Born in Hungry and educated in Europe with a degree
in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, Amrita Sher-gill
was passionate about India whose life and people inspired her
greatest works. A feature on this lady of rare talent who was hailed
as the most promising painter of her times.
The end was sudden. In
early December, her health took a turn for the worse. She slipped
into a coma. She never recovered from this except for short
intervals. During these phases of consciousness she would
mumble-faintly. Her words, barely audible were about colours and
shades. At around midnight that day she fell silent. This prolific
painter had, thus died as she had lived- in a world of colours.
When she died, on
December 6th, 1941, Amrita Shergill was only 29-years old.
yet in this short span she had painted extensively and earned a name
for herself as a painter with a distinct style of her own.
To become a painter was
entirely her own decision. In the words of her husband, Victor Egan,
She wanted to, intended to, and insisted upon it. He recalls that
even as a child she was drawn towards colours. The house was always
littered with her paintings, he once said, she painted on any scrap
of paper she found-and her paintings were always in colour. In fact
she rarely touched a black pencil.
It is perhaps not
surprising that Amrita took to painting. Both her parents were
artistically inclined. Her father, Umrao Singh Majitha, a Sanskrit
Scholar. And her mother, Marie Antoinette, was a pianist from
Although she was born in
Budapest it was in the village of Dunaharasti that Amrita spent her
early years, until 1921 when her family moved to Shimla. It was
during these years that her interest in painting was discovered. It
was also then that she underwent an operation to remove her squint.
By 1924 Amrita was back
in Europe, this time in Italy. With an Italian sculptor living in
Shimla, Marie Antoinette left for Italy taking her daughter with her
and had her enrolled at Santa Anunciata, a Roman Catholic
institution. Particularly critical of he strict discipline Amrita
once described the school as enormous, elegant but hateful. The
Italian experience however had a pleasant side to it. She was exposed
to the works of the Italian masters and this further fanned her
interest in painting.
Amrita began lessons in
painting under Ervin Backlay when she returned to India in 1927. His
insistence that she should copy real life models exactly as she saw
them was something that irked Amrita. His tutelage was thus
It was to Paris that
Amrita turned for inspiration and guidance-quite natural for one who
admired painters like Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh. And so, in April
1929 she arrived in Paris and at the suggestion of the Hungarian
artist Josef Nemes joined the world famous Ecole de Beaux Arts. Here
she learnt to speak and write French, discovered the bohemian life in
the Latin Quartier and in her own words painted like mad.
The Torso, one of her
early paintings was a masterly study of a nude which stood out for
its cleverness of drawing and bold modelling. In 1933, Amrita
completed Young Girls , a huge painting, 5½ inches by 64½
inches. So impressed were the critics and art enthusiasts by the
piece that she was elected Associated of the Grand Salon in Paris.
Amrita was the youngest ever and the only Asian to be honoured thus.
By now she had mastered
the techniques but was yet to discover her own style. This, she
believed, she would find only in India. I beg to feel forlorn and
felt that as far as my artistic personality was concerned. I would
never be able to find it in Paris she had once written to a close
Much to her mothers
chagrin-who wanted her to stay on in Paris and marry a French
painter-Amrita returned, once again, to India in 1934.
Once back home she set
about discovering her own style. A part of the is quest was her
decision to dress only in sarees. Slowly she evolved her own distinct
style which, according to her, was fundamentally Indian in subject
spirit and technical expression. She turned her eyes away from the
masters of France and the art houses of the West on to her own
homeland-its people, its villages, its beauty and its ugliness. Her
subjects were almost always the poor, the villagers and beggars-the
This aspect of her
painting led many critics to describe her as having a gloomy eye. But
then it was the poverty of this country that fanned her imagination
and shaped her art. Amritas paintings were not mere
reproductions of what she saw around her but visions born out of the
co-ordination of colour, design and emotion. An example of this was
her painting A Group of Three Girls. This portrays a synthesis of
idea and technique and at the same time reveals her reaction to
Indian life. Always, it is her response to her environment that
guides her practiced hands to create meaningful visions.
Thus a visit to every new
place brought forth a set of paintings different in colour, form and
setting. In 1937, Amrita went on a tour of South India. This gave her
the opportunity to achieve the simplicity she always wanted in her
paintings. Bridges Toilet, Bhramacharis and The South Indian
Villagers going to the Market were born out of her South Indian
During these years her
major preoccupation was her marriage to her cousin Victor Egan. This
marriage was purely for security. Explaining this to her friend she
said I feel fairly convinced that I am not made for marriage. I am
trying it out all the same. I am essentially weak and need some one
to take care of me.
Opposite to the marriage
came form both her parents. Her mother wanted her to be married to
one of the rich and famous men who courted her in Europe while her
father objected to her marrying her cousin. But once her mind was
made up the re was not changing it. So, in 1938, she set sail for
Hungary. By this time however the war had begun and Victory was
called up for military duty. When he returned they were married in
Budapest. This was in July 1938. They shared an open marriage. Victor
is believed to have told her Ill do my work. You do yours. Well
A year later, Amrita
returned to India and was back to painting her favourite subjects.
This phase was one which Amrita describes as a particularly happy
one. But, alas it was to last only for the next two years.
Critics and the public
alike commended Amritas work. Her paintings were well received
in most places and she was hailed as one of the most promising
painters of the younger generation.
But, as always, not
everybody had words of praise for her. Criticism was something
Amrita took in her work she writes I know the type and am perfectly
satisfied that they should dislike my work. I should feel very
diffident about the quality of my work if it was appreciated by
Amrita was herself very
critical by nature. Once on a visit to Hyderabad she was taken around
the famous Salar Jung Museum by none other than the Nawab himself.
When asked for an opinion she said How on earth can anyone with any
taste buy Leightons and Bougerans when there are Cezannes, Van Goghs
and Gauguins in the market. She earned his wrath, no doubt. He sent
back two of her paintings which he had bought for the gallery.
Equally critical was she
of the New Art Gallery in Trivandrum describing it as a place where
half the gallery was consecrated to the works of Ravi Verma and the
other half to the most representative collection of unutterable muck
that masqueraded in the name of modern art.
When she died many a
cliché was used to describe Amritas genius. None however
did full justice. For, rarely do we come across a commitment as
sincere as Amritas. painting was her life. As in the case of
most artists, very few of her paintings were sold during her
lifetime. But this did not deter her and she kept at it against all
It was India and its
people that shaped her artistic genius. Most of her paintings reflect
vividly her love for the country and more importantly her response to
the life of its people. It was in their in simple needs and more
importantly her response to the life of its people. It was in their
simple needs and honest ways, in their fears and joys, and in their
stoic acceptance of adversity, that she found inspiration. And it is
indeed the sincerity of her subject and the brightness of her colours
that brings to Amritas paintings a quality of timelessness.