Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sher-Gil’s Indian women

Today is the centenary of the birth of Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the Indian’s most important 20th century painters with an international reputation - indeed she has been dubbed India’s Frida Kahlo. Sher-Gil lived a rich and talented life but died rather mysteriously aged only 28. She has been the subject of several biographical works, several of which draw on a diary she kept as a child.

Sher-Gil was born in Budapest on 30 January 1913. Her father was a Sikh aristocrat and scholar and her mother a Jewish opera singer. She spent much of her early childhood in Budapest, and was influenced by her uncle, Ervin Baktay, a painter and noted expert on India. In 1921, the family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla in India, where Amrita and her sister would give concerts and act in plays. When not yet a teenager, she was taken to Florence for a short while where she studied in an art school.

By the age of 17, Sher-Gil was living in Paris, and studying at École des Beaux-Arts under Lucien Simon and being influenced by the works of Cézanne and Gauguin. In 1932, her painting Young Girls (see below) led to her being elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris, making her the youngest ever and, indeed, the only Asian to have received this recognition. In 1934, she returned to India, and launched herself into the traditions of Indian art, later letting herself be influenced by Mughal and Pahari painting and by the cave paintings at Ajanta Caves.

Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr Victor Egan, in 1938, and lived with him at her father’s family’s home in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, before moving in 1941 to Lahore, still then part of India. She is said to have had many affairs, with men and women, and, before her marriage, to have pursued a young Malcolm Muggeridge.

Days before the opening of her first show in Lahore, Sher-Gil became seriously ill and died, aged but 28, though the cause of the illness, amid many rumours, has never been established. Subsequently, the Government of India declared Sher-Gil’s works as National Art Treasures and houses them in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Today, she is considered one of the most important Indian women artists of the 20th century, and is sometimes referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo. Further biographical information is available at the Sikh Heritage website, the Tate, and Wikipedia.

Although there are no extracts of any diary kept by Sher-Gil readily-available on the internet, she does seem to have kept a diary as a child - this is referred to in various biographical works. For example, a review of Yashodhara Dalmia’s Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life published by Viking (India) in 2006 (see Amazon for some pages), and recently republished by Penguin India, says this: ‘Although her work was very varied, Sher-Gil’s women are of special interest. Dalmia quotes an entry from Sher-Gil’s diary when she was just twelve, about a child bride, noting the pathos of the little girl sitting silently in a corner, a “helpless toy” in the hands of those responsible for her well-being.’

More recently, in 2010, Tulika Books has published, in two volumes, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings edited by Vivan Sundaram. Reviews of this book can be found in Indian Express, Time Out Mumbai, and Civil Society. The former refers to the inclusion, in the book, of Sher-Gil’s ‘diary entries that begin in 1920 when Amrita was barely seven years old’. A film by Sundaram’s sister, Navina, called Amrita Sher-Gil, A Family Album also uses texts from Sher-Gil’s diary.

Finally, in 2009, Tulika Books published a children’s book, My Name is Amrita . . . Born to be an artist by Anjali Raghbeer, which ‘reads like a diary, and in fact includes actual lines from Amrita Sher-Gil’s childhood diaries’. This book can be previewed at Googlebooks.

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