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Roundabout: Rupi Kaur revisits Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Three Girls’

The painting has been revisited by several Indian women artists and reinterpreted in the light of their own experiences.

punjab Updated: Sep 02, 2018 09:20 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times
Rupi Kaur,Amrita Sher-Gil’s,Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Group of Three Girls’
Three Girls, 2018(Courtesy Instagram )

If there was ever a painting that caught the Indian imagination and continues to do so, it is Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Group of Three Girls’, the first painting she made in India after she returned from Europe in 1934.

This painting has an interesting story behind it but before going into it let’s see how the India-born Canadian poet-performer and Instagram sensation has responded to it?

A self-confessed Salvador Dali fan, Rupi says in a quotable quote “I have always been a fan of Salvador Dali, but Amrita Sher-Gil, who was an Indian-Hungarian painter, is another favourite. She was painting Indian women, and growing up here, I’d never seen anyone paint Indian women, so it was really incredible to see a painting of someone who looks like you. I think that has a lot of impact on you.”

‘Group of three girls’ was the first painting Amrita Sher-Gil made in India after her return from Europe in 1934. (HT File )

The experimental Rupi took Instagram to task when her pictures depicting a woman’s menstrual stains were removed and forced an apology from the social networking site, which said the image was removed by mistake.

Remaining at the heart of controversy, she has ignored accusations of plagiarism and insensitivity in presenting the traumas of Indian women and has moved onto stardom in her own patch of the sky.

This Sher-Gil painting, also referred to as ‘Three Girls’, has drawn many to it. I have loved this work from my teens when I first saw it at The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. For some reason I always referred to it as ‘Three Sisters’. Why? This was perhaps because it reminded me of a sisterhood, had a quality of a posed studio picture so common in my childhood and also because I have had a very loving relationship with my sisters, sharing joy and sorrow alike.

It was only some three years ago that I got a ‘scoop’ that the three girls were actually young and bubbly girls from Amritsar — daughters of a Majithia cousin of Sher-Gil. They were 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 family always knew it, but the identification of the sober girls in Sher-Gil’s oil on canvas came into public domain when Beant’s son Karanvir Singh Sibia released a family coffee-table book in 2015 at the Sangrur Literature Festival, which is his initiative.

Back to Rupi, she gushes over the painting saying: “For me, this piece shows the sacrifices and silences South Asian women endure within their homes and lands”. Did Sher-Gil with a European education also see this melancholy that she turned three charming teenagers into ominous subjects? Interestingly the sisters had posed in the tennis court of the Majithia House, merrily sitting on a roller. This painting won Sher-Gil an award followed by recognition as an artist.

Sadly, the painter died young, but the three girls she painted lived well into granny-hood.

An earlier revisiting of the painting that I recall was probably in 2004 for a group show by Gogi Saroj Pal in which 50 women artists participated in Delhi — all giving a refreshed version of the classic work.

Saroj Pal regrouped the girls to look at one another, restored the chopped hand of one and brightened the clothes of all three with floral prints to lift the gloom.

Rupi Kaur in Three Girls, 2018 is present as one along with two other artists — Keerat Kaur and Kay Ray posing just as the girls in the painting with similarly hued clothes and one of them sans a hand in a compelling photograph by B Singh.

An interesting work to view for copying the original so faithfully, but are they trying to say that nothing has changed for girls from 1935 to 2018? That is the question that needs to be taken up.

(The writer can be contacted at nirudutt@gmail.com)

First Published: Sep 02, 2018 09:15 IST