Six months back, childhood friends Pakhi Sen (22, illustrator and artist), and Samira Bose (23, a master’s student of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, New Delhi) were having a discussion about artists who include themselves in their work. They immediately thought of feminist Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and her self portraits, and then thought of her Indian contemporary, modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941).
Born in Budapest, her mother was a Hungarian opera singer, while her father was an Indian Sikh aristocrat. Sher-Gil studied impressionist art in Europe, but later returned to India and studied Mughal, Bengal and Pahari techniques. “We realised that Sher-Gil was bold and inspiring in her self portraits. Despite the passage of time, she remains relevant,” says Sen.
As they mention in their essay accompanying the photographs, Sher-Gil remains a fixture in Delhi — “One can see her name on the road in an expensive area, at retrospectives at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in dubious fashion inspiration magazines (sic), and on prints in small libraries”.
Sen and Bose decided to work on an Instagram project to recreate six of Sher-Gil’s iconic self portraits and photographs. Titled Re-printing Amrita Sher-gil: a Photoperformance Project, it features photographs of Sen and Bose, and four of their friends, dressed up as Sher-Gil. The original image/artwork is juxtaposed with the re-imagined photograph.
“We felt connected with Amrita Sher-Gil and the way she portrays her body. She doesn’t try to alter herself. In the process of analysing her work, we started an engagement with ourselves. We realised that we must accept ourselves as we are,” says Sen.
The images were shot at Sen’s house, and the team handled everything from the make-up to holding up the textiles, and taking photos. “In a strange way, we all ended up resembling Sher-Gil in the photos. We didn’t Photoshop the images (except for lighting),” says Sen.
For their work, Sen and Bose sought inspiration from the works of Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi (who recreates Iran’s notoriousdeath scenes) and Indian artist Pushpamala N (who casts her own body as various characters). The textiles that form the backdrop range from bedsheets to Banarasi saris, hajj scarves and kantha embroidery. “Our mothers are interested in textile design and we wanted to show the wealth of textiles available in India,” says Sen.
The duo realised that, much like them, Sher-Gil also benefitted from the access accorded by her privileged background. Sen’s father Orijit Sen is also an artist, and both Sen and Bose are students of art (Sen graduated in Sociology, but will soon start a Master’s course in art from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology).
While there are just six images at present, Sen and Bose hope to revisit the project in a year’s time and see if they can continue the series. In the meanwhile, Sen is planning to recreate a series of classic paintings where she replaces male figures with women. So far, she has recreated Dutch artist Rembrandt’s oil painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632), an image of a doctor demonstrating a medical lesson to his male students. “Replacing men with women changes the whole context and creates a unique effect,” says Sen.