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Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings belong to that fellowship of great art she praised

ArtAmrita Sher-Gil’s paintings belong to that fellowship of great art she praised

European art, Indian art. The two terms are equally expansive, and equally meaningless. How many centuries of work, what magnitudes of difference do we have to account for to be able to make sense of such categories? Do we then create subcategories for the European artists who developed their own idiom by imitating the Japanese? And for those Indian artists who found their way home by first heading out towards the West? The only thing worse than labelling someone’s art with either of these tags is to label it with both: Indo-European.

I was reminded of this appellation during Amrita Sher-Gil’s 105th birth anniversary celebrations in Delhi earlier this week. It is often employed to describe Sher-Gil’s style, or, more specifically, to mark the two major phases of her artistic development. There’s the European period—a product of her childhood in Budapest and her education in Paris. And then, there’s the Indian period—inaugurated by her homecoming in the 1930s, her discovery of the Ajanta frescoes, and her study of Mughal and Rajput miniatures. Indeed, Sher-Gil herself did her best to play up this return-to-roots attitude. In her art, she did so by choosing subject matter she considered to be sufficiently “Indian” (beggars and other assorted sufferers). And in life, she achieved this effect through a fashion statement centred on the sari, which became her trademark attire. (In a 1935 letter to her Hungarian mother, she wrote: “I have decided not to wear any European dress in the future…”)

But this is exactly the kind of one-dimensionality that Sher-Gil’s regrettably short career seemed to defy. As an artist, she was a bundle of contradictions: a self-proud stickler for originality who fell under the sway of anyone she admired. Touches of Bruegel in her painting entitled Hungarian Village Market, and of Cézzane in Young Girls are unmistakable. And through the course of her work, you see all her influences travelling along with her, new currents meeting the old, transmuting together into something original.

This was a way not just of practicing art, but a way of seeing and interpreting it as well. In one of her letters, written in 1937 to her friend Karl Khandalawala, she compared “the keenness of form” in Mughal portraits to Brueghel and Renoir. Then, in another letter to Karl, from 1941, she wrote of being able to see shades of Paul Gauguin in the miniature Radha-Krishna paintings of the Basohli school. “How significant of the fellowship of all great art,” Sher-Gil wrote, “that a mind of such completely different origin as Gauguin should have a common atavism with the Basohli miniaturists.”

Sher-Gil was extraordinarily sensitive to such atavisms, and perhaps her open-mindedness had quite a lot do with her outsider status. She was a misfit. Being a mixed-race person in a Hungary that was fast descending into the hellfire of fascist politics was tough enough. But she was also, and more significantly, a woman. Few endeavours of human life have remained so steadfastly patriarchal as the visual arts. And for a woman, the creative challenge doesn’t stop at mastering the tools—you have to reinvent the language. Sher-Gil, to a great extent, managed to achieve that. Particularly so in a genre that was entirely a male invention and that catered to an exclusively male audience: the nude.

At Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), which houses a decent though sparse collection of Sher-Gil’s work, there’s a wonderful painting of hers called Professional Model (Nude). It made me think of the writer John Berger and his exposition on nudity as “a form of dress”. “A naked body,” Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.” Sher-Gil’s model is not so much in the nude as she is naked to the core, and thus she emerges as a real person. Which is more than what Gauguin, say, could ever achieve with any of his nudes. Yet, and here comes the complication, there are clear echoes of Gauguin in Sher-Gil’s oeuvre—most obviously in a nude self-portrait where she depicted herself as a Tahitian woman.

One way to understand Sher-Gil’s art is to see it in this larger context of cross-cultural transactions, where influences are not simply assimilated, but are often fruitfully opposed, argued with. On another level, Sher-Gil’s paintings are to be viewed as experiments in colour. She could paint whole worlds within a limited chromatic range, and could use subtle variations of tone to communicate dramatic contrasts. Her Still Life 1, for instance, at the NGMA, uses greys, blues and whites to convey at once the brittleness of eggshells, the rough solidity of ceramics, and the gleam of a
marble tabletop.

The critic and artist K.G. Subramanyan has written the most discerning essay yet on Sher-Gil’s work. In this piece, entitled “Amrita Sher-Gil and the East-West Dilemma”, he argues that Sher-Gil’s feeling for colour may have come at the cost of her understanding of form. He detects an academic dryness in her style, and rookie mannerisms in even the best of her paintings. In Fruit Vendors, Subramanyan writes, “the outlines… stand demonstratively outside the body contours”. In Bride’s Toilet, the “compositional structure is loose… the limbs are treated differently in different places”. Many such missteps are highlighted. Yet the crux of Subramanyan’s piece is that Sher-Gil was someone who was all the time learning from her errors, becoming a greater artist with every step she took.

We can only surmise as to the direction her art would have taken had she lived longer (she died suddenly, inexplicably at the age of 28). But the greater tragedy is that most of us still don’t know much about the direction her art did take. Only a limited range of her paintings is on view for the general public. Sher-Gil’s relatives and private collectors, I believe, still own the bulk of her work. The rest is with Delhi’s NGMA, which hosted a preposterous “digital exhibition” on 30 January to mark Sher-Gil’s birth anniversary. It involved a handful of projectors beaming low-quality images of her popular paintings on bare walls. This, I thought, was more travesty than tribute. But at least there were the originals in the main gallery to go back to.

In her 2006 biography of Sher-Gil, author Yashodhara Dalmia draws our attention to this exposure deficit the artist’s work has suffered from. “Neither her family nor the Government of India has initiated a museum devoted to her works,” Dalmia writes. Early on in the same book, she tells the story of the writer and broadcaster Ashfaque Ahmed, who bought one of Sher-Gil’s paintings from a scrap dealer in Lahore: “The shopkeeper charged three rupees for the gilded frame and suggested that Ashfaque throw away the painting!” This was many years ago. What if it were to happen again in some city—Delhi, Shimla, Amritsar, Lahore—where Sher-Gil had once lived? And how many of us would know better than to keep the gilded frame and throw away the painting?


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