Portrait of an artist as a rebel

Yashodhara Dalmia speaks to ANJANA RAJAN about her latest work on artist Amrita Sher-Gil

Beautiful and alluring, Amrita Sher-Gil was hardly the demure Indian damsel, despite her kohl-lined eyes and exquisite saris. She could lie with a "mocking but alluring smile" in front of the fireplace, clothed in nothing but her skin and discuss the music of Bach with the civil servant Badruddin Tyabji. Her marriage to her first cousin Victor Egan was based on the understanding that she "would be free to have affairs with other men." In Yashodhara Dalmia's biography, "Amrita Sher-Gil - A Life", which was launched recently, the painter comes out in all her flamboyant hues, as also the dark ones that reflected her sorrows and doubts. Outspoken, pioneering in her artistic approach, unabashed in flouting societal norms of her times, the tragically short-lived Amrita seemed to combine in her person waywardness and vulnerability, genius and methodical training, mystery and unflinching directness. The author, an art historian and curator who has written "The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives" besides numerous essays and reviews, was pleased to have a chance to document Amrita Sher-Gil's life. Though much has been said and written about the controversial artist, daughter of a Hungarian mother and an Indian Sikh father, there was "a lacuna," she says, and this is the first commissioned biography of Sher-Gil.The research was not easy, perhaps more so because over six decades have lapsed since 1941 when the painter died at the age of 28. But Dalmia feels lucky to have been able to interview a few of her contemporaries, now in their 90s, including a classmate from Paris, the artist Boris Taslitsky. Still active in their work, they shared significant memories with the author. "It was interesting," she says, "to follow her tracks from Budapest to India to Paris and back to India again."Sher-Gil was the product of an eclectic education. A good pianist, she refrained from playing professionally because she felt it was not possible to pursue two disciplines, relates her biographer. "She was also a very good writer," she notes. "What was most interesting was her own letters. (Having access to) that was the anchor, actually, because she was so articulate. That was a real help." The artist's letters as quoted in the book reveal a holistic artist, one who revelled in all that was beautiful, mincing no words to deride the crude or ugly. Whether it was her description of Kathakali as "subtle and forceful at the same time" or her scathing derision of Dr. Cousins, curator of the Travancore Palace Museum who advised the maharaja and maharani against buying her paintings - "on the strength of theosophical ravings on art and flowery phrases... (he) is considered a high authority" - she had an ability to arrive like a knife at the core of any issue. "Basically she was very sensitive," says the author. Thanks to her researcher's approach, interviewing people and ploughing through other available written material, Dalmia has managed to avoid writing a eulogy. Her significant command over the field of contemporary Indian art, modernism and the Progressive Artists helps her speak critically about the artist, yet she also steers clear of high-flown technical jargon that would befuddle the uninitiated reader. The author comments, "Like the artist, this work was meant for the ordinary person as well as for the artist."Sher-Gil's work too reached out to a world removed from the elite air she had grown up in. "She was very accessible, without in any way lowering the level of her painting, without demeaning herself." So, says the author, her life and work both would be of interest to, say, the dentist, the fashion designer, citizens from various walks of life. For if "the whole world was dead to her" when Sher-Gil was at work, as her friend and critic Karl Khandalavala says in the book, she was also adept at partying. She was after all, the epitome of the enigmatic genius.

Recommended for you