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Business News/ News / India/  Amrita Sher-Gil’s Ladies’ Enclosure sets a new auction record

Amrita Sher-Gil’s Ladies’ Enclosure sets a new auction record

The Indo-Hungarian artist blended European and Indian styles and captured the experiences of women in early 20th century India

The work fetched ₹37.8 crore at a Saffronart auction in Mumbai, making this the highest-ever price achieved by the artist in an auction.Premium
The work fetched 37.8 crore at a Saffronart auction in Mumbai, making this the highest-ever price achieved by the artist in an auction.

A rare Amrita Sher-Gil painting from her India period, painted just three years before her death, fetched 37.8 crore at a Mumbai auction on Tuesday, making it the second-most expensive artwork by an Indian artist globally.

The 1938-work, titled In the Ladies’ Enclosure, is one of the largest Sher-Gil canvasses at 21.5x31.5 inches and depicts a group of women sitting in a field.

Sher-Gil painted it four years after returning to India from Europe—a period marked by her embracing subjects from the Indian countryside—and just three years before her sudden death at the age of 28.

In the Ladies’ Enclosure also became the most valuable Sher-Gil painting. V.S. Gaitonde’s Untitled (1961) continues to be the most expensive, having sold for 39.98 crore in March at auction house Saffronart.

Sher-Gil’s paintings are highly coveted by collectors and art lovers, as they rarely come up for auction. When they do, they are works of much smaller size than Ladies’ Enclosure.

The record-breaking sale of Sher-Gil’s seminal painting clearly indicates her artistic merit, said Dinesh Vazirani, chief executive and co-founder of Saffronart, which auctioned her painting. “The work highlights her growth and development as an artist and is a culmination of years of coming into her own as an artist of repute. It is, additionally, a rare work of the artist from that particular period to emerge in the art market, and we are honoured to have played a part in creating a new benchmark with this auction," Vazirani said.

The Indo-Hungarian artist blended European and Indian styles in her work and captured the lives and experiences of women in early 20th century India. “Her paintings are lauded for their timeless themes and qualities that powerfully resonate with women’s narratives even today," notes a blog post on Saffronart, published on 8 July.

Sher-Gil, born to Hungarian opera singer Marie Antoinette Gottesmann and Sikh aristocrat, scholar and photographer Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her return to India in 1934 marked a significant change in her style: her palette began to reflect earthy tones, and her immediate surroundings inspired her paintings.

The subjects of this particular painting are believed to have been inspired by members of the Majithia family who had been living on the family estate at Saraya in Uttar Pradesh and would have been known to Sher-Gil, according to her nephew and noted contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram.

“The bride’s profiled features are drawn schematically: on a pale pink skin colour, four notational lines for the eye and a tiny dot for the pupil. This is to de-romanticize he face–modern art’s agenda to get rid of the shackles of realist painting. Amrita’s flat application of paint and minimal drawing gives this person a remote presence, a quiet austerity," the blog post quotes Sundaram.

Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia, author of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, finds the colour palette reminiscent of early Rajput miniatures. “This is an important painting in her oeuvre, created during the later period of her practice. She had achieved a certain level of understanding and perception," Dalmia said. In Ladies’ Enclosure, she uses the device of miniatures to depict the women in bright primary colours. However, there are unique contrasts. While the colours are deeply vivid, there is a certain sense of isolation and loneliness in the profile of the women.

“It seems as if people are preparing for a forthcoming marriage. But the woman’s face and demeanour show loneliness as if wondering about what the future will hold. In a subtle way, Amrita Sher-Gil is showing the condition of women at that time," Dalmia added.

According to Arvind Vijaymohan, chief executive, Artery India, an art market intelligence firm, 68 of Sher-Gil’s works have come up for auction in the past 34 years, with only 16 being canvases. “When she passed away, her family handed over a collection of Sher-Gil paintings to the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. Hence, you will find very few works available for sale in private hands, primarily the few that were sold during her lifetime," he said.

While European sensibilities influenced her early understanding of art, what makes Sher-Gil’s work important from an art-history perspective is her quest for her roots, which she embraced through her work while travelling extensively across India. In the Ladies’ Enclosure was painted during this important phase, in the late 1930s.

She continued to paint academic portraits, but her paintings started developing a clear “Indianness" during this phase. Paintings from the 1930s, such as Bride’s Toilet and Bhrmacharis, are considered to bear the quintessential Sher-Gil stamp.

Given the scarcity of her works, every time an important painting is featured in an auction, the bar is raised. “2015 was a breakthrough year when three small-format self-portraits were auctioned in March, June and October, achieving 53 crore collectively. In 2018, an academic portrait, The Little Girl in Blue, painted in 1934, was auctioned for 18.7 crore," Vijaymohan said. According to him, these portraits are not “qualitatively" comparable to the painting that sold on Tuesday.

“The composition, perspective and density of this canvas haven’t been seen at auction since 2006 when another qualitatively richer painting by Sher-Gil titledVillage Scene sold for 6 crore. In the Ladies’ Enclosure is, all the same, a thoroughly collectable, historically significant canvas that, in my opinion, has sold under its justifiable value," he added.

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Avantika Bhuyan
Avantika Bhuyan is a national writer at the Mint Lounge. With nearly 18 years of experience, she has been writing about the impact of technology on child development, and the intersections of art, culture with gender, history and sexuality.
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Published: 14 Jul 2021, 11:54 PM IST
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