Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913 – 5 December 1941), was an eminent Indian painter born to a Punjabi Sikh father and a Hungarian Jewish mother, sometimes known as India’s Frida Kahlo, and today considered an important woman painter of 20th century India, whose legacy stands at par with that of the Masters of Bengal Renaissance; she is also the ‘most expensive’ woman painter of India.
Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest, Hungary to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a scholar in Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoniette Gottesmann, a Jewish opera singer from Hungary. Her mother came to India as a companion of Princess Bamba Sutherland. Sher-Gil was the elder of two daughters born. Her younger sister was Indira Sundaram (née Sher-Gil), mother of the contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram. She spent most of early childhood in Budapest. She was the niece of Indologist Ervin Baktay. He guided her by critiquing her work and gave her an academic foundation to grow on. He also instructed her to use servants as models. The memories of these models would eventually lead to her return to India.
In 1921 her family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla in India, and soon began learning piano and violin, and by age in nine she along with her younger sister Indira were giving concerts and acting in plays at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre at Mall Road, Shimla. Though she was already painting since the age of five she formally started learning painting at age eight.
In 1923, Marie came to know an Italian sculptor, who was living at Shimla at the time and in 1924 when he returned to Italy, she too moved to Italy along with Amrita and got her enrolled at Santa Annunziata, an art school at Florence. Though Amrita didn’t stay at this school for long, and returned to India in 1924, it was here that she was exposed to works of Italian masters.
At sixteen, Sher-Gil sailed to Europe with her mother to train as a painter at Paris, first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and Lucien Simon and later at École des Beaux-Arts (1930–34), she drew inspiration from European painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin,while coming under the influence of her teacher Lucien Simon and the company of artist friends and lovers like Boris Tazlitsky.
Her early paintings display a significant influence of the Western modes of painting, especially as practiced in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. In 1932, she made her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition.
In 1934, while in Europe she “began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter”, as she later wrote about her return to India the same year. She began a quest for the rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death. It was also during this period that she pursued an affair with Malcolm Muggeridge.
She stayed at their family home at Summer Hill, Shimla, for a while, before leaving for travel, in 1936, at the behest of an art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala, who encouraged her to pursue her passion for discovering her Indian roots.She was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta.
Later in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy of paintings Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market following her visit to the Ajanta caves, when she made a conscious attempt to return to classical Indian art. These paintings reveal her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair.
By now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her ‘artistic mission’ which was, according to her, to express the life of Indian people through her canvas. While in Saraya Sher-Gil wrote to a friend thus: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me”. Her stay in India marks the beginning of a new phase in her artistic development, one that was distinct from European phase of the interwar years when her work showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya school of painting.
Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan in 1938 and moved with him to India to stay at her paternal family’s home in Saraya in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Thus began her second phase of painting which equals in its impact on Indian art with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of the Bengal school of art. The ‘Calcutta Group’ of artists, which transformed the Indian art scene in a big way, was to start only in 1943, and the ‘Progressive Artist’s Group’, with Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Bakre, Gade, M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza among its founders, lay further ahead in 1948. 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 resemble works by Rabindranath while the use of ‘chiaroscuro’ and bright colours reflect the influence of Abanindranath.
It was during her stay at Saraya that she painted the Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure and Siesta all of which portray the leisurely rhythms of life in rural India. Siesta and In the Ladies’ Enclosure reflect her experimentation with the miniature school of painting while Village Scene reflects influences of the Pahari school of painting. Although acclaimed by art critics Karl Khandalavala in Bombay and Charles Fabri in Lahore as the greatest painter of the century, Amrita’s paintings found few buyers. She travelled across India with her paintings but the Nawab Salar Jung of Hyderabad returned them and the Maharaja of Mysore chose Ravi Varma’s paintings over hers.
Although from a family that was closely tied to the British Raj, Amrita herself was a Congress sympathiser. She was attracted to the poor, distressed and the deprived and her paintings of Indian villagers and women are a meditative reflection of their condition.
She was also attracted by Gandhi’s philosophy and lifestyle. Nehru was charmed by her beauty and talent and when he went to Gorakhpur in October 1940, he visited her at Saraya. Her paintings were at one stage even considered for use in the Congress propaganda for village reconstruction.
In September 1941, Victor and Amrita moved to Lahore, then in undivided India and a major cultural and artistic centre. She lived and painted at 23 Ganga Ram Mansions, The Mall, Lahore where her studio was on the top floor of the townhouse she inhabited. Amrita was known for her many affairs with both men and women and many of the latter she also painted. Her work Two Women is thought to be a painting of herself and her lover Marie Louise.
In 1941, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, she became seriously ill and slipped into a coma, and later died around midnight on 6 December 1941, leaving behind a large volume of work, and the real reason for her death has never been ascertained.
A failed abortion and subsequent peritonitis have been suggested as possible causes for her death. Her mother accused her doctor husband Victor of having murdered her. However, the day after her death England declared war on Hungary and Victor was sent to jail as a national enemy. Amrita was cremated on 7 December 1941 at Lahore.
Sher-Gil’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad.
The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. A postage stamp depicting her painting ‘Hill Women’ was released in 1978 by India Post, and the Amrita Shergill Marg is a road in Lutyens’ Delhi named after her. In 2006, her painting Village Scene sold for INR6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi which was at the time the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India.
Besides remaining an inspiration to many a contemporary Indian artists, in 1993, she also became the inspiration behind, the famous Urdu play, by Javed Siddiqi, Tumhari Amrita (1992), starring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh.
Her work is a key theme in the contemporary Indian novel “Faking It” by Amrita Chowdhury. Aurora Zogoiby, a character in Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” was inspired by Sher-Gil.