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Mainstream, VOL LII No 12, March 15, 2014

Amrita Sher-Gil

Saturday 15 March 2014, by Anees Chishti


Renowned artist Amrita Sher-Gil’s birth centenary took place last year. She was born on January 30, 1913 and passed away on December 5, 1941. The following tribute, by noted writer Anees Chishti (editor of the periodical, Alp-jan), who was then associated with Mainstream, appeared in this journal’s February 22, 1964 issue, precisely fifty years ago. )]

She came, she created and became immortal. This is how the brilliant painting career of Amrita Sher-Gil can be described in brief.

The appearance of an illustrious girl on the painting scene of India and her sudden rise to get a place in the sun was unthinkable. This task was all the more arduous because when Amrita took to painting, India was experiencing a unique revival of art in the name of Bengal Renaissance.

Yet her ebullient naure and capacity to work hard helped her in achieving a prominent place among our all-time greats and her brilliant canvases have been enshrined for ever in the hearts and minds of the art-loving world.

The Bengal Renaisance, which started with Havel’s interest in Indian art, produced a leader in Abanindra Nath Tagore and reached its cul-minating point when painters like Gaganendra Nath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Venkatappa and Jamini Roy voted for the then accepted thesis—rejection of Western influence upon Indian culture, undermining the effects of newly sprung-up schools with English principals.

The painters of this group brought forth an undoubtedly remarkable crop of creations. But those who followed them were hardly impre-ssive. They tried to imitate their pred-ecessors. They grasped the techinque of the leaders but failed to catch the spirit. The result was a gradual, but certain, decadence.

Born of an Indian father and a Hungarian mother, Amrita was fortunate to have an unorthodox schooling. She started learning from a tutor and was, afterwards, sent to ‘Ecole do Paris’: She had some early successes at the Paris school and came to be regarded as a rising force in painting.

She was held in high esteem by her teachers and was awarded several prizes in the annual shows. Encouraged by her achievements, she decided to live and paint in Paris. In the beginning she loved her place of residence, but soon realised that Paris was not the place for her.

She regarded herself as an ‘Indian in exile’ and wanted to return to the land of her father. Her deep sense of belonging to India brought her to Simla. She was only 21 when she occupied one of her father’s summer houses there. She was convinced that Paris had given her confi-dence and she had returned a mature painter.

Amrita was deeply impressed by Gauguin’s works. People have gone so far as to call her a ‘disciple of Gauguin’. She was inspired by the French master but she never wanted to imitate him. She painted what she saw around her.

The very object of her paintings was to demonstrate the Indian way of life. She under-stood and assimilated the norms comprising the works of immortal anonymous cave pain-ters.

“Her work,” according to Karl Khandalavala, “forcibly illustrates that it is not enough to achieve a satisfactory resemblance to the art of Ajanta or that of the Rajput miniatures, nor is it enough to introduce a strong dose of Persian or Japanese motifs into one’s pictures.”

Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings at Simla strictly adhere to the Indian theme. She toured extensively and closely observed the life in the countryside. She found the village life different from what she had first imagined it to be.

She was grieved to see the poverty of the people and determined “to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness”. Three Sisters, The Little Untouchable and Child Bride are some of the works in which Amrita achieved perfection.

A marked change came in her technique when she left her hill resort and descended to the plains of South India. She visited Ajanta and studied the art of the fresco painters. She was thrilled by the new experience and felt sym-pathetic towards the people who were like the ‘subjects’ of Ajanta paintings.

She, then, painted the remarkable trilogy—Bride’s Toilet, South Indian Villagers Going to the Market and The Brahmacharis. The period which covers Amrita’s works based on South Indian themes was perhaps the most striking of her painting career. In the above three paintings she displayed an unmatched artistry and reached an artistic summit which is difficult ot conquer.

In all her creations Amrita played with pure colour. She made the value of bold and pure colour felt again after the Bengal painters had ignored this important trait of early Rajasthani and Gujarati miniatures. Drawing and design may be important ingredients of art, but basically art is “an atempt to create pleasing forms” and Amrita’s colour is a feast to the eye.

For the construction of her figures, Amrita turned to Indian Sculpture. She studied it thoroughly and learnt the art of ‘simplification of forms’ which she utilised to interpret the emotions of millions of dark skinned, ugly, humble Indians.

The private lfie of Amrita Sher-Gil was full of agony. Her last years, which she spent in the wilderness of Sarya in Gorakhpur district, were perhaps the dullest of her life.

She married a doctor—a medical practioner at Gorakhpur—and died in Lahore only a few months after her third wedding anniversary. She was then 29. She left us wondering how she could achieve so much in such a short time.

I wish someone of us got up and gave the finishing touch to the canvases which are lying incomplete due to the untimely death of the most vital force in modern Indian painting—a difficult task, indeed.