..but is that the only reason to appreciate the works of Amrita Sher-Gil?
By Angshuman Paul
When it comes to her work and her life, art critics will agree that Amrita Sher-Gil, the celebrated Indian painter, was an extreme enthusiast who led an amazingly colourful life, consonant with her cosmopolitan upbringing. Being born to an Indian Sikh father and a Hungarian Jewish mother was a boon for the artist as she grew up in a cross-cultural atmosphere. That, coupled with her own brilliance, led her to see things differently. So, while her contemporaries were busy portraying mythological characters and kings or were influenced by British paintings, Sher-Gil’s journey in the world of art started with the use of servants as models.
She grew up in a culturally rich family; her mother’s passion for music and her father’s deep interest in Sanskrit and Persian were well-known. But the elegant ethnic exclusivity that characterised her works came as results of a search for her roots.
Sher-Gil’s penchant for art took her to Florence and then to Paris wherein she became a specialist in understanding the art of European masters.
“But still she didn’t compromise with her exclusivity as Sher-Gil appreciated brightness which very few European artists used to appreciate then. She believed that such brightness in paintings made them livelier,” feels Rajeev Lochan, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi.
Sher-Gil’s paintings carried a unique signature. Rarely characters in her works wore the same clothes. This is evident from some of her well-known works such as ‘Young Girls’ and ‘Bride’s Toilet’. She was a global artist and for every step taken in her life, she was influenced by the broader international landscape of thought and creativity.
Views of the world were vividly portrayed in her paintings and to reflect such views, she didn’t even hesitate to paint herself nude. So it’s not surprising that a noted British journalist of that time, Muggeridge, who met Sher-Gil a couple of times, christened her as a “triumphantly vulgar woman.” Till date, that vulgarity fetches the highest bids in art auctions amongst the work of all Indian women artists.
According to international art auctioneer Saffronart, appreciation of art from a monetary perspective depends on creating an exclusive style. Amrita never fell short on that quotient. The art world globally have honoured all those whose works were an indulgence of common life and this is were Amrita steals the show. Her influences came from as varied grounds as her country of birth, Hungary, to India where she eventually grew as an artist.
In the global art market, the bidding for her paintings used to start from at least 30 million Indian Rupees ($750,000) at the end of the 20th century. Her paintings captured the culture of the Indian sub-continent, its people’s lives, their pains and passions. That is what has propelled Indian corporate houses (like the Kolkata based Emami Group) of the 21st century to invest in her work. As the vivacious lady herself said, “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others; India belongs only to me,” she truly was an embodiment of the idea of India. With only 172 paintings to her credit, she was able to evolve a new language for modern Indian art, changing its course forever, and wooed her contemporary artists, royalty, art historians like Karl Khandalavala and Charles Fabri, and even leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru.
Her contribution is best summed by her biographer Yashodhara Dalmia in the book Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. “She had a Sikh aristocrat father and a Hungarian mother and was born at the turn of the century, in 1913 in Budapest. She went on to spearhead the path of modernity in Indian art by imbuing her work with aspects of both Western and Eastern traditions.”
According to art critique W.G. Archer, Sher-Gil’s times was never in favour of her but she was brilliant enough to convert every threat into an opportunity. So a nude self-portrait might have created a controversy in British India but it branded her as a woman ahead of her times in Europe.