Legendary painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41), whose self-portrait sold for a whopping Rs 18.2 crore in an art auction this year, began her series of Indian paintings at Majithia House in Amritsar. Amrita’s first painting, ‘Group of Three Girls’, also referred to as ‘Three Girls’, was painted in 1935 after her return from Europe in 1934.
It has come to light some 80 years later that the models for this much-celebrated painting were granddaughters of landowner-politician Sunder Singh Majithia. He was the younger brother of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia (1870-1954), father of Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita.
The ‘Three Girls’ were sisters named Beant Kaur, Narwair Kaur and Gurbhajan Kaur, daughters of Mahinder Kaur, who was married to Mangal Singh Mann of Kot Shera near Gujranwala in Pakistan. The siblings, still in their teens and just a few years younger than the painter, were to become the subject of Amrita’s first painting in India. Amrita died at the age of 28, leaving behind a rich legacy of art, but the three sisters lived on to see their grandchildren.
The ‘Three Girls’ won the gold medal in the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in 1937. The award launched Amrita, who was to be celebrated later as the first lady of the Indian canvas and influence generations of modern painters in India.
Although family memory has treasured this work, it came out only in the public domain when Karanvir Singh Sibia, Beant Kaur’s son, recently brought out a coffee table book, ‘A Life Well Lived’, celebrating the family traditions, and wrote about the three sisters who had modelled for the iconic painting along with their pictures with Amrita.
“My mother and her two sisters were models for this work,” says Sibia, “My mother was a very gentle and kind lady. She always covered her head, as in the painting, for she was nurtured in times when modesty and shyness were virtues for girls. She rarely talked about herself but treasured the group photograph with the artist till the end.”
Sibia’s octogenarian maternal aunt Inder Pal Kaur Mann had often heard the story of the making of this painting from her husband’s sisters. She recounts, “The painting was done in March 1935 in the tennis court of Majithia House in Amritsar, with repeated sittings over two to three weeks.”
Amrita’s mother was Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish opera singer from Hungary who had come to live in Lahore as a companion to Princess Bamba Sutherland, eldest daughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son Maharaja Duleep Singh. Amrita was very dear to her grandparents because of her beauty and talent. They had virtually sponsored her education and painting career when she was sent to Paris to study art first at Grande Chaumiere with Pierre Valliant and later at Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1930-34).
Inder Pal further reveals, “Amrita was visiting her grandparents’ home for a holiday with her younger sister Indira when the three sisters went to meet her. The artist was so fascinated by the charm and innocence of her Punjabi nieces that she decided to paint them.” She says her husband Charanjiv Singh Mann was by Amrita’s side when the latter breathed her last in 1941 in Lahore. This is also mentioned in Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography of the artist, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life’.
In a critique of the painting ‘Three Girls’, art historian Yashodhara Dalmia writes: “The lines and forms were a continuation of her years abroad, as the figures stood together in a studio pose, but their grave expressions, their sense of being at once together and isolated, would become the key motif of all her paintings in India.”
Some years ago, a Delhi-based curator asked some 50 contemporary woman artists of the country to re-interpret the painting through their own art. This experiment with the painting led to many interesting interpretations, with several artists daring to incorporate a critical note in their version of the ‘Three Girls’.
In her work, well-known contemporary painter Gogi Sarol Pal regrouped the painting to suggest interaction, which has been the tool of Indian women for survival. Flowers were scattered on the clothes of the three girls and the hand of one of the girls cut off in the original was restored. Gogi comments, “Amrita was exuberant in her own self-portraiture, but when it came to Indian subjects, she could well have been painting still life.”’
True enough, the charm and ebullience of the three sisters seen in their photographs of that time is missing in the painting. Nevertheless, it is a priceless work of art by an artist who left her own indelible mark on the Indian canvas.