Amrita Sher-gil: An Artist Who Defied Norms
This Hungarian-Indian is considered a pioneer of Indian modern art and among the great avant-garde women artists of the 20th century. Hardly acknowledged in her lifetime, her work is considered among the most expansive by any Indian artist.Updated: Jul 15, 2019 09:46 IST
Sher-Gil was born on January 30, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a scholar in Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer. She grew up in Budapest with her younger sister Indira. Sher-Gil’s artistic talent was first noticed by her uncle and Indologist Ervin Baktay.
In 1921, Sher-Gil’s family moved to Simla, Himachal Pradesh, after facing financial problems in Hungary. When she was around eight years old, she began attending formal lessons in painting from Major Whitmarsh. In 1924, Sher-Gil took admission in an art school in Florence, Italy, but returned to India soon. Aged 16, Sher-Gil again went to Europe to undergo training in Paris as an artist. She enrolled in the art college Academie de La Grande Chaumiere and later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
The early paintings by Sher-Gil displayed a huge western influence which she mainly practised around 1930s in the Bohemian circles of Paris. In 1932, her oil painting titled Young Girls became one of the major works to receive appreciation, including a medal and membership of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. Her work at that time included themes like self-portraits in various moods, life in Paris, and portraits of friends and other students.
In 1934, Sher-Gil returned to India and during the next year, she met with English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and began working as assistant editor and writer at The Statesman newspaper. Around 1936, she met art collector Karl Khandalvala with whom she rediscovered Indian traditional art such as the cave paintings at Ajanta, Mughal and Pahari art.
Making of an artist
Her stay in India marked a new phase in her art journey. In 1937, she explored the southern parts of the country and made her famous trilogy of Bride’s Toilet, South Indian Villagers Going to Market and Brahmacharis.
These were distinct from her earlier work in Europe as they revealed her sense of colours and empathy for her subjects in despair which she imbibed in India.
At 25, Sher-Gil got married to Victor Egan and began living in Saraya, a village in Gorakhpur. Her works were later influenced by the Bengal School of Painting. During her stay in Saraya, she created her famous works such as In the Ladies Enclosure, Siesta and Village Scene. All three reflected the Indian traditional art.
In 1941, she and Egan moved to Lahore, which used to be cultural hub and main centre of art in pre-partition India. The same year, she organised her first solo exhibition in Lahore. But few days before the inauguration she fell seriously ill and passed away on December 5, 1941.
A road in Delhi is named after Sher-Gil. Her entire work was declared as the National Art Treasures by the Union government. Her paintings influenced eminent Indian artists like Arpita Singh and Sayed Haider Raza. In 1978, the postal department released a stamp depicting her painting Hill Women.
1. Sher-Gil’s works were considered revolutionary because they blended elements of the traditional Indian and western style. It evoked parallels with Frida Kahlo, whose portraits and other works were inspired by the artifacts of Mexico.
2. On Amrita Sher-gil’s 100th birth anniversary, Unesco had declared 2013 as the international year of Amrita Sher-Gil in honour of the artist who created a link between Indian and European art with her paintings.
3. She also knew how to play the piano and violin which she learned as a child. Around the age of 9, she and her sister Indira performed at the Gaiety Theatre on the Mall Road in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.
4. In 2018, Sher-Gil’s painting The Little Girl in Blue fetched ₹18.69 crore during an auction by Sotheby’s titled Boundless: India. Created in 1934, the painting was a portrait of Sher-Gil’s 8-year-old cousin Babit.
5. Very few of Sher-Gil’s works have been sold globally due to a stipulation by the government that whenever her works are to be sold, they must stay in India because they are an important part of Indian culture.