Sunday, January 4, 2009

Hamari Amrita

(Father Daughter :one of the photograph from Vivan Sundaram's A Retake on Amrita 2001,NGMA)
I am not an art critic and except few well known Indian painters and of course some masters of world fame (Picasso e.g.) I don’t even know names of other artists.I still like Raja Ravi Verma’s ‘calendar art’ much more than the abstract paintings of modern times.Jamini Roy and M.R Chugtai's delicate lines go fine with me and I am ashamed to accept that I could not decipher Picasso's cubism. I like visiting National Gallery of Modern Art(Delhi) or Jahangir Art Gallery (Mumbai) or Jaganmohini Art Gallery(Mysore) just because of the ambiance. Without any claim of knowledge of her works, today I am going to write about a painter whose personality or may be her legend fascinates me . But first the reason of my doing so.

Hill women

Last week I shifted to a new office chamber and found her beautiful painting of Indian scholars (titled ‘The Brahmcharis’) decorating the wall behind my table. With the new year setting it and many people availing their leave , for last three days I had little work load and I happened to stare at this painting for long . The same painting decorated my room in IIMC long back (courtesy my room mate ). Just out of curiosity I started reading about Amrita Sher-gill on net . I was so moved by what I read that I decided to visit NGMA once again just to look at her paintings , this time with little bit more technical knowledge . I am fascinated by the painter’s life despite all her snobbish details(well, may be because of it only ) and am impressed by her art much more than ever. More than this, at NGMA I got to see some digitally modified photographs of hers created by her nephew Vivan Sundarm . She was definitely very stylish and very striking in her looks .Her short lived but charming story , with such lust for life (a la Irwin Stone ) is supposed to have inspired the character of the female painter in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh .
Considering that I have an inclination to romanticize short lived , controversially lived lives of proud/egoist individuals, Amrita had all elements for my liking. Young dead have kind of halo around themselves, its kind of a mystery "what if they had lived longer than they did?".
Its like imagining their life that never happened with help of the limited years they lived .(On deeper thoughts I find probably this is the reason why I like Sanskrit prose writer Banbhatta, scholar Pandita Rama Bai , Rudyard Kipling, Marie Stopes and many characters in the books I read.) In case of Amrita Sher-gill, I found another point of interest too -Shimla . The city of Shimla played a pivotal role in Amrita’s life. Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, was from a Sikh family of Majitha village in Amritsar. He was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar. Her mother, Marie Antoinette, was Hungarian with some Jewish blood and had come to Shimla where she married Umrao Singh, who also happened to be there. This couple then went to Budapest where Amrita was born on January 30, 1913. In the March of 1914 came her sister Indira.
The Sher-Gil family sailed for India early in 1921 to settle at The Holme at Summer Hill. It has a cozy looking outhouse where Amrita did most of her painting and had named it The Studio. Amrita had started learning the piano and violin and at the age of nine had played in a pantomime Pan and the Little Girl at The Gaiety. She was enrolled in a convent school in Shimla but none of the convents today call her alumni because she openly denounced all religious practices using derogatory words against the Roman Catholics. The Mother Superior had expelled her from school. As a young girl, she had a grouse against her parents too that they loved her sister more and her less because she was ugly and had a squint. This ugly duckling , was to turn out an immensely talented painter and also a sizzler, glamorous and well.. even promiscuous young lady in her youth . Some of her affairs and flings with well known personalities added to the glamour of her own looks.The most glamorous part of her personality however, was the magic she could create on canvas. Hers was a very cosmopolitan family and once the family recognized Amrita's exceptional talent of painting , they made it possible for her to go to Paris for a time, where, at just 16, she started to study at the École des Beaux Arts and soon took part in the Bohemian scene there. From the beginning, nudes, portraits and still lives were her favored genres.
At 16 ,she was already famous and her stay in Paris from 1929 to 1934 earned her more fame . She was nominated Associate of the Grand Salon, a rare honour. Returning to India , she found her real artistic mission to ‘interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians, pictorially’ because they are ‘strangely beautiful in their ugliness’. Haughty, as she was, she not only rejected a prize given to her by Simla Fine Arts Society in 1935 but also wrote a petulant letter to them.
I adore her use of colours and can understand why a professor of hers in Europe commented that she was "not really in her element in the grey studios of the West." She painted India in very Indian colours -vibrant, glowing and intense.Her paintings on Hill Men and Hill Women, The Three Sisters and many others are very much framed in their background.The plasticity and inertia of her figures, their grace and the ephemeral contact with which they graze each other, reveal how strongly Amrita Sher-Gil was impressed by early Indian sculpture. In 1936 she embarked on an extensive voyage through the country that lead her, among other places, to the Buddhist cliff paintings of Ajanta . The south Indian frescoes of Mattancheri as well as the medieval Moghul and Rajput miniature paintings of northern India were, for Amrita Sher-Gil, also a kind of artistic revelation.
This beautiful life ended quite abruptly . Amrita married her maternal cousin Dr Victor Egan in 1938 and died a mysterious death in Lahore on December 3, 1941 – perhaps of dysentery or peritonitis or a botched abortion. Her mother was also found floating dead in the swimming pool one day and since then the pool at The Holme has been converted into a tennis court and later on in a park. I passed by this house at summer hill several times and it was known to me that this belongs to her family but I never thought of taking a look inside more carefully. I must do it on my next visit to Shimla.
Now after doing my little research(I do intend to read one of her biographies soon ) , I was pondering on the question whether the fact of her unconventional life and death is a major reason of my interest in her ? The truthful answer is –yes. I am also going to be one of those who see her art in the wake of her legend. Well,I am also charmed by her use of rich earthen colours, her unusual way of painting oval shaped faces and her self portraits but after all as I said in the beginning , I am not an art critic.


k said...

Your piece is so well written that I'm going to read up a little more on Amrita Sher-Gill.... I have always wondered about The Legend of Amrita Sher-Gill vis-a-vis her art as well her life....and hope to read enough to be able to decide if one leads to the other. keep it up: KN

PARUL said...

hey..i came across ur entry sometime ago.took me sometime to respond as i was finishing my paper on Amrita and Vivan Sundaram's work..but here i am,trying to get back to wat i decided to do.
i have been a big fan of amrita since my schooldays n the madness and fascination for her since then has only has always been her life that has been more fascinating for ppl and then her work,art and style.
u can read her biography by N iqbal or Y Dalmia.khushwant singh has also mentioned her in his biogaphy,truth...malice towards allits called..if u are interested i cud share a couple of my papers i hav written oh her,altho strictly they have been academic in content as im a research student.


Bhakti said...

hey, can you help with analysis of Amrita Shergills 'young girls' and 'Hill Women'