I have always been in awe of Amrita Sher-Gil ever since I happened to see some of her paintings in a leading Indian glossy. Those were the pre-Internet days when we had to rely on the library, books and media to update our knowledge. Apart from some tidbits I couldn’t get to know much about her.
Ever since it started in 2009, the National Gallery of Modern Art has been a boon for art-enthusiasts in Bangalore. There have been cultural events galore in its green campus as well as exhibitions of the works of big names in the contemporary Indian art scene. In mid-2012, the gallery held a mammoth exhibition of the paintings and installations of Ram Kinkar Baij and in mid-2013 the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore were on show. This year the focus is on Amrita Sher-Gil to commemorate her on her birth centenary.
This first of its kind exhibition called ‘The Passionate Quest’ featuring the works of the elusive and mercurial artist which started on 30 March has drawn a great response. The paintings have travelled all the way from NGMA, Delhi and the show is curated by Yashodara Dalmia, biographer of the artist. Interestingly, NGMA, Delhi in a large way came into being because of Amrita Sher-Gil. After Amrita-Sher Gil’s sudden and premature death in 1941, her family donated her large body of paintings to a trust. Upkeep of so many paintings was not easy. Many years later, when art aficionados approached the then Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, he suggested the idea of starting a gallery to house these paintings. The idea bore fruition when the NGMA opened in the capital in 1954. In addition to all the works of Amrita Sher-Gil, the gallery is adorned by works of other prominent artists of the country.
Amrita Sher-Gil sadly lived a very short life. The eldest daughter of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia and his Hungarian wife Marie Antoinette Gottesmann-Erdobaktay, Amrita was only 28 when she died in Lahore in 1941 owing to (which many say) an abortion gone wrong. She was married to her maternal cousin Victor Egan.
Born in Budapest on 30 January 1913, Amrita’s talent was noticed when she was only 6. Her parents were quick to hone her talents. She studied art in the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. During her student days she regularly visited her grandparents in Hungary and her paintings of those days were largely influenced by her learnings at Paris and life in Hungary. A part of the exhibition called Hungarian Manifestation has many paintings from this phase of her life. Another section of the exhibition aptly titled Threshold features her initial works especially those at Paris. Her body of work as a newbie artist features a lot of self-portraits depicting her in various moods and there are a lot of nudes too. Particularly striking is a painting of a Hungarian marketplace with a white church steeple in the background and an old man in the foreground. Among the self-portraits, one which has the artist bare-shouldered and
flaunting a wholesome smile is very impressive.
Besides Hungarian Manifestation and Threshold, the exhibition also has paintings falling under two more categories – The Icon and Iconoclastic and Indian Journey. I must say the Indian Journey was my favourite. The paintings here are easily the artist’s best. According to those closely associated with her works, “Her artistic vision was shaped by many factors – her childhood experiences, her experience of India, its landscapes and people, her inspiration drawn from other artists and art forms”.
Karl Khandalwala who was one of Amrita Sher-Gil’s close associates said in 1938, “After having spent her early childhood in Hungary she developed a strong liking for India’s natural beauty and a fondness for its majestic appeal”.
In spite of family opposition, Amrita Sher-Gil returned to India to carry on her artistic pursuits. She said, “I don’t think I shall paint at all in Europe. I can only paint in India. Elsewhere I am not natural, I have no self-confidence. Europe belongs to Picasso, Mattise, Braque and many others. India belongs to me”.
So great was Amrita Sher-Gil’s love for India, that she decided to wear only Indian clothes from 1935.
The exhibition also features the last unfinished painting of Amrita Sher-Gil. It is very tragic that someone so talented died so young.
Do visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore to have a look at the amazing paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil. The exhibition is on till 7 May.