Published in The Wire, December 2017

Amrita's works, on display at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad, adumbrate her strong personality, sexuality and sensibility as a young artist.

Amrita Sher-Gil: Portraits and Reveries, an exhibition of Amrita Sher-Gil’s (1913-1941) drawings, mostly done in the early 1920s when she was a precocious pre-teen, is open till January 25, 2018, in the unobtrusive sunken gallery of the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad.

Amrita’s 51 works, which have never been exhibited for public viewing before, already adumbrate her strong personality, sexuality and sensibility as a young artist and outspoken critic of Indian art of her times. She died at the age of 28, but not before breaking new ground as a painter who used solid, bright colours of miniature paintings to invoke an India grounded in the everyday reality of her villages. The bulk of her works on display are in pencil, graphite stick, charcoal and watercolour on paper. They culminate in a grey, wintry scene of a church - oil on canvas - in the European tradition that brings to mind the sombre landscapes of Breughel, the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. This church with a black steeple framed by the black, bare, gaunt branches of a tree was painted in Hungary in 1938 when she had already gained maturity as an artist, only three years before her death. The paintings belong to the family archive that Vivan Sundaram, who also happens to be Amrita’s nephew, has built up and looked after all these years. They were collected by her mother Marie Antoinette Gottesmann-Erdobaktay (1881-1949). Her sister Indira (1914-1975), who was Vivan’s mother, had inherited them.

Amrita’s paintings are displayed in one of the two sunken galleries created by architect Rahul Mehrotra, who had lovingly restored the colonial building on the same plot that houses what used to be the famous Abanindranath Tagore’s collection. He was also responsible for designing the accompanying glass house where contemporary works are exhibited.

The exhibition in the second sunken gallery is an extension of the first, for here we see Amrita’s self-portrait in a blue sari (circa 1937) with an incomplete look in oil colours, and a portrait of her father, the scholar ascetic Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870-1954). Along with these two oil paintings, the remarkable, often shocking black-and-white photographs taken by Umrao Singh, and a selection of the photo montages by Vivan Sundaram titled Retake on Amrita are displayed. One of Sundaram’s works shows Amrita and her father as indivisible, both body and soul, emerging from one another, as it were. There is also a similarity in the manner in which both the father and the daughter dramatised their own bodies as media for self-expression. A fanatical weight watcher, a young Umrao had photographed himself in Paris after a period of fasting in a loin cloth with his abundant tresses held out with both hands like a veil. With a bearded face and a slim torso, he could be Christ, but there is an unmistakable ambiguity in the abandon with which his hair cascades like a waterfall, unintended though it may have been. So is it surprising that his own daughter’s nude self-portraits are some of her most compelling works, and that she had been so uninhibited from an early age? A film on Amrita’s tumultuous life and work by documentary filmmaker Navina Sundaram, Vivan’s sister, is being screened here.

One only has to look at Amrita’s extraordinary though short life and the environment she was brought up in to seek explanation for those amazing, sexually-charged drawings and paintings of her childhood.

Vivan Sundaram’s two-volume Amrita Sher-Gil: a self-portrait in letters & writings provides all the clues. Umrao, who had nationalist sympathies, belonged to one of the three most prominent clans of the Sikh aristocracy. He belonged to the ancestral village of Majitha near Amritsar in Punjab. His family was closely associated with the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh. After the death of his first wife, he married Marie Antoinette, an opera singer of middle-class origins from a French-Hungarian family in 1912 in Lahore. Antoinette was accompanying Princess Bamba Sofia Jindan, daughter of Ranjit Singh’s son Duleep Singh.

Amrita was conceived in Lahore, which was the cultural capital of pre-Partition north India, and was born in Budapest, Hungary. World War I broke out after Amrita’s younger sister Indira was born and the family had to remain in Hungary till 1921. Antoinette’s youngest brother, Ervin Baktay, was an Indologist of some repute. He studied the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi and even visited Santiniketan.

The Sher-Gils moved to Antoinette’s family home in the village Dunaharaszti on the outskirts of Budapest, where Amrita joined a local school. Here she began to draw with colour pencils and watercolours to illustrate Hungarian folk and fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Amrita started writing her own stories and poems around this time, and slip of a girl though she was, it was evident that she knew her mind.

In 1921, the Sher-Gils returned to India, stopping by in Paris on the way. Amrita and Indira were home-tutored in English and French and they took music and dance lessons too. Simla became their home, but for her drawings and paintings, Amrita drew inspiration mostly from Hungarian stories, and in a couple of years, cinema - both Hollywood and European - entered her world of fantasies.

The women she portrayed in these early works were heroines of operas and of her own stories and silent screen goddesses, who, as the character Norma Desmond said in the musical version of Sunset Boulevard, “No words can tell the stories my eyes tell”. So they have large expressive eyes that reach out to the audience and audaciously show off their taut, bare breasts. With masses of wild hair - blonde, black and auburn - they are in various attitudes of ecstasy and distress. Magnificently bejewelled, they hold their heads high appearing as classical goddesses or flappers with a smart bob and a boa, a look that came back again with the model Twiggy, who personified the zeitgeist of the swinging sixties. In one painting, a distressed damsel in oriental garb is held in thrall probably by an Arab sheikh as a European man looks on. The opera Savitri & Satyavan deeply influenced her paintings. This was the orient as seen through the eyes of the West and manifested itself in the turbans, pajamas, slippers with those ridiculous curly toes and other supposedly exotic garments. One wonders if Amrita was familiar with the highly stylised drawings of the French-Russian artist Erté (1892-1990), who was famous for his sinuous women draped in furs and jewels and soft luxurious material. In another work, a young woman looks out of her window as if in areverie.Thenubile Renoiresque nudes have already made their appearance, but although her ideas are clear, her lines are still unsure. Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne were her favourites and that is obvious from her later works.

In a year or two, her lines would firm up and her drawings of a young woman with an oval face and short hair and the profile of a fashionable Indian woman (à la Devika Rani) done in 1926 show signs of maturity beyond her years. The robust draughtsmanship of some of the later statuesque nudes is evidence of the progress she was making as an artist. The joyous abandon of her nude self-portrait indicates her total disregard for conventional morality.

Little wonder that Amrita was thrown out of school in Simla for declaring herself an atheist. Her art lessons continued and she was a voracious reader. In 1929, she set sail for Paris to seek academic training in art. She was enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts the same year. It was in October 1934 that Amrita, in her characteristically impulsive manner, wrote to her mother in Hungarian from Hungary: “…It seems paradoxical but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe I should perhaps never have realised that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musée Guimet (the museum in Paris has a precious and varied collection of Indian art from ancient times) is worth more than the whole Renaissance…”

Being of Indo-Hungarian heritage, Amrita was equally at home in both the cultures. She may have written in 1938 to her friend, the collector, Karl Khandalavala: “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and many others. India belongs to me.” But her vision as an artist was certainly shaped by both worlds.

Published in The Wire, December 2017
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