In a remarkable coincidence, Amrita Sher-Gil’s brief life began the year Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, and ended the year he died, in 1941. Wedged between these two historic moments—these three decades also saw the flourishing of a high modernist style in what is now known as the Bengal School of Art—Sher-Gil remains one of the most discussed painters in modern India. In her lifetime, she sold next to nothing, but posthumously she became one of the most expensive Indian artists.
Although never quite mentioned in the same breath with the masters of the Bengal School, her work, which drew inspiration from Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin among others, had strong resonances with the paintings of the two Tagores, Rabindranath and Abanindranath, the pioneers of the Bengal School. Sher-Gil’s brooding portraits of women bear uncanny resemblances to those by Rabindranath, and her exquisite use of the chiaroscuro, together with the boldness with which she appropriated colours, brings to mind the nuanced style of the other Tagore. But her art, now on display in the Capital, has an ever-present quality of “yet-ness” to it, of a world teeming with possibilities which were interrupted before they could mature into something rich and strange.
Her life, on the other hand, in spite of its brevity, had an incredible richness to it. Born to a Punjabi Sikh aristocrat father and Hungarian Jewish opera-singer mother, Sher-Gil was fated to draw attention to her origins. Her exotic beauty, noble lineage, intense relationship with her father and series of affairs became the subject of much gossip, and eventually impossible to separate from her artistic persona. The art of Amrita Sher-Gil is still experienced through this prism of biography and anecdotage, without enough attention being paid to the art-historical milieu that nourished her imagination. Like Frida Kahlo, with whom she is often compared, Sher-Gil perhaps attracts more curiosity because of her troubled life and painful death than as the harbinger of a distinctive approach in painting.
It is perhaps more proper to think of Sher-Gil as a phenomenon than a genius. With the characteristic restiveness of the young, she wanted to push the limits of her circumscribed world. Having lived a full and anarchic life in Europe, she took the bold and uncompromising step of moving back to India, arguing long and hard with her reluctant father to support her and her younger sister Indira (mother of artist Vivan Sundaram) in this adventure. “I wish to return primarily in the interest of my artistic development. I now need new sources of inspiration,” she wrote in a letter to her father, insisting that their long stay in Europe had helped her “discover” India. In the same letter, she writes movingly about the effect the art of Ajanta had had on her. These unforgettable cave paintings seeped into her sensibility in a way modern European art never did. But interwoven with her practical reasoning in the letter—she must go to India for the sake of her growth as an artist—is her devil-may-care attitude, roundly dismissive of her father’s apprehension of losing face because of the projected move back to India.
Strangely, this fieriness does not come across as a defining character of her art. On the contrary, Sher-Gil’s work is marked by an aura of coolness, even when it most wants to lose itself in “a medley of hot colours”, to use her words. The relationship between her life and art was far more complicated than what a simple biographical reading of her career would allow.
The Self in Making: Amrita Sher-Gil is on till 30 November, 10.30am-6.30pm (Mondays closed), at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 145, DLF The South Court mall, Saket.