Why Amrita Sher-Gil never painted Nehru's portrait?

Jawaharlal Nehru was much struck by the genius of Amrita Sher-Gil and her charm and became friends but failed to find a place in her canvas as the artist thought he was "too good looking".
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Updated on Apr 12, 2013 12:03 PM IST
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PTI | By, New Delhi

Jawaharlal Nehru was much struck by the genius of Amrita Sher-Gil and her charm and became friends but failed to find a place in her canvas as the artist thought he was "too good looking".

Amrita lived life on her own terms, scandalising the staid society of her times with her love affairs and unconventional ways. Her charismatic presence, her immense physical charms and the dramatic life she led have captivated the imagination of many.

But she struggled against great odds, and her solitary quest as a woman, when few stepped out into the public arena, is all the more remarkable.

In a fascinating biography "Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life", art historian Yashodhara Dalmia paints a compelling portrait of the artist who, when she died in 1941 at the age of twenty-eight, left behind a body of work that establishes her as one of the foremost artists of the century and an eloquent symbol of the fusion between the East and the West.

It was in Delhi that Amrita met Nehru, what the author describes as perhaps the only eventful thing that happened to her in an atmosphere she did not find conducive to painting. In the midst of all the capital's officiousness, Nehru stood out as someone quite different.

They exchanged several letters and met a few times but she never drew Nehru's portrait.

So when Iqbal Singh, whom she met in Shimla in the summer of 1937 and who became a close friend and confidant, once asked her why did she not paint Nehru's portrait, she replied that she would never paint Nehru because "he is too good looking".

In February, 1937 Nehru attended her exhibition held in Delhi. She later described her meeting with him in a letter to a friend as, "I think he liked me too, as much as I liked him. He came to my exhibition and we had a long chat."

Did she have an affair with him? If so, was it a serious affair or a mild flirtation?

Says Dalmia, "The exact nature of their relationship is difficult to gauge, because many of Nehru’s letters were later burnt by Amrita's parents, much to her chagrin, while she was away in Budapest getting married" (to her cousin Karl). She had a Sikh aristocrat father and a Hungarian mother and was born at the turn of the century, in 1913 in Budapest.

Shocked over the burning of her letters, she wrote to her father, "I had left them behind not because I thought them dangerous witnesses to my evil past but because I didn't wish to increase my already heavy luggage. However, I suppose I have to resign myself to a bleak old age unrelieved by the entertainment that the perusal of old love letters would have afforded it.

Nehru later sent Amrita a copy of his autobiography. She thanked him and wrote, "As a rule I dislike biographies and autobiographies. They ring false. Pomposity and exhibitionism. But I think I will like yours. You are able to discard your halo occasionally. You are capable of saying, 'When I saw the sea for the first time,' when others would say, 'When the sea saw me for the first time.'

"I should have liked to know you better. I am always attracted to people who are integral enough to be inconsistent without discordance and who don’t trail viscous threads of regret behind them. I don't think that it is on the threshold of life that one feels chaotic, it is when one has crossed the threshold that one discovers that things which looked simple and feelings that felt simple are infinitely more tortuous and complex.

"That it is only in inconsistency that there is any consistency. But of course you have got an orderly mind. I don't think you were interested in my paintings really. You looked at my pictures without seeing them. You are not hard. You have got a mellow face. I like your face, it is sensitive, sensual and detached at the same time."

Amrita moved to Lahore in August 1941. Four months later she died.

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