Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913 – 5 December 1941)
At the forefront of the modernist movement in India was Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter from the first half of the twentieth-century. She was born in Budapest in 1913 to a Hungarian Jewish mother and wealthy Punjabi Sikh father. However, she was not brought up amongst the Indian or Punjabi of this pre-colonial era, but spent the majority of her formative years in Europe.
Amrita’s mother had recognised her artistic talent from a young age and endeavoured to cultivate it by taking her to Italy and France, introducing her to the works of the Old Masters. From 1924, she attended a Roman Catholic School in Italy, until the family moved to Paris in 1929. Sher-Gil initially lived with her parents in affluent areas of the city such as Passy and the Champs-Élysées, before moving to the Latin Quarter where she pursued a more bohemian lifestyle.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1933 (image source: www.sothebys.com)
In Paris, Sher-Gil studied at L’École des Beaux-Arts where she produced works that were reminiscent of European artists. A number of sources state that her main influences came from artists of the previous generation: Paul Cézanne, Amedeo Modigliani and Paul Gauguin. Her signature compositions from her earlier works were primarily oil on canvas portraits of friends, family and herself, in front of an abstract background. She won many awards at the École and was elected as an associate member of the Grand Salon by 1933, making her not only the youngest ever, but also the first Asian associate of the Salon. She had gained some success in Paris and remained there until 1934.
Sher-Gil moved to India at the age of 21. It was here that her art developed into a fusion of eastern and western styles. She considered her own style distinct for being intrinsically Indian in subject, spirit and expression. She was especially inspired by the paintings of the Ajunta Caves in western India, which she combined with her training from the French Academy. Her art became much more two-dimensional and the hues of colours were much warmer as she began to use more earthly tones in her works. Her subject matter had also changed, as she had begun to depict the poor, the villagers and beggars. Her artistic style was a stark contrast to her contemporaries, the Bengal School, who were considered the first wave of modernism in Indian art, but whom Sher-Gil deemed retrograde.
Amrita Sher-Gil, The Child Bride, 1936 (image source: www.wikiart.org)
In 1937, Sher-Gil set out on a tour of South India, which was to influence her work once more. Her artwork from this period would come to be known as her “South Indian Trilogy”: Brahmacharis, South Indian Villagers Going to Market, and The Bride’s Toilet. In these works, she was able to achieve simplicity in her paintings and was also able to experiment with form, as she emulated what she had seen in the cave paintings at Ajunta and Ellora.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Brahmacharis, 1937 (image source: www.wikiart.org)
Sher-Gil moved back to Hungary in 1938 to marry her cousin Victor Egan, despite opposition from her parents. The married couple lived in Hungary for one year before returning to the undivided India in 1939, first living in Uttar Pradesh then Lahore (today, this is Pakistan). Her health began to deteriorate until her untimely death in 1941 at the age of 28, leaving us to wonder what she could have achieved, as she was constantly finding new inspirations and experimenting with different artistic styles. Sher-Gil’s unfinished works at the end of her life demonstrated much richer colours and indicated a shift to abstraction.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Shringaar, 1940 (image source: www.wikiart.org)
Selected Recommended Reading:
Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947, Reaktion Books, 2007 (also on google.books.com)
Iqbal Singh, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Biography, Vikas, 1984
GHR Tillotson, ‘A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 57-72
Dalmia Yashodhara, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, Penguin, 2013