Walking into an NGMA gallery after being dazzled by Subodh Gupta’s monumental stainless steel vessel sculptures, his laden fishing boats borne aloft by ceiling fans and his bronze motorcycles, it takes a deliberate shifting of emotional gears to confront the 100 or so paintings that are part of ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: The Passionate Quest’.
A file photo of Village Scene (1938) by Amrita Sher-Gil being auctioned in New Delhi in 2006.
Like Frieda Kahlo, Sher-Gil’s enormous talent, her short life and tragic early death at 29 — most likely the result of a botchedup abortion at the hands of her doctor husband — has endowed her with the blood streaked halo that’s almost de regeur for female genius. From Billie Holiday to Geeta Dutt from Sylvia Plath to Meena Kumari, we seem to like our women heroes damaged and torn, paying with their lives for being exceptional. It’s difficult now to examine Sher-Gil’s work, her still life paintings, her spectacular nudes, her minimal renderings of the wintry European countryside and especially her arresting self portraits with that endearing open-lipped smile, in a detached way.
Indeed, once you know about the artist’s life, her yearnings and her painful end, it’s difficult not to imbue these paintings with a carmine glow. How ever you view them though, it’s clear that these are masterful works. The nudes, especially, are striking. Here’s Reclining Nude (1933) where the subject’s broad forehead, half smile and ironic gaze, even the swell of her stomach, exudes confidence. This is no passive model — the kind sprawled out on the canvases of every other eminent male artist — but, the viewer imagines, a woman with a sharp intellect, perhaps a cruel turn of phrase. There’s nothing coy about her. There’s nothing coy about any of Sher-Gil’s nudes. This is as true of Nude (1933) featuring a woman sprawled on a cushion, the sinuous dragon on it seeming to duplicate her tumbling hair, her body youthfully perfect, as it is of Nude Study(3)(1930) and Nude Study(1931) both of which feature women with less perfect bodies. The personalities of these women shine through; they could be someone you know with their irritating habits, their loud laughs, their big noses and sagging but still proud breasts. Men don’t feature too much in Sher-Gil’s paintings but the one who seems to appear in many — surely it’s Boris Tazlitzky (1930) in all of them — is vulnerable and sensuous-lipped, dressed always in billowing white shirts, sometimes gazing at the apples in his hands as he does in Young Man with Apples (1932). Then there’s the striking portrait of Yusuf Ali Khan(1931) which shows a youngish man with a deep cleft and enquiring eyes.
The highlight of the exhibition — though many would insist her determinedly Indian later work like the lovely Group of 3 Girls (1935) with its luminous colours deserves that honour — for this viewer were the self portraits. Here Amrita is — for by now we are on firstname terms — in Self Portrait (6) (1930) dressed in a blue sari, smiling cheekily ‘into’ the canvas, and here she is another ‘selfie’ draped in golden cloth, beads at her wrist, her hair loose. This is a spectacular show, one that will make you think about women, India, the world and life. Not many artists can achieve that.