Legendary artist Amrita Sher-Gil’s birth centenary (1913-1941) was on January 30. She initiated modernism into Indian art by synthesising Western principles of organised design in composition and Indian purity of colours in her paintings. Her remarkable command over the medium of oil colours is seen is in her portrayals of the life of women. Although she was heir to two cultures – European and Indian – she passionately studied Indian philosophy and ideals of art.
In a span of seven years (1934-41) she produced nearly 150 wonderful paintings, which have very few parallels in Indian art. Her paintings are vibrant, with colours drawn from the painting traditions of India – frescoes of Ajanta and Kerala, and from the schools of miniatures. The letters and diaries written by her give a vivid account of her experiences and encounters and her views on art and life of her times.
She has also expressed her views on contemporary art and attitudes in a couple of articles that appeared in the newspapers of the period. In The Hindu (November 1, 1936), she wrote at length about her views on art in the article titled ‘Modern Indian Art’. Referring to the Bengal school, she commented: “The Indian art committed the mistake of feeding almost exclusively on the tradition of mythology and romance…”. In the concluding part of the article she wrote, “I am an individualist evolving a new technique that though not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.”
Amrita had a discerning vision, sensible mind, and a dynamic personal character, which helped her produce great works of art.
Amrita was born to Umrao Singh, an aristocrat from Amritsar, and Marie Antoinette, a Hungarian in 1930, in Budapest in Hungary. She underwent training in art at Grand Chaumiere and later at Ecole des Beaux in Paris. In Paris, she explored galleries and museums where she was introduced to masterpieces of Western art. She was influenced by the works of Paul Cezanne, Gaugin, Modigliani and Vincent Van Gogh. At the art school, she followed Cezanne’s techniques in painting still-life and landscapes. While Cezanne’s works showed her the technique of organising forms, Gaugin’s paintings guided her in the use of colours.
In 1934, Amrita returned to India.
Amrita made her entry into the Indian art scene when she was most needed. She took it as her mission to interpret the life of India and, particularly the poor, pictorially. She decided to travel and study the life, culture and our traditions of the country. She visited Bombay, Hyderabad, Ajanta and Ellora and travelled to Kerala to see the murals in Mattancherry and Padmanabhapuram. In Bombay [Mumbai], she met Karl Khadalawala (1904-95), a lawyer and renowned art critic, who remained friends with Amrita until her death. He was one of her earliest biographers (1944).
Amrita’s sensibility was charged when she saw the lush, bold and magnificent murals of Mattancherry, Padmanabhapuram and Ajanta. In a letter she wrote in January 1937, referring to the paintings at Mattanchery, she says: “I have seldom seen such powerful drawing, it often surpasses Ajanta”. The charm and depth of experiences she derived from her tour of South India had a great impact on her. She was passionately drawn by the bright colours of the flowers, the chiselled faces of the inhabitants, and the grace of the costumes of the rustic folk whom she encountered during her travels.
She was so fascinated by the simplicity of life and the richness of culture that she lived and worked for days in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari.
Amrita’s famous paintings such as ‘Fruit Vendors’, ‘Brides Toilet’, ‘Brachmacharis’, and ‘Villagers going to the market’ are based on her experiences during her South Indian tour. Her deep concern for women is reflected in the ‘Bride’s Toilet’ and in ‘Fruit Vendors’. The mauves, pinks, greens, whites and browns against a pale green background make this a wonderful painting.
The painting ‘Brahmacharis’ shows the adoption of a similar stylistic mode. In these paintings her experiences are transmitted not on the descriptive plain but on the plain of emotional significance – line, colour and design. These paintings also indicate the impact of Ajanta on Amrita. The elements of simplification of physique and reliance on outline and firmly moulded form seem to have been derived from Ajanta. Later, she shifted her attention towards the Mughal Rajput and Jain miniatures. The next phase shows a change towards a more sombre and reflective art.
In 1938, she married Dr. Victor Egan, her cousin. She stayed in Hungary for a year and returned to India in 1939. Her stylistic mode began to change.
She became less passionate towards humanity and less romantic; content dictated forms gave way to a phase where forms dictated content. The paintings ‘The Ancient Story Teller’, ‘The Swing’, ‘The Bride’, ‘Woman resting on Charpoy’ and ‘Elephant promenade’ belong to this phase. All these paintings done during her last days are great masterpieces that highlight the meeting of East and West. Most of the compositions are arranged in the given frame, thus leaving empty space that makes the central subject prominent.
The life of Amrita Sher-Gill, the great artist and great individual genius, was an unfinished song.