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Anything but ordinary: The life of Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941)

The use of art, as a powerful conduit for change, was the highlight of India's enthralling artist of the 20th century, Amrita Sher-Gil. It was her unique talent and fearless attitude that helped redefine India’s artistic language for years to come. Her path to recognition was paved by her dauntless will to expose the true standings of India as a country picking up its pieces from an onerous British rule, rather than ‘exotic and rich’ as perceived by the rest of the world.

Born in 1913, to Marie Antoinette Gottesmann and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, Amrita spent her tender years in Budapest, where she held up a paint brush and began stroking it across a canvas at a young age of five. Astonished by their daughter's artistic skill, Amrita’s parents left no stone unturned in exposing her to the world of art and introducing her to the diverse genres of painting. At just eleven, Amrita enrolled at Santa Annunziata art school, which was a stepping stone to her future ventures into Italian art and associations with the works of European painters like Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. Her vivid canvases are often considered a representation of the union of the east and west, predominated by a European style, displaying a distinct color pallet.

'Young Girls' - A painting by Amrita Sher-Gil (1932)

Although Europe was where Amrita’s passion for painting evoked and evolved, it was in India that she truly flourished and re-defined the course of art through her artistic advocacy for change. It is often told by those close to her, that her heart and mind longed for India, as she believed, that her true destiny as a painter lied there. And truth be told, it was in India that Amrita Sher-Gil went on to produce some of her renowned and finest work.

The rich culture and heritage of India were a perfect inspiration for Amrita’s artistic talents, allowing her to experiment and push beyond her formally established European style. She traveled far and wide, exploring the diversity of her Indian ancestry ranging from Mughal miniature art to the Ajanta Cave paintings. However, massively motivated by realism, what truly captured her mind was the lives of the people living around her. Amrita took to painting to express her empathy and convey her compassion to the underprivileged, poverty infested classes of the Indian population. And it was this humaneness within Amrita that directed her to paint some of her most terrific paintings, notably, her famous South Indian trilogy of paintings- ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmacharis’, and ‘South Indian Villagers Going to Market’. This trilogy is renowned for portraying the impoverishment that blighted much of the country and the underlying misogynistic ways of society back in the day. As time unraveled, Amrita made it her artistic quest to express the lives of the Indian people on her canvas through her knowledge on classical Indian art and her phenomenal color palette.

'Bride's Toilet'- A painting by Amrita Sher-Gil (1937)

Apart from being an avant-garde aesthete, Amrita was a rebel, unorthodox yet compelling. Born to a Sikh aristocrat father and a mother who was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer, her parents condemned her bohemian lifestyle in a hope that she would one day, live a normal life, as per the norms of society set for a woman. However, being the nonconformist that she was, Amrita married her maternal cousin Victor Egan in 1938, and commenced her married life by moving to the small village of Saraya in Uttar Pradesh. Her work post marriage, was greatly fixated on narrating rural life, which shaped the ideas for her paintings like, ‘The Famous Village Scene’, ‘In The Ladies’ Enclosure’ and ‘Siesta’.

Usually described as a life short lived, as she breathed her last at an age of just twenty-eight, under shaded circumstances, Amrita Sher-Gil still managed to leave a monumental mark through her artistic creativity and liberal views.

Although being highly acclaimed by art critics, Amrita’s work attracted only a handful of customers back in her glory days, as India was still an outwardly rigid country. Sadly, it was only after her passing, that Amrita received the true recognition she deserved, as the Government of India went on to declare Amrita Sher-Gil’s works as ‘National Art Treasures’. A documented 172 Amrita Sher-Gil paintings exist in the world today, of which 100 belong to permanent collections at museums and institutions in India, the largest of which is at the NGMA, New Delhi.

One of the most prodigious painters to have ever embellished the Indian turf, re-modelling its artistic course through exceptional talent and unconventional views, Amrita Sher-Gil will continue to be one of the greatest female pioneers in the embarked, unfinished project of Indian modernity.


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