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Amrita Shergill - Drawn from Life

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 Hungary.

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 short-lived.

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 friend.

Much to her mother’s 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 true India.

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. Amrita’s 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 impressions.

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 I’ll do my work. You do yours. Well live together.

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 Amrita’s 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 everyone.

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 Amrita’s genius. None however did full justice. For, rarely do we come across a commitment as sincere as Amrita’s. 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 odds.

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 Amrita’s paintings a quality of timelessness.

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