There is an impression abroad that contemporaries of a great artist, friends and associates, who knew him (or her) intimately, are likely and capable of writing the most authentic biography, the most reliable testimony and interpretation of his art and his personality. I greatly doubt this.
Granted that the testimony of one who had been intimately acquainted with an artist might be of considerable value to the future biographer, the testimony of such friends may well be one-sided, coloured by personal relationship, and lacking objectivity. As far as Amrita Sher-Gil is concerned I doubt the testimony of all who knew her intimately; I doubt my own ability to stand away detached and objectively, to sit in judgement or be balanced in my views of her. I doubt Karl Khandalavala’s testimony too, I certainly do not accept Barada Ukil’s testimony as reliable. We are all too involved. Amrita Sher-Gil was a lovely, lovable, fascinating, towering personality. It was impossible not to react emotionally to the personality of so wonderful a woman, so divinely gifted, so astonishingly versatile and so brilliant in anything that she had touched: whether it was painting or music - in which she was the equal of almost any great artist on the concert platform -- or literature, which she wrote with a facility rarely given to any but the most devoted stylist, or, say, languages, which she spoke with the ease of a born linguist. I have had the good fortune of being acquainted with some of the greatest geniuses of this age , Albert Einstein, Sylvain Levi, Sir Aurel Stein, Kodaly, Sir Thomas Arnold, Jacob Epstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and others; with none of them have I felt so emotionally involved as with Amrita Sher-Gil. It was possible not to get “involved” with Anna Pavlova, with Tamara Karsawina, to mention only two. It seems to me impossible that anyone who knew Amrita Sher-Gil would remain detached and totally objective.
As a historian of art, I have had to state this matter here frankly, painfully. Whatever follows, must be weighed accordingly. I may attempt, with the greatest effort, to be as objective as possible, especially in my evaluation of her oeuvre; and after a lapse of 22 years. I may be able to achieve some detachment. But I have known her since she was eight years of age, and my testimony is that of an eye-witness who was lost in admiration for this great and extraordinary genius.
It has often been said that the times frequently throw up a person that an age needs; that a man like Napolean Bonaparte would never have achieved, by sheer individual greatness, what he did, had his age not needed a man of his calibre. Leonardo da Vinci, it has been said, was an uomo universal in an age that admired the many-sided polyhistor, and in him the Italian Renaissance ideal found its greatest exponent.
It is perhaps, true that Amrita Sher-Gil appeared on the stage of Indian art, when she was most needed. The feeble and romantic revivalism of the Bengal School has been repeating itself for some thirty-five years and was on its dying legs; the westernization of Indian life and of art forms has been clamouring for a powerful expression, and yet the poor imitations of Western academic painting, cultivated in, e.g. the Bombay School of Art, had no message for India. News had been seeping through, often through the increasingly well printed art books, of a growing modern school in Western Europe, strangely different from the type of work suggested by Mr. Gladstone Solomon and his pupils, whose diluted impressionism Amrita Sher-Gil ranked with “tourist art” (Evolution of my Art). (She probably did not know at that time of Mr. Jamini Roy’s early works -- admirable studies in the impressionist manner).
In this period of transition, search and hesitation, the return to India of Amrita Sher-Gil was a real godsend. No one else, however gifted, could have achieved what she did, and no one else did. Had she been an Indian, pure and simple, she would have had no honour in her country as a prophet. That much forgotten pioneer, Mr. Roop Krishna of Lahore, brought back from Paris a strong modern style of painting, so totally un-understood that he emigrated from India to spend the rest of his life in London.
And had she been an altogether Western painter, Amrita She-Gil would have been rejected -- even more than she has been in her entire lifetime -- by her countrymen in India, just then in the middle of a hot strife against Western domination, fired by nationalist zeal, in deadly battle against western influences. I have heard in those days bitter and sarcastic comment against the Bombay School, and the most fervent defence of the Bengali revivalists: not for any aesthetic or artistic consideration, but purely from a nationalist angle.
But Amrita Sher-Gil was half Western, half Indian; born to become a bridge between Indian and Western art; and whilst it has become a habit to claim her as “totally Indian”, she was, in fact the miraculous marriage of Indian and Western, brought up in the discipline of Western painting, suffused in her mental make-up with Indian feeling and attitudes. Even that observant friend, Karl Khandalavala, found it necessary to “sell” Amrita Sher-Gil’s work to his fellow-Indians by emphasizing that the Hungarian element was as good as nil in Amrita (Amrita Sher-Gil, p. 45) and W.G. Archer comes to a similar conclusion (India and Modern Art, p.82). After a lapse of 22 years from her death, one may well ask: is such an apology really necessary? Would it not be more correct to stress the astonishing combination of the two strands in her make-up, the Western and the Indian? Anyone who knew her mother, that flamboyant and passionate and brilliantly gifted woman Antoinette Sher-Gil, must have realised how great a share she had in the unfolding of the talents in her two daughters, Amrita and Indira, to whom she was devoted with the fierceness of a lioness, and in whose greatness she believed with an-absorbing passion. I feel sure it is high time that the share of Antoinette Sher-Gil in the formation of her daughters should be emphatically asserted. She lived in her daughters, and she died of grief for Amrita. Not every mother takes her own life for sheer despair for the early death of a child.
Nor is it possible to minimize the paternal inheritance. Here again I have to speak with lack of detachment, for the late Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil had a decisive influence upon my own work, and I can only talk of him as a grateful and humble shishya (disciple) can about his own guru (master). Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil was a profound philosopher, a great scholar, a man of exquisite achievements; one of those rare and rich minds that could compose with equal facility poetry in Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and English; a man of vast learning and wide interests, sensitive, deep and a good man. As he lived a long number ofyearsinHungary, and the mother and the two daughters conversed at home mostly in Hungarian, he knew quite a lot of Hungarian too; and it must be reckoned as one of the many tragedies of the Sher-Gil family that this admirable linguist should have lost, towards the end of his life, the faculty of speech.
These are facts that a faithful historian ought to record and take into consideration. I should have thought that it was patently obvious that Amrita Sher-Gil inherited from both mother and father magnificent germs of talent; and that the musical and artistic sensitivity of the mother was as decisive a factor in her mental and equipment, as the poetic and scholarly wealth of her father’s mind. It is undoubtedly true that ultimately she chose India as the country where she felt most at home: this was a deliberate choice, that of a grown up girl, comparable to the choice of her mother who came to India to live here and die here; or comparable to the choice of the writer of these lines made, when he decided thirty-two years ago that he wished to live and work in India. Or comparable to the choice of Paul Gauguin who had found his paradise in Tahiti and the Marquesas.
The reference to Paul Gauguin is pertinent for more reasons that one. It is pertinent because Amrita Sher-Gil’s work has often been compared to Gauguin’s, and also because Gauguin’s style made, according to her own testimony, a deep impression on her own style.
And it is here that a basic difference between Gauguin’s attitude and Amrita’s must be brought up.
To Paul Gauguin the islands of the Pacific were an "exotic" world. He was fascinated, excited and acted by the strangeness, the lush sensuality and sensuousness, the primordial, almost paradisiacal and animal life of the exciting women in that strange" world. He was an outsider, coming from an other, alien world who had discovered in Tahiti a new and different world and life; this exotic and vastly different life excited him and enchanted him; he was happy and proud to be able to live there and to slip into the paradise of others. One might say, with much justification, that he wallowed in the sensuality that this new sensation offered.
But to Amrita Sher-Gil India was not a strange, not an exotic, not a sensuous and alien country. One half of her might have belonged to the West, but the other half belonged to India; she was no stranger surprised and enchanted by the sensuous loveliness of this country. Far from this attitude of an outsider, she recognized in India her patrimony, her own land, to which she was tied by bonds of birth and blood, a country where her father and mother had lived long before she returned to it.
It was not a sensuous excitement that comes out in her work in India, as it did in Gauguin's work in the islands; indeed, it must be noted that when she decided to marry, she married a Hungarian, not an Indian. Gauguin found happiness in marrying a Tahitian woman, and going to bed with lush and golden bodies, so often mentioned in his writings and letters : nothing of that attraction to these "golden bodies" is seen in Amrita Sher-tail's work : after all, she was brown herself, and her hair was as jet black as of any Panjabi woman. Indeed, there is little in all her work of the sensuous delight in nudes, so characteristic of Gauguin ; many of her women lying in bed are fully draped, and there is no evidence at all of Indian nude males in her oeuvre.
Nor did she find the Indian world around her to be a world of idyllic and paradisiacal happiness, as Gauguin did with Tahiti. Much deeper than Gauguin, Amrita Sher-Gil saw the true India of her days as mostly unhappy, sad, dejected, poor and even starving. Many of her simple folk are painted thin and emaciated, her women look lost and full of resignation ; the Brahmins in "The Brahmacharis" (1937) are degenerate specimens, the result of' thousands of years of intermarriage, dedicated to celibacy (a brahmachari is a celibate) and lacking sensuality. The "Woman Resting on a Charpoy" (1940) is an unpleasant specimen of the idle rich, lazing on a cot fully dressed and being fanned by a maidservant. And there is more sensuality in the nudes painted fully in Paris than in any of her work done in India. Any sensuality she had, was lived out in her private life; it never was the central concept of her painting as it was in Gauguin's.
Once this essential difference between Gauguin's attitude and Amrita's is established, the similarities between her work and that of Gauguin are reduced to formal elements.
Both believed in the simplification of forms and the elimination of unimportant detail.
Both carried on the "reduction of shadows" begun by the impressionists. Gauguin did not go much beyond Manet, as exemplified in Manet's "Enfant du troupe jouant du fifre" ("The Piper") painted as far back as 1866 ; in fact, even some of Gauguin's late works still show a powerful use of shadow, though often laid on in even, dark shades, in what you may call a "flat treatment of shadow". But as Amrita progressed, she worked her way farther and farther from naturalistic shadows, towards an imaginary treatment, all her own.
In "Hill Women' (1935) she already shows complete lack of concern with the source or direction of light, and uses shadows to create rounded forms. In' The Red Clay Elephant ( 1938), there are hardly any shadows, and what there is is purely arbitrary, intended to give depth or outline not to represent reality. In "The Red Verandah" some of the faces and all the pillars have no shadows at all and in the next year, 1939, when she paints "Resting", she has left Gauguin's treatment totally behind her: nor is there any discernible direction of light in "The Ancient Story Teller", painted in 194o. Most characteristic of this manner is "Haldi Grinders" (194o), and there is no realistic shadow used at all in "Camels" painted in 1941.
Amrita Sher-Gil has also left Gauguin's treatment of trees and plants far behind. In fact, if one wants to see the marked difference that separates her work from that of her one-time model, Gauguin, all you have to do is to compare her later work with Gauguin's in this one aspect. Take a work as late as " .and the Gold •of their Bodies", (“ ...et l'or de leur corps"), dated 1901, observe the almost impressionist handling of the tree, the way the leaves and flowers are built up of strokes, and then compare this with the manner in which Amrita creates her trees in "Haldi Grinders" or "Camels". Here is a complete abandonment of all impressionist and early expressionist manner, a fulfilment of simplification and, with it, a stylization the roots of which go back to Rajput miniature painting. These trees are stage settings; all detail, for AmritaSher-Gil,woulddistract from the monumental simplicity of her composition, would detract from the central interest. Even the grass in which the camels’ feet disappear, is a plain and hardly modulated green flat; whilst in “..l’or de leur corps” the grass has a thousand blades, some small leaves and petty wild flowers growing in their midst. This may be a little beyond Cezanne's manner, but Amrita's belongs to a different world. One is reminded of Plato's thesis that there are pure ideas in some World of Ideas; and these Sher-Gillian trees are no more real trees, of this, variegated world; they are ideas of trees -- and they make far more effective pictures.
It is true, and must be observed, that at the beginning of her Indian style Amrita Sher-Gil adopted Gauguin's striking way of introducing enormous patterns on some textile-to contrast with th lified surfaces of other elements : a Gauguinish mannerism that she gave up by 1939, perhaps the last survival being in "Resting" (1939). There is nothing of this left in her later work.
On the other hand, Amrita became fond of using absolutely pure white patches, often very small, most of her work. She used the flake white as it came out of the tube, giving diamond-like spark to small elements, as in "Elephant Promenade" 094o), or in "Camels", where the only pure white patches are a few11ents, scintillating beads on the neck of the resting camel. Alas hardly anything of this admirable manner can be seen now in any of the reproductions; nor, the more the pity, can this be seen any more in the originals, the thoroughly inexpert restoration of which, thickly covered by fast yellowing copal varnish, has destroyed the sparkling whiteness of these specks of diamond-white. This, too, may have been a reaching back to the polished white elements in Rajasthani miniatures; whether it was conscious or an atavistic turning back to ancestral attitudes, it is difficult to say.
That Amrita was out to prove that modern work, in oils, can be nearer to true ancient Indian painting than the sentimental, wishy-washy and artificial reminiscences of the Bengali school, is clear from her own writings, and she told me so herself. She was convinced, undoubtedly correctly, that her work was far more Indian in spirit than the so-called nationalist school. She pointed out that Rajasthani and Pahari painting revelled in large, plain surfaces in bold, contrast colours, and that the dipping of water colour painting in water, as constantly practised by the Bengali school, -was totally unknown to the miniaturists of the Indian schools.
It was in this direction that she was developing, and her last few works showed a tremendous striving to liberate herself of the last vestiges of Western academic training, in order to see with those fresh eyes that saw ideas, not petty detail. It is here that William Archer made a very great mistake. In his last paragraphs Archer comes to the amazing conclusion that Amrita became interested in abstract colour "viewed in-dependently of all emotional association", and that the painter "had died in 1937". Anyone who knew Amrita Sher-Gil in those days, or who is able to look at her later work with unprejudiced eyes, would come to exactly the opposite conclusion.
This is no place to write a monograph and to prove that her entire development of those five active years had been leading towards the new style she was just developing in her astonishingly powerful works of the last a three years. Amrita Sher-Gil was on the threshold of fulfilment when death snatched her away from us, at an age younger than that of Raphael. She was, it is patently obvious, incapable of viewing colour (or anything else) "independently of all emotional association" an extraordinary suggestion, based on an untenable interpretation of a few lines she wrote. To suggest that her work after 1937 was "dead" is to fly into the face of all facts. “The Red Verandah", "Resting", "The Ancient Story Teller", "Woman Resting on Charpoy" "The Swing'', "Haldi Grinders" and "Elephant Promenade" are all works done after 1937, each a masterpiece in which East and West meet miraculously, as miraculously as they net in Amrita Sher-Gil.
This great artist, the greatest individual genius in modern Indian Art, created in those astonishing six years between 1935 and 1941 a body of work that spewed clearly a line of development towards a tremendous future, a future in which she would have been able to complete this fusion of two streams of art unparalleled in the history of art, even in Japan; and when she died in 1941, her life was like an unfinished song, like a riven lute.
We shall not see the like of her again.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1964