The life of Amrita Sher-Gil: India’s Frida Kahlo
Amrita Sher-Gil was an acclaimed Hungarian-Indian artist. She has been referred to as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women of the twentieth century’ and a ‘pioneer in modern Indian art.’ Her impressive paintings are amongst the most expensive of all female Indian artists. But what do we know about her life and how she became such a prominent figure in India’s history?
Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, to parents Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann. She also had a younger sister, Indira, born a year later. Their father was a Sikh aristocrat and Sanskrit and Persian scholar. Their mother was an opera singer who came from a very wealthy family. The girls’ mother and father met during a trip Marie Antoinette made to Lahore when she had travelled to India as a companion to Princess Bamba Sutherland; the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Amrita spent much of her early life in Budapest and her artistic talents were recognised soon in her childhood years by her uncle who encouraged her to pursue her art.
When financial difficulties struck when Amrita was around eight years old, the family moved to Shimla in India. Despite being naturally artistic from a very young age, Amrita only commenced learning the art of painting officially from the age of eight. She received formal painting lessons from Major Whitmarsh and afterwards by Beven Pateman.
As well as painting, Amrita also began learning the piano and violin and by the age of nine she was an accomplished player. She and her sister would perform in concerts and act in productions at the Shimla Gaiety Theatre.
When she reached the age of 16, Amrita decided to travel to Europe to follow her artistic dreams. She attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris under the guidance of Pierre Vaillant and Lucien Simon. She then progressed her formal training at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1930 to 1934.
Amrita’s early paintings exhibited noteworthy western influences; a definite post-impressionism style. She continued to practice her skills a great deal in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. When she was 18, she wrote to her mother and was quoted as explaining: ‘I painted a few very good paintings, everybody says that I have improved immensely; even that person whose criticism in my view is most important to me — myself.’Her painting of her oil masterpiece, Young Girls, in 1932 was a pivotal moment in her career. The piece won her accolades including a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. She was the youngest ever member and the only Asian to
have ever received such recognition. When she was in Paris, one of her professors came to the conclusion that her artistic personality would be truly discovered in the east as opposed to the western style she was adopting.
Over time, Amrita was being drawn back to India – she felt as though it was where she was meant to be as a painter. So in 1934 she returned to India to continue her passion. There she met Malcolm Muggeridge who was an English journalist for The Calcutta Statesman. They embarked upon a brief affair during which she painted a portrait of him; now displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. In 1935, Malcolm travelled back to England for work and Amrita then travelled herself in 1936 at the request of art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala who encouraged her to further follow her desire for rediscovering her Indian roots. This she did by reviving traditional Indian art, being positively influenced along the way by the Mughal and Pahari Schools of Painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta.
Amrita began a tour of South India during which she produced her famous South Indian trilogy of paintings; Bride's Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market. The inspiration for the trilogy was as a result of her visit to the Ajanta Caves, where she made her concerted effort to return to classical Indian art. The trilogy revealed her zealous sense of colour along with her true empathy for her Indian subjects, who she often depicted in both poverty and despair.
The transformation in her work was evident and she realised she had found her ‘artistic mission’ which was, according to her, to express the life of Indian people through her canvas. While in Saraya, Amrita wrote to a friend: ‘I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…India belongs only to me.’ This marked the start of a new phase in her artistic endeavours; one that was decidedly different to her European phase which depicted a distinctly Hungarian slant. When Amrita was 25, she married her Hungarian cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. Victor had assisted her at least twice to obtain abortions prior to their marriage. They moved to live in her father’s family home in Gorakhpur and, at this point, she began this second phase of painting. The impact on Indian art of this phase rivalled Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of the Bengal School of Art. The ‘Calcutta Group’ of artists, which completely transformed the Indian art scene, had not get begun and didn’t in fact until 1943, and the ‘Progressive Artist’s Group’, with founders including Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Bakre, Gade, M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza began even later in 1948. However Amrita’s art was strongly influenced by the paintings of the two Tagores, Rabindranath and Abanindranath who were the pioneers of the Bengal School of Painting. Her portraits of women resembled works by Rabindranath while the use of ‘chiaroscuro’ and bright colours reflected banindranath’s influence.
Sadly, Amrita died in 1941, aged just 28. It was just days before her first planned solo show in Lahore. The cause of death was never formally established however she become seriously ill and slipped into a coma. Some blamed a failed abortion attempt and subsequent peritonitis. Amrita’s mother accused Victor of murdering her.
Amrita left behind much unfinished work. Yet in the face of her death, her legacy continued to live on. Amrita had always been drawn to the poor and deprived and her paintings reflected this in every sense. Her depiction of the plight of women has made her art truly inspirational for women in India and indeed worldwide. Nearly all her pieces of art hang at either the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi or the Lahore Museum and are viewed as symbols of India’s cultural heritage. Indeed her name lives on in Hungary also where the Indian Cultural Centre there was named in her honour. Very few of her paintings have been sold globally but those that have were sold for extremely large amounts of money.
During her life, Amrita achieved amazing things. She travelled. She was an artist. She was a reader. She was a musician. She certainly, along with her works, became regarded as one of India’s national treasures.
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