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Amrita Sher-Gil’s Self Portrait with Long Hair.
Amrita Sher-Gil’s Self Portrait with Long Hair.

Parallel lives | Amrita Sher-Gil & Lionel Wendt

What's common between painter Amrita Sher-Gil and Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt, showing for the first time in India

Shanay Jhaveri calls his latest exhibition, which opened at Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai last week, “the best sort of homecoming". The 29-year-old art semiotics graduate isn’t just referring to his dual existence in London, UK, and Mumbai. In Dialogue makes an unusual pairing of two artists whose return to their respective homelands influenced their work. Jhaveri exhibits Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt—this is the first time his photographs will be shown in India—alongside his contemporary, painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Though the duo never met, “the most striking resemblance between Sher-Gil’s and Wendt’s trajectories is that they both decided to return to South Asia as young adults", says the curator.

Jhaveri juxtaposes image with painting not so much to define similitude in theme or technique, but to present two responses to a similar context of privilege, colonialism, Western education and a deep engagement with one’s country and culture.

Sher-Gil, one of the country’s most well-known artists, died at a young age of 28, but not before painting some masterpieces, such as Professional Model and later, The Swing and Haldi Grinders. In 1934, after completing a formal education in art in Paris, France, she returned to India stating that she was “haunted by an intense longing...feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter" (Evolution Of My Art). She stayed at her ancestral home in Amritsar, where she painted homosocial spaces occupied by women, such as rooftops and gardens. One of the works that emerged, Group Of Three Girls (1935), won a gold medal awarded by the Bombay Art Society. She also began to study the art of Ajanta and Ellora caves—a watershed if any, in her development as an artist, as it led to a new aesthetic in Sher-gil’s works.

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Shanay Jhaveri

Not only did Wendt’s use of modernist techniques, such as photo montage, solarization, and copper toning, add to the burgeoning conversation on the function and aesthetics of photography, his works also challenged the colonialist’s gaze of the “native", reclaimed through his reimagining of his land. However, even as Wendt’s photos deviated from surrealism’s orientalist preoccupations, the homoerotic gaze evident in a lot of his studio portraitures makes Wendt ripe for academic picking, feels Jhaveri. “There was certainly a lot of negotiation that Wendt underwent with his subjects," he adds, pointing to a 1935 photograph titled Man With Traditional Mat, which shows a young man wrapped in a silk lungi, the form of his legs visible under the cloth.

The exhibition is on till 25 October at Jhaveri Contemporary gallery, 2 Krishna Niwas, 58A, Walkeshwar Road, Mumbai, from 11am-6pm (Sundays and Mondays closed).

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