YASHODHARA Dalmia’s biography on Amrita Sher-Gil comes hottest on the heels of painting by the artist being auctioned for Rs.6.9 crore. As her works are rare to access, the Sher-Gil lover paid this crazy amount to acquire her village scene, one of the 145 paintings she made during her short, but productive life.
While Sher-Gil ironically never sold any work during her lifetime, critics always found it hard to ignore her. In the fledging art circles of Lahore and Delhi way back in the ‘30s, Charles Fabri eulogized her work as the “only genius colonial India” had produced, while others like artist Roop Krishna trashed her work as “outdated”. But even 66 years after her death, she is not forgotten. The aura and mystique surrounding Sher-Gil The Painter and Sher-Gill. The personality continues to hunt the public as powerfully when she was alive.
Partly because Sher-Gil, born to a Hungarian mother and Sikh father, died young, at 28. She had the looks and she was a charmer. Coming from a wealthy background, she took her art training at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and led a privileged lifestyle wherever she went. On one of her trips to a beach in South India, she painted on a windy day while a man held on to the canvas to prevent it from blowing away.
Sher-Gil’s private life also gave room for talk. Unlike women of her age, she wasn’t shy to exhibit her “narcissistic strain”. She was a day dreamer who loved to read old, tattered love letters. By evening, she needed her dance and was often spotted at clubs in Shimla. She was rumored to have had a lesbian relationship with artist Marie Louise Chasseny, her studio mate in Paris. Although there is no conclusive proof, she is said to have had romantic links with leading lights of the freedom movement. Her string of affairs trails from Paris-based artist Boris Taslitzky to British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Her audacious move to marry her first cousin, Victor Egan, and her Hushed-up abortions fuelled further gossip.
But in the middle of all this, Sher-Gil continues to live on her own terms. More significantly, as a women artist in the male-dominated art scène, she searched for a personal, individualist style.
A perfectionist, she would write to friends like art critic Karl Khandavala to discuss her failures and achievements. In her mocking sprit of fun, she once exhibited a surgery self-portrait at a show, something which people could “understand”.
While she lived through a cataclysmic pre-independent India, her self-absorbed letters were full of colorful descriptions of people rather than politics. She found living in Delhi and Sarala, the family’s native village in Punjab, stale and uninteresting. “Despite her own claims to view India and particularly the poor differently, her first few paintings in Shimla were also of the sentimental variety….seeing people and landscapes through a tourist’s lens,” writes Dalmia.
Dalmia tries to assimilate the multiple influences in Sher-Gil’s work, in Hungary, France and India. From tracing some of Sher-Gil’s relatives in Hungary to unearthing an interesting bunch of private letters written to and by the painter, Dalmia weaves a story of the artist with an objective eye.
Sher-Gil died of dysentery on December 6, 1941, a few days before her exhibition was due to open in Lahore. Artist K.G.Subramanyan said, “The last painting she left us seems to be one in which she definitely did not feel oppressed either by the Indian scène or the Indian manner.”
While the flow of the book is a bit jumpy at times and, annoyingly, one is often forced to turn pages back to check on dates, any addition to information about Sher-Gil should be useful to her fans. Especially to mega-collectors who can’t seem to find enough books going around on artist they collect.