Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings
Edited by Vivan Sundaram
Tulika Rs 5,750 (2 Volumes) pp 821
Amrita Sher-Gil, painter-critic-woman, had an interesting back-story. It seems to have been decided by her father Umrao Singh and mother Marie Antoinette’s move from Hungary in 1921 to Simla rather than Lahore, where a vibrant political and cultural liberal-to-left ‘scene’ was possible. These multiple pulls played their parts in her art.
Growing up between the Majithia estates in Punjab and Hungary (her mother and her doctor cousin Victor Egan whom she married were Hungarian) and Paris (she took a degree in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts) and Lahore (her last stop where she exhibited 33 of her oil paintings), she identified herself, despite the European training, as an Indian artist. Influenced by the Ajanta-Ellora frescoes, she crafted this ‘Indianness’ out of two alliances — a modernism rooted in classicism and a nationalism understood through her experience as a woman. She was India’s Frida Kahlo.
‘Amri’ the daughter, however, had a rather tougher — and typical — time. Many of her ‘letters to Mummy and Daddy’ were full of explanations to charges of ‘wildness’ and over expenditure. In one of them, she even signs off as “your evil daughter”. A February 16, 1938, letter to them has her rising to the defence of Victor whom her parents were trying to dissuade from marrying. “…one must risk things sometimes. Wasn’t it a gamble when… you “staked all” on my artistic education?… I don’t think the outlook for a foreign doctor practising in India is quite as dark as you think.” This tussle, so the letters show, continued all her life.
In between are glimpses of a young woman, as an artist, attracted to other young men. And women. (The two volumes have her paintings, photos and letters to them. They cover 21 of her 28 years and full-colour reproductions of 147 of her paintings, early sketches and watercolours and her last unfinished painting, ‘On The Roof’).
Jawaharal Nehru was a good friend. A relationship is hinted at; the second volume has a copy of the letter Nehru wrote to Amrita’s mother after her death. Amrita writes to ‘J.N’ in 1937: “I don’t think you are interested in my painting really, you looked at my pictures without seeing them… I like your face, it is sensitive, sensual and detached…” And he of her, to his daughter, Indira: “A strange change had come over her since her return from France… artistically she was changing. From painting typical French salon pictures, she was drifting to India in many ways.”
On November 30, 1941, she had her last social outing — a tea party in Lahore. Her solo exhibition was to open at the Punjab literary League Hall. She died around midnight of December 5/6. “I am doing my best to save her,” said her husband Victor to friends. The cause of death was unknown.
These two volumes of her personal memorabilia and her considerable body of art compiled by her nephew Vivan Sundaram, is a tribute to her brief and abrupt life. Given his refusal to let go of the aunt (I know of at least four books by him), I am sure this is not the last we have heard of her. But what the heck, it was quite a life.