Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 53, 1982, p. 47-59

When Amrita Sher-Gil returned to India in 1934, after many years’ sojourn in Paris, where she had learnt to paint and had already achieved international fame as a painter, the arts in India, particularly painting and sculpture, were in a state of real decay. The late Dr. Charles Fabri, the art critic, described the scene obtaining in the early thirties in these words: “The situation of the art in India….was entirely directionless…. On the one hand, we had here a half-dying art of sentimental painting in water colours, reminiscent of Edmund Dulac. Weak, ill-drawn paintings of no merit, based on the worst period of ancient miniature and mural paintings, soft and dripping with mawkish sentiment. On the one hand, the Government of schools of art imparted a watered down variety of academic impressionism….. This soulless, imitative, episodic art did not know where it wanted to go.

Strong words these, but Amrita Sher-Gil’s own reaction was no less astringent. The Bengal School had been hailed as the “Renaissance of Indian Painting.” According to her, this school had come to be known as such “more on grounds of priority than of merit, for in spite of its illustrious antecedents in Ajanta and the equally admirable later schools of Indian miniature painting, which the Bengal movement strives to emulate, it cannot claim to have captured the spirit of Indian art of bygone days.” She went on to add that “far from fulfilling its vast ambition, this school is responsible for the stagnation that characterizes Indian painting today. The tenets of the Bengal School seem to have a cramping and crippling effect on the creative spirit.”

She was also very sad to see the state of Indian sculpture, because, as she put it, “…though the ancient sculpture of this land ranks with the very greatest every produced any civilization, it is a strange and depressing fact that sculpture in India in our day is practically non-existent. Measuring the success of their work by the degree of technical skill achieved in the imitation of the outmoded, decadent, academic sculpture of the West. Indian sculptors remain stationary and stagnate instead of attempting to contribute something original to the art of their country. Indian sculpture, therefore, has not yet evolved any characteristic, individual form.”

So what did Amrita, who, in the worlds of another art critic, Rudy Von Leyden, was already “a matured talent and a personality with deep flowing emotional resources” set out to achieve. She described her artistic mission thus: “To interpret the life of Indians, particularly the poor Indians, pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness; to reproduce on canvas the impression their sad eyes created on me; to interpret them with a new technique, my own technique that transfers what might otherwise appeal on a plane that is emotionally cheap to the plane which transcends it, and yet conveys something to the spectator, who is aesthetically sensitive enough to receive the sensation.” How far she succeeded in what she set out to achieve is now no longer a matter of conjecture, or even opinion, but of history.

Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest in Hungary on the 30th of January 1913, the daughter of Sikh father and a Hungarian mother who was later known as Madame Sher-Gil because she decided not to use the Majithia caste name as her surname. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia, belonged to the well known Majithia clan. Umrao Singh’s father was a renowned warrior. He first fought with the Sikhs against the British and later fought on the British side who showered him with honours and awards. He was given the title of a Raja and was given lands and estates in the Punjab and in Uttar Pradesh. Umrao Singh’s brother, Sir Sundar Singh Majithia, who was a Minister in the erstwhile Punjab for many years, consolidated his land and holdings and set up sugar factories in Saraya in Gorakhpur district, where Amrita was to live off and on for many years and paint many a memorable canvas.

Her father, Umrao Singh, was a man of philosophical bent. He became a great scholar of Sanskrit and Persian and made a study of philosophy and religions. In addition he dabbled in astronomy, and spoke five languages with ease. Interestingly enough, his two hobbies, besides his scholarly pursuits, were carpentry and photography. Amrita’s mother, Marie Antoinette, was an accomplished musician and an opera singer of repute. She first came out to India in 1911 as a companion to Princess Bamba, daughter of Maharaja Dalip Singh, the last Sikh ruler, and a granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The handsome and aristocratic Umrao Singh met the charming, and beautiful Marie Antoniette at a party in Simla. They fell in love and decided to get married. Soon after their marriage they left for Budapest, where Amrita Sher-Gil was born.

Because of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe during the First World War, Amrita’s parents were stranded in Europe, and she spent the first eight years of her life in Hungary. I once asked Amrita if she could remember when she had started to paint. Her answer was a categorical one, namely, that she had always painted. Victor Egan, her first cousin who had grown up with Amrita, and whom she later married, said that even as a little child Amrita used to draw constantly. She would use envelopes and other bits of paper, even toilet paper, to draw and paint and would even sketch and paint on the walls. Amrita had no use for toys but loved coloured pencils and paint boxes. Perhaps her talent was inherited, for in her mother’s family there had been quite a few artists.

Amrita set foot on Indian soil for the first time in 1921. The family settled in Simla where she and her younger sister, Indira, (the late Mrs. KVK Sundaram,) began their early education. It was the sort of education which the children of aristocratic parents used to be given at that time. It included some music and drawing, and even at that young age -- she was only eight -- Amrita showed an unusual interest in drawing and painting. Both the sisters were very good at music; they learnt to play the piano and the violin and even appeared in concerts at Simla’s once famous Gaiety Theatre. But since Amrita appeared to be passionately devoted to painting and drawing, one Major Whitmarsh was a conventional art teacher who made her draw the same subject again and again. She hated that, and told her mother that it was a complete waste of time. So major Whitmarsh was dismissed. Her next teacher was Hal Bevan Petman, and Englishman, who could only be described as a fashionable socialite painter and who loved to make portraits in pastels, of fashionable young ladies. Bevan Petman however was obviously a man of perception. He once told me that it was actually he who told MadameSher-Gil that Amrita appeared to possess unusual talent and she should be given proper training, preferably in Europe. Consequently, Amrita was taken to Florence in Italy. This was in 1924, and Amrita was admitted into the School of Santa Annunciate. Amrita disliked immensely the orthodox discipline of this institution. In less than six months, she rebelled, and was expelled, Why? Because she was found drawing nude women.

Amrita returned to India. From then until 1929, she spent most of her time either on the cool heights of Simla where her parents had built a house in picturesque Summer Hill, or in the little village in Saraya, where the Majithia family have their estate. It was during these formative years that she developed an abiding affection for the men and women of the Simla hills and for the simple village folk of Saraya. These people were to be her model in later years.

At Simla, despite her opposition, Amrita was made to join a convent school. She loathed it, particularly the compulsory church attendance. Amrita told her father that she had become an atheist, and wrote him a letter denouncing all religions, specially Roman Catholicism, whose ritual she considered as being ostentatious and whose practices as being bigoted. The letter fell into the hands of the Mother Superior. Once again, Amrita was expelled.

In 1927 her uncle, Ervin Baktay, arrived in India. He was most impressed with what he saw of Amrita’s drawing and painting. He suggested that she draw from models, and encouraged her in every way. Later she was to tell him: “It is to you I owe my skill in drawing”.

When Amrita was sixteen years old, her mother felt that it was time that she should have serious and academic training in art. The family moved to Paris, the capital of culture in Europe.

For a while Amrita painted at the Grand Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillent. She also devoted time to learning French, and getting to know the art world of Paris. She soon became a familiar figure in the dark and smoky cafes of Bohemian Paris. Amrita loved it all and entered into this world with her characteristic abandon. After a few months, she left Grand Chaumiere to join Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art, and was accepted as a pupil by the distinguished professor, Lucian Simon. Professor Simon, according to what Amrita once told me, was a very exacting task master. But he was also a man of great perception, who once told her: “One day I shall be proud that you have been a pupil of mine”. These were, indeed, prophetic words.

One very important decision that Amrita had to make at this time was to decide whether or not to give up music. By now she had become quite am accomplished pianist, and had joined the Ecole Normale de Musique. It was a hard decision, because she was passionately fond of music. Amrita decided to give up music, because, as she put it, it is impossible to serve two gods at the same time. But till her dying day, whenever depressed or miserable it was music she turned to. She would lock herself in a room and play the piano for hours together. Her great love and Beethoven.

The years in Paris proved both purposeful and rewarding. There she learnt, for the first time, the mystery of the anatomy of the human form. She discovered the significance of line, form and colour. She fell under the spell of Gauguin and Cezanne. She saw for herself how some of the Post-Impressionist had been influenced by Negro and Primitive art. Amrita was full of admiration for Modigliani, who himself was a devotee of Negro art, and her one great love was Vincent Van Gogh. Her father once recounted how, during a visit to a London Art gallery, she stood for half an hour in front of a small painting of a kitchen chair by Van Gogh. Her favourite quotation was Van Gogh’s saying: “I would like to paint in reds and in greens all the elemental passions of human life.” Though full of admiration for all these artists, Amrita was never either derivative or initiative, and the one thing she resented most was correction or interference with her work. She wrote: “I have always disliked being shown how to do a thing, especially if it was a pictorial problem…” No wonder there was a warm rapport between her and her teacher, Lucian Simon. As she said, his greatness lay in the face that “he never taught”; he let us struggle with technical difficulties ourselves, but encouraged each one of those pupils, whose work interested him, in his or her own individual mode of self expression.

Amrita was at the Ecole des Beaux Arts for nearly three years. During these three years, she won the first prize for the annual still-life and portrait competition every year. In 1932, for the first time, she exhibited a picture at the Grand Salon, which attracted the attention of many art critics who commended its forcefulness and vigour. The next year she exhibited another picture, a rather large canvas. The picture is entitled “Young Girls” (it now hangs in the National Art Gallery in Jaipur House in New Delhi). This picture was adjudged to be the “Picture of the Year”. “Young Girls” led to her being elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon. This was a rare honour. She was then only 18, the youngest ever to be so honoured. Moreover she was the first Indian, actually the first Asian, to achieve this distinction.

Notwithstanding the awards, the honour and the distinction, Amrita felt that Europe was not the place for the blossoming for her art. She realized that she “was not in (her) element in the grey studios of the west” and that “her artistic personality would find its true atmosphere in the colour and light of the East”. That was also the view of her mentor, Lucian Simon. Besides Amrita had also begun to know something of Indian art. She wrote: “Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture”. Paradoxically enough she felt that had she never come to Europe, she may never have realized the greatness of Indian art or that, as she put it “a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet (in Paris) is worth more than a whole Renaissance.”

She longed to return to India -- “I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter”, she wrote. And added: “It was the vision of a winter in India -- desolate, yet strangely beautiful -- of endless tracks of luminous yellow - grey land, of dark bodied, sad faced, incredibly thin men and women, who move silently looking almost like silhouettes, and over which an undefinable melancholy reigns”. May be it was the nostalgia of an expatriate for the land of her forbears! But Amrita was convinced that her destiny as a painter lay in India alone. Some years later she jokingly remarked. “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others, india belongs only to me”.

So at the end of 1934 Amrita Sher-Gil and her parents returned to India. For awhile, she stayed with her uncle, Sir Sundar Singh Majithia, in Amritsar, and then, for a while in Saraya. At the summer descended on the plains of what was then known as the United Provinces, she and her parents moved in Simla.

What did Amrita look like? I shall quote an excerpt from a radio feature that I did on Amrita, some years ago, in which I have described my first glimpse of her. It will also give you an insight into what Simla then was like. I quote:

“It was a delicious summer morn. The year 1937. And the place -- Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj in India. The oversight mist was beginning to lift, and the sun had just crept through the bosky cumulous. And Simla appeared to be wreathed in cool sunshine. The fashionable shopping centre, the Mall, was astir with activity. The idle elite was there -- Indian princes in their scintillating diamond earrings, Indian women in their saris in all the colours of the rainbow, and their Anglo-Saxon sisters in the latest summer fashions that had percolated across the seas from Paris and London. Men in their tweeds or the odd civil servant in his morning suit and top-hat. And the plebians in their conglomeration of Indian costumes ranging from the homespun dhoti of the Bengali from Calcutta and the Tamil from South India to the baggy trousers and of those hailing from the Punjab and North West Frontier ……For the cognoscenti, the destination seemed to be the fashionable café at the end of the road, the famous Davico’s. Inside the café, each one to his chosen aperitif; and there was a gentle hum of conversation to the accompaniment of a Viennese waltz being played by the café orchestra.

“In the midst of it all, there gamboled up the staircase and stood poised on the threshold for a fleeting moment a beautiful damsel accoutered in colours that Gauguin might have specifically chosen for her, a damsel in her early twenties - slim, petite, svelte and that was Amrita Sher-Gil.

“All conversation ceased, and there was a gasp as all eyes turned to gaze at this vision.

Amrita was wearing a vivid green sari with a flaming red blouse, heavy Tibetan earrings encrusted with glistening lapis-lazuli being her only ornament. It was luminous, mobile and immensely alive. Her eyes sparkled with laughter-laughter that could be full of merriment, irony or sheer good humour. She had raven black hair, severely parted in the centre”.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the celebrated writer, broadcaster and television personality, who was in Si8mla at the time, had described Amrita as being “extravagantly beautiful.” And Mulk Raj Anand, the well known novelist, who met her when he was on a visit to India from abroad, said he found her “tense, nervous, excited, very beautiful and obsessed with her painting.”

In 1935 Amrita became the subject of a great controversy in the world of art in India. Every year the Simla Fine Arts Society used to hold an annual art exhibition. So, naturally enough, that year Amrita sent in ten of her pictures. The powers-that-be in the Arts Society decided to accept five pictures and to reject the other five. One of the selected ones was awarded a prize for being the best figure study in the show. But, among those rejected, was one that had been spoken of very highly when exhibited in Paris, and which Amrita thought was better than the one selected. Amrita was outraged and declined to accept the award. In a letter refusing the award, which has since become historic, she wrote: “I should be glad to waive it in favour of some other more deserving artist, who, I have no doubt, would feel greatly honoured to receive such a distinction -- and whose work would correspond more than mine does to the traditional conventionality, so carefully preserved for the last sixty-three years, by the judges of the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition”. You can well imagine what a flutter this caused, among the dovecotes of Simla.

In the spring of next year-1936-she won two prizes for a self-portrait in the Delhi Fine Arts Exhibition. But it was not till she held an exhibition of her paintings in Bombay later that year in November that her merit as an artist of great significance was recognized. She received an unprecedented acclaim. And, it was in Bombay that she discovered the richness and greatness of Rajput and Basholi miniature paintings.

Bombay was followed by two exhibitions in Allahabad and Hyderabad. After this began her odyssey to South India. The first stop was Ajanta and Ellora. She was enthralled. She described Ellora as being “magnificent” and Ajanta as “curiously subtle and fascinating”. She also saw the medieval frescoes in the Padmanabhpuram Palace near Trivandrum but was not impressed. She liked the murals in the Mattancheri Palace in Cochin some of which, in her opinion, surpassed Ajanta. Amrita also visited many temples in South India to see sculptures as also the ‘active manifestation of religion’, as she termed it.

On her way back to Simla, she stayed in Delhi for a while and held an exhibition. It was then that she met Jawaharlal Nehru. She liked him as he did her for she wrote, “I think he liked me as much as I liked him”. This led to a warm friendship between them. In one of her letters that Nehru published during his lifetime, Amrita wrote, “I should like to have known you better. I am always attracted to people who are integral enough to be inconsistent without discordancy and who don’t trial viscous threads of regrets behind them,” and she went on to add that “it is only in consistency that there is inconsistency”.

Back in Simla, she began to paint. It is this period of her painting that a number of art critics consider her to be most fruitful and successful. Opinions differ, but there is no doubt that during this period, that she described as one of “regurgitating of (her) South Indian impressions on canvas”, that she painted what is now known as her South Indian Trilogy. This consists of three large canvases titled “The Bride’s Toilet”, “The Brahmacharis” and “South Indian villagers going to the Market”. Even those contemporary critics, who try to decry her work, concede that at least one of these paintings, namely “The Brahmacharis”, is a great work of art.

In November, 1937 Amrita went to Lahore to hold a one-man show of her work. This exhibition created a tremendous impression, particularly on discerning art lovers. Said one newspaper reporter while talking of the 30 canvases on display,” “Each one seemed to excel the other in art and presentation.” Dr. Fabri, the art critic of the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette at that time, termed it as a “revelation”. And it was during this visit to Lahore that she was able to see, at leisure, the best in Basholi, Kangra, Rajasthan and Moghul miniatures which housed in the Lahore Museum.

The next few months she spent painting either at Simla or at Saraya, and she painted some of her well-liked paintings like “Siesta”, “Hill Men”, “HillWomen”, “Elephants Bathing in a Green Pool” and many others. It was then that she began to employ the decorative motif using trees, flowers and foliage in her paintings. This was also a happy period in her life. And wrote, “I have been curiously happy the last few months I don’t know why”.

In June 1938 she left for Hungary to marry her cousin, Dr. Victor Egan, to whom she had been engaged for so many years. There she painted a few pictures, the best known of which is “Hungarian Market Scene”. As war clouds were threatening Europe, and since she had decided that she could paint only in India she and her husband returned in June 1939. They came back via Ceylon visiting Mahabalipuram and Mathura. Amrita was enchanted with both. About Mathura, she wrote: “I was positively stunned, she wrote”, and have straightaway become a votary of Mathura art”.

The next few months were a period of stress and strain, mainly financial, because Amrita’s husband was not able to set up a lucrative practice in Simla and she was unable to earn her living by selling her pictures. So they moved to Saraya, where Dr. Egan took up an appointment as Medical Officer of the hospital attached to the sugar factory owned by her uncle.

Artistically, I think, the period that followed was of great achievement. It was during this period that she painted pictures like “Women resting on a Charpoy, “Elephant Promenade”, “The Ancient Story Teller”, “Haldi Grinders” and “Camels”. Her work at this time reflects her growing admiration for the Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures.

But Amrita was bored and depressed, partly because Saraya was an intellectual desert, and also because, as she wrote in anguish, “I am starving for appreciation, literally famished”.

Amrita and her husband then decided to move to Lahore, where they arrived in September, 1941. After staying with me for a few days, they rented a house. In no time at all, they became an essential part of the social, artistic and cultural life of Lahore. Amrita’s house was like a salon, a rendezvous for poets, writers, musicians and artists. Early in December Amrita started preparations for holding a one-man show. And, for the last time since her arrival in Lahore, she started to paint. The picture was to be a view from her terrace of buffaloes kept by the lowly rustic milkmen who lived in the mud dwelling at the rear of her house.

In the midst of it all, suddenly fell a shadow. Amrita was stricken with serious illness on the 3rd of December, 1941. And on the midnight of December 5, she was dead. Amrita Sher-Gil was no more. The picture has remained unfinished.

The question often asked is --what did Amrita Sher-Gil achieve during her brief appearance on the Indian art horizon? In my opinion, her achievement, and it was a monumental, one, could be summed up in one word. She was the LIBERATOR. She liberated Indian art from the shackles that had bound it for the past many decades. She was, an Svetoslav Roerich, the Russian artist, put it “a rare efflorescence of a rich and striking talent” who made a “great contribution to our cultural life”.

Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 53, 1982, p. 47-59
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