, frosty winter morning of 30 January 1913.

Such was the day that Amrita Sher-Gil came into this world. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, came of a noble family of Punjab (the family later settled down in U.P.). Her mother, Madam Antoinette Sher-Gil, an Hungarian lady of extremely artistic temperament. The war years were spent in Hungary.

Amrita Sher-Gil Portrait

After the end of hostilities, the Sher-Gils returned to India in April 1921. Their home was in Simla, on the terraced slopes of Summer Hill, and here Amrita had the education in music and drawing. She evinced a more than ordinary interest in drawing, which made her mother take her to Florence in 1924 to study at the school of Santa Annunciata. The experiment was a failure - the child resented routine - and returned to India the same year.

Thereafter, she remained in India till April 1929, residing either at Simla or the family estates of Saraya in the Gorakhpur District; the little village had a powerful influence in the development of her genius. During this period she displayed an unusual intensity of feeling in her work. It was decided that she study art in Paris.

1929 found the Sher-Gils  – mother, father, the two girls (Amrita and Indira) alighting at the Paris Gare-du-Nord at midnight. She (Amrita) commenced her studies under Pierre Vaillant at the Grand Chaumiere and later was accepted as a pupil by Lucien Simon at the Ecole Nationale de Beaux Arts. The professor thought highly of Amrita, and remarked prophetically: “one day I shall be proud that you have been my pupil.”

It was the vision of a winter in India - desolate, but strangely beautiful - of endless tracks of luminous yellow-grey land, of dark-bodied, sad-faced   incredibly thin men and women who move silently looking almost like silhouettes and over which an indefinable melancholy reigns. It was different from the India voluptuous, colourful, sunny and superficial. India so false to the tempting travel posters that I expected to see.

In 1933, her painting, 'Conversation' led to her selection as an Associate of the Grand Salon. It probably mattered much to the young painter. She was only nineteen.
The birth of an intense desire to return to India followed a new found understanding of  Cezanne and Gauguin. One indicated a way to the organization of form, and the other of colour. She was an admirer of the brilliant Modigliani, who had based his work on  negro sculpture and was familiar with the Oriental collection in the Louvre and Musee Guimet. Even while living in the Mecca of painters and sculptors, she yet longed to return to India. She knew that her great emancipation lay in the great artistic heritage of her own country. Paris equipped Amrita in the craft of painting but it had no part in the real enfoldment of her genius.

In 1934 (November), Amrita Sher-Gil left behind the cold, grey studios of Paris to return to India- the colourful land of her dreams. But what was the reality? She expressed it thus:  

I am an individualist, evolving a new technique, which though not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit. With the eternal significance   of form and colour, I interpret India, and principally the life of the Indian poor on the plane that transcends the plane of mere sentimental interest.

In the silent faces that gaze out of her canvases, in the fierce interactions of colours which expressed her longings but which she sternly organized, in the relentless austerity of form, which alone could reveal elemental truth, she saw, even imperfectly - a vision of life - not of hope , peace, or fortitude, but of stark inevitability which had crystalized into a religion.

“She never found a protecting Godhead in any form to which she could anchor her mind. By inclination she desired a sanctuary, but her intellect made her aware that it was unobtainable. In another period of time she would with visionary fervor have painted the walls of a Christian chapel or Buddhist cave, and perhaps found repose." (Karl Khandalavala)

I am personally trying to be, through the medium of line, colour and design,  an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad. But I approach the problem on a more abstract plane of the purely pictorial; not only because I am essentially a painter, but because I hate cheap emotional appeal, and I am not, therefore, a propagandist of a picture that tells a story.

In 1935 she sent 10 pictures to an exhibition of Simla Fine Arts Society, one of the oldest arts societies in India, and to exhibit there was the dream of all artists. Five out of her 10 entries were rejected, and of the accepted ones, one was awarded a prize. With her outspoken contempt for ignorance (the rejected pictures were incomparably superior to the accepted ones), she wrote to the Secretary of the Society, “ I have the honour of informing you that I decline to accept the prize awarded to me at the present exhibition… I shall be glad to waiver it in favour of some other more deserving artist, who, no doubt feel greatly honoured to receive such a distinction - and whose work would correspond more than mine does to the traditional conventionality so carefully preserved for the last sixty-three years by the judges of the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition.”

At another exhibition in Delhi, where she was awarded the Gold Medal; “Needless to say that the prize was awarded to the weakest of the five pictures I sent in… from which you can perceive I have no illusions.”

…”No more these horrid things.. (meaning exhibitions)

Her parents resided in Simla, and there in a studio in the garden of her house, she worked on picture after picture after her return from Europe. It was a period of intense struggle to formulate and express her aesthetic vision, and was marked mostly by mediocrity or failure, save for the two powerful canvasses ‘Hill Men' and 'Hill Women', which disclosed the full stature of her genius. Also to this period  belong ‘Composition', the beautiful, if less intense, ‘Group of Three Girls’ and ‘Child Wife’. ('Man in the White' and 'Mother India' were painted a little earlier).

In 1936, she visited Ajanta and the South. In the dimly lit viharas and chaityas, where the sun’s rays reveal the supreme vision of the Gupta masters, she encountered the most profound aesthetic experience of her short life. “Ellora Magnificent!. Ajanta curiously subtle and fascinating… Dangerous stuff to take into the system  unassimilated.”

She also visited Cochin and Travancore. She visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace to see the medieval frescoes. She did not quite know what to think of them. But her reactions to the Cochin frescoes at the Mattanchari Palace were very different and she made several sketches and she observed them with care. “I have seldom seen such powerful drawing. It often surpasses Ajanta. Curiously enough most of the panels depict erotic scenes. And there is a row of goddesses, great fat women in the act of giving birth depicted with utmost candour. Simply superb.”

At Trivandrum, she saws for the first time the art of Kathakali: “Grotesque and subtle at the same time.”

At Cape Comorin she felt an urge to paint, and here she stayed for several days working on the brilliantly conceived ‘Fruit Vendors’.

The new understanding that she had  derived from her aesthetic experience in the south began to be worked out on canvas and resulted in the three paintings which represent her grandest achievement - 'The Bride’s Toilet', 'The Brahmacharis', and 'South Indian Villagers Going to the Market’. Her 'South Indian trilogy', as she called them.

'Women in Red', painted in 1938 is a canvas of much smaller proportions. It is the last of her noteworthy works in which the influences of this phase, are markedly present, though it is dis-similar in conception to the Trilogy.

The vision that Ajanta had given her was never lost, though, with the passage of time, it underwent changes of singular beauty.

She was entranced by the images of the Basholi School. Their almost savage intensity and voluptuous joy in sheer colour, were to her like an extravagant fairytale to a child. Two little canvasses, 'Siesta', which is almost a fantasy, and 'The Story Teller', with its gem like beauty, bear unmistakably the impress of that experience.
'Hill Scene' and 'Elephant Bathing in a Green Pool' were painted in Saraya.

In 1938, she left for Hungary to marry her cousin D.Victor Egan. Before leaving, she wrote, “When I go to Hungary, I shall take up sculpture. I don’t think I shall paint at all in Europe. I can only paint in India. Elsewhere I am not natural,  I have no self -confidence. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.”

She did paint a few pictures in Hungary. But  limited her work to Hungarian scenes. Painting was her very existence and though she was aware that her work in Europe was far removed in emotional content from her Indian canvasses, her intellectual processes eternally craved for experiment in form and colour.

She returned to India in July 1939 with her husband. War clouds were looming over Europe again.

Till the November of that year she stayed at Simla and also for a short time at Delhi with her sister Indira. She was in a somewhat restless state of mind due to the war and uncertainty of her own plans. She did not paint  very much  at Simla but Resting one of her finest achievements  of colour and beauty.

Once again she went back to the village of Saraya, which always had a strange, emotional effect on her. She sensed that her work was already undergoing another phase of development. It was to be the last phase. “Another period of transition is approaching. One of greater reflection, of more conscious painting, more observation, and more stylization in the sense of nature.”

Her work in Saraya (discloses a sensitive analysis of the superb Mughal portraiture aznd the early Rajasthani paintings) - 'Elephant Promanade', 'The Swing', 'The Horse and Groom', 'The Ancient Story Teller', 'Woman Resting on Charpoy', 'The Haldi Grinders', 'Camels', and 'Resting'.

A most notable feature of her work in Saraya was the constant fascination which the elephants in the village exercised on her. The Indian sculptor and painter - from earliest times when fervent hands raised the rails of Barhut and Sanch - has always displayed a predilection for the majestic form and ponderous slow rhythm of the giant lords of the forest. It was a heritage manifesting itself in her and attuned to her aesthetic vision.

She was working very hard at Saraya. “I can’t waste time”, as if she was vaguely aware that she had been given but a short span to fulfill a certain destiny.
“How dismal to be so completely misunderstood. When at long last I am learning restraint and discrimination and achieving the subtlety my work had till recently so glaringly lacked.”

“I am starving for appreciation, literally famished. My work is understood and liked, less and less as time goes on.”

She loved Saraya, but as the months slipped by, she grew restless. There was a sense of desolation creeping on her. She brooded at times on the lack of understanding shown for her work and the confidence in herself was only sustained by her devotion.

In September 1941, alongwith her husband, she moved to Lahore, never to return to the little village where elephants bathe at noon in a green pool. In Lahore, she painted Camels and the last unfinished canvas,  which even in its incomplete state, with its wonderfully delineated  group of buffaloes and masses of hot colour, is full of beauty.

She enthusiastically planned  an exhibition in Lahore for early December. But the vague premonition that came to her in Saraya persisted. “I can’t waste time”, she had said then.

On 3rd December she was taken ill. Her condition rapidly worsened and on 5th December at midnight she passed away.

She had wanted to paint a funeral procession and on the cover of her last sketch is a bier going to the cremation ground.

Her ashes were cast into the river Ravi.


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