Why Amrita Sher-Gil’s wry nationalism is relevant

Her art was unprecedented in style and substance, and she too was unforgettable


A 1931 self-portrait by Sher-Gil at Christie’s auction house, London, in 2015. Photo: AFP
A 1931 self-portrait by Sher-Gil at Christie’s auction house, London, in 2015. Photo: AFP

Amrita Sher-Gil was not a likeable person, furnishing sharp opinions at a time when women in respectable society produced only sweet expressions and blinked. But then, she never aspired to join the ranks of respectable women, moulded instead by her own heady individuality. She could be vain (“Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others. India belongs only to me,” she once declared), just as she could be horribly rude (“What an ugly little boy!” she said of Khushwant Singh’s toddler). And, as Malcolm Muggeridge, her one-time lover remembered, she was also rather “self-consciously arty”, demanding recognition on precisely the terms she defined, damaging her own cause with unrestrained impetuosity.

Sher-Gil was the firstborn of a Sikh nobleman prone to melancholy ruminations, whose other claim to fame was that Princess Bamba Duleep Singh had once pursued him. He fortified himself against her royal charms and married instead her companion, a Hungarian whose music career was distinguished largely by its absence, before she went on to shoot herself. Sher-Gil was raised by her very clever and depressed parents in Hungary, where they were stranded during the Great War, and then in India, where schooling at a convent was terminated after she pooh-poohed Catholic rituals. There was also a stint in Florence while her mother attended to a romance, but it was in Paris in the late 1920s that the painter the world remembers flourished.

“Towards the end of 1933,” she wrote, “I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.” And return she did, at first producing works with names like Mother India and The Beggars, partially succumbing to that magnified sentimentalism found today in the NRI brand of nostalgia. But she evolved quickly a singular style that stood aside from all prevailing “schools” of art. She frowned upon the condition of modernism in Indian painting: Raja Ravi Varma’s works in oil were an Indianization of colonial styles, and the Bengal School had, in its anti-colonialism, itself lapsed into an establishment with all the attendant inflexibilities.

Sher-Gil set out by herself, with a conviction that she would succeed in improving this “provincial artistic milieu” where others had failed. She created art for art’s sake and not to entertain or flatter constituencies. She was unsubtle in her personal conduct and missed diplomacy—not essential for the exercise of artistic ability but indispensable for sales—by miles. In Hyderabad, for instance, she told off one of its biggest art collectors for his bad taste which made her “sick”. The nawab in turn asked her to peddle her “Cubist pictures” elsewhere. Naturally, in her lifetime, Sher-Gil saw only modest commercial success, often descending into frustration about where she was headed.

Where she was headed was in the direction of untimely death (the result of the final of the several abortions she had in her 28 years). But in the interim, Sher-Gil produced some remarkable works, discovering forgotten artistic brilliance in her Indian roots while eschewing mindless romanticism. When she saw erotic frescoes in Fort Kochi, featuring “great fat women in the act of giving birth” she was struck by their “utmost candour”, commenting that she had “seldom seen such powerful drawing”. After viewing paintings at Ajanta, millennia old, she declared that a single fresco there was “worth more than the whole Renaissance”.

These were not the words of a nationalist invigorated by ancient glories—she spoke in terms of the art alone, which she found startlingly original and full of vitality, unlike copycat painting that made for a supply of pretty pictures and many pretensions.

After she died in Lahore in 1941, Sher-Gil acquired a cult following. Her dalliances with women, mixed parentage, unwanted pregnancies—including, one from a wealthy suitor her mother identified and another from a Reuters journalist on the eve of her wedding—not to speak of her tremendous personality, all carved out for her a unique, fascinating niche. Her art was unprecedented in style and substance, but the artist too was unforgettable. She was aware of this self-image and the effect she had on people, though personally she thought she was “like an apple, all red from outside but rotten inside”.

Most importantly, perhaps, she once declared that the “artist has every right to reject or accept public estimates of her work. When the public makes a mistake regarding a picture, it is the business of the artist by some gesture to show that the public is un-informed and dull.” Only she could have said it. In other words, she would not play to the gallery, because she was convinced that the gallery must see the wisdom of her more sophisticated view since that is what was correct.

Last weekend was the anniversary of Sher-Gil’s death and I was reminded of her in the context of something Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna—a rebel of sorts in his own field—said in a lecture some weeks before in Thiruvananthapuram. Referring to political contestations in the cultural space, he informed his audience that the role of the artist is to make interventions when the public acquiesces in a state of affairs that is less than ideal and to stand up to the pressures of the herd. Sher-Gil was not concerned with issues of public interest, but her commitment to art as something intrinsically superior to popular forces is well worth remembering today, 75 years after her death.

Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history.

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