Towards the end of 1933, 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.
— Amrita Sher-Gil
Since our last article was about an art forger, it only makes sense to move on to an artist. Amrita Sher-Gil remains one of the most revered women in the Indian art world, with her paintings among the most expensive in the country. Born into luxury in Hungary, she chose to go to India to share the lives of those who were most often ignored, painting women and people living in poverty. She worked to showcase the complexity of their lives through her work. For most of her short career, she sought the stories of those who had been overlooked. To honour that path, we will follow behind her, and try our best to tell her story.
Born in Budapest in 1913 to a Jewish mother and an Indian father, Amrita Sher-Gil was their first of two children whom they raised in luxury. From a young age, Amrita was rebellious, getting herself kicked out of a convent school by declaring herself an atheist. With the support of her family, she found her passion, starting with portraits of her servants. It wasn’t long before she was enrolled in art lessons, and she later used those connections to secure herself a spot at Santa Annunziata in Florence.
She quickly rose to fame throughout Paris. One of her most famous paintings, Young Girls, won her a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. She was not only the youngest person to win this award but also the first Asian person.
That same year, one of her professors encouraged her to return to India to help her work. In 1934, she did. She described her desire to move back to India saying:
“Towards the end of 1933, 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.”
In time, both she and her teacher were proven right about her potential success in India. Her paintings became more and more recognized in the artistic community both abroad and within the country.
She said of her time there, “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others, India belongs only to me.”
It was in India that she really grew into her art style and her identity, focusing deeply on painting people who were often overlooked. She described her decision, saying:
“I realized my artistic mission then: to interpret the life of Indians and particularly of the poor Indians pictorially, to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies.”
When asked to do a portrait of the prospective prime minister and her rumoured lover, she turned it down because he was too handsome for her to paint.
Despite her particular nature about her subjects, she created vigorously and amassed a large portfolio. Her work was respected, but rarely popular or sought after by galleries. She was not to be discouraged, however, and with a doctor as a husband she was able to focus almost entirely on painting.
Her husband’s profession was useful not only financially, but also because of his ability to procure her an abortion when one became necessary for her, both before and after their marriage began.
It was allegedly due to an abortion that she died in 1941. Her mother later claimed that it was her husband’s intention to kill her, but there is no evidence to support this theory.
It is a well-known adage that an artists work becomes much more expensive after they die, and in Amrita Sher-Gil’s case, that was very true. After her death, her slow-rising fame translated to big payouts. For someone who died at twenty-eight, her portfolio was shockingly extensive.
It is hard to say now if Amrita Sher-Gil would be pleased with her legacy. She is one of the most well known Indian women in art. However, it is also known that her mother burned her early letters describing her relationships with women. When she learned this, she was horrified. Fortunately, the burning of these documents has not completely erased her identity. In fact, most sources discuss her bisexuality openly. Considering her multiple relationships with women throughout her life, it is hard to ignore.
The woman who worked so tirelessly to portray the lives of other women in her community has had her own story told. She is far from receiving the recognition of Matisse or Picasso, but that by no means should imply she is forgotten. Both her family and her fans have worked long and hard after her death to make sure her life is remembered. Though she only was alive a short time, her story, in its’ fullness and complexities, is told. She is remembered as the Jewish, Indian, Hungarian, bisexual, artist and high-class woman who told the stories of lower-class women in India. With all of her intricacies, she is remembered and she is loved.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Mzezewa, Tariro. “Overlooked No More: Amrita Sher-Gil, a Pioneer of Indian Art.” The New York Times. 20 Jun 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/obituaries/amrita-shergil-dead.html
Hughes, Kathryn. “The Indian Frida Kahlo.” Telegraph. 3 Jun 2013. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10087130/The-Indian-Frida-Kahlo.html
Amrita Sher-Gil. 28 Feb - 22 Apr 2007, Tate Modern, London. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/amrita-sher-gil
Amrita Sher-Gil. National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/QRaQm24R
Dutt, Nirupama. “When Amrita Sher-Gil vowed to seduce Khushwant Singh to take revenge on his wife.” Scroll. 30 Jan 2017. https://scroll.in/magazine/827982/when-amrita-sher-gil-vowed-to-seduce-khushwant-singh-to-take-revenge-on-his-wife