Amrita Sher-Gil’s legacy comes across as a mouthful to most people. Born in 1913 in Budapest, she always existed on a cusp of identities – a Jewish Mother and a Sikh Father. The rebelliousness she shows in her later works, was with her through childhood. She was expelled from her Convent school in Shimla, after declaring herself to be an atheist. She started painting after this, studying in Santa Annunziata in Florence and Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She rose to fame here, her painting Young Girls, won the Associate of The Grands Salon in Paris in 1933. She was the youngest and the first Asian person to win this prize. She returned to India in 1934, and trapped her ideas about sexuality, femininity and liberation in canvases, through her varied subjects, most often women from backgrounds much different from her. She famously said, “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and other, India belongs only to me”.
Over the next seven years, she created an intricate and elaborate body of work. She grew to be one of the most adorned women in India, and her revered pieces now rest in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Art and Expression
Amrita Sher-Gil’s work was a mirror to her curiosity and an attempt to express her desire, yearning and longing, for things both personal and a larger emancipation of the female self. Most of her career was devoted to capturing the less glamorous and deliberately unseen people in society. For instance, The Bride’s Toilet (1937) reflects the rituals and the controls on women. She painted most of her work in bold strokes and earthly tones. This was a sombre portrayal of the prosaic reality of women, sometimes voyeuristic even. However, her subject was always shown with dignity, never reduced to sub-human, just portrayed in drab contexts.
She was hugely inspired by the wealth of Western Renaissance, avant-garde and modernist artworks and also by the Ajanta Caves. While a lot of her art involved nudity, it was not erotic, presenting the female form as a burden even. Her painting Professional Model, represents the grim reality of a glamorous woman, who appear tired and fading. She brought discomfort to the shielded society of art in India. In a letter to Karl Khandalavala, in March 1937 she said “Erotic painting and sculpture could not possibly have been inspired by religious fervour. I think all art, not excluding religious art, has come into being because of sensuality: a sensuality so great that it overflows the boundaries of the mere physical”
Amrita, rejected the Orientalist stereotypes in Western modernism, by creating work which not only highlighted herself and other real people, but challenged Imperialist perceptions in an era of ongoing British rule.She opposed the colonisation greatly, through her art and also through her writing. However, she did not shy away from expressing her disdain with social injustice in Indian society as well.
She saw her body as a subject too, and her self portraits were a result of this. Most of her paintings were painted with a risque predeposition. Her bisexuality is also something she was constantly suggestive of throughout her life, both explicitly and through her work. In a letter to her mother in 1934, she wrote “Knowing how unprejudiced, objective and intelligent you are, I am going to be very frank with you. I confess that I also think as you do about the disadvantages of relationships with men. But since I need to relieve my sexuality physically somehow (because I think it is impossible to spiritualise, idealise sexuality completely in art, and channelising it through art for a lifetime is impossible, only a stupid superstition invented for the brainless). So I thought I would start a relationship with a woman when the opportunity arises.” Her mother allegedly burnt her early letter describing her relationships with men and women and other musings. Her father reported she had had multiple relations with women.
She is studied as an icon who declared ownership and irrelevance of her body. While she attempted to shatter the ‘cultural high society’, ironically, most of her work is found there, in closed rooms with high walls. Her work was an amalgamation of homoerotic subtexts and merging the public with the private.
Tragically Amrita died in 1941 due to complications after an abortion. This was just before her first major exhibition in Lahore. In her times, she offended a lot of people, and continues to do so. She emerged as a fierce queer and feminist icon and is revered to this day.
Anureet is an Intern at She The People TV