Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was not born in India but in Hungary, to a Sikh aristocrat father and a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish mother. Such heritage would, in turn, enable a unique artistic perspective for the future artist.
The family relocated to India when Amrita was a child, and here she continued to pursue an early talent for painting. The artist’s burgeoning self expression soon manifested in a declaration of atheism, a statement which enabled her expulsion from her convent school.
Later Amrita studied art in Florence and was hugely inspired by the wealth of Western Renaissance, avant-garde and modernist artworks which surrounded her. At the age of only sixteen, Amrita visited Paris and was already painting in earnest.
The artist returned to India in 1934 however, as she longed to explore the traditions of Indian art as key to her own part Indian identity. Here Amrita was inspired by a rich history of Pahari and Mughal painting styles and philosophies. As a result her own work began to highlight her tours of Southern India, in not only terms of colour and atmosphere, but also reflecting an understanding and connecting empathy with her subjects. Amrita painted villagers and rural lives, with equal respect. Her painting The Bride’s Toilet (1937) for example, reflects the rights, rituals and limitations of female lives, one of many works enabling unique female themes and perspective for the era.
The Bride’s Toilet (1937)
Despite her privileged background, Amrita was very much a proponent of challenging both poverty and injustice, while supporting political freedoms for an India still under the rule of the British Raj.
Amrita, who had married her Hungarian husband Victor, later moved to Lahore in early 1941, a city significant for both its role in the independence movement of India and Pakistan and for its then artistic community. The artist continued her prolific work here, while having affairs with both men and women. Amrita had already scandalised the art world with such paintings as the Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1937) reflecting her half naked body in an artwork which questioned ideas of cultural identity and exotic cliches. Despite white male artists placing their own ideology upon women of colour as object for centuries, an Indian female artist utilising her own body as subject was deemed shockingly unacceptable. Amrita however 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.
Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934)
In December of 1941, just before the opening of her first major Lahore show, Amrita became ill, went into a coma and died. The artist was just 28 years old. The cause of her death is not clear, but there are some suggestions that Amrita became ill after an unsafe abortion. The artist’s mother accused Amrita’s husband of her murder although no charges were ever brought against him.
Despite her short life, Amrita created a huge body of work which continues to be celebrated for its affection without sentimentality, its challenges without overt confrontation.
The painter is often referred to as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. However, it is more apt to refer to Amrita as simply herself, an artist and pioneer of modernist 20th century art, whose talent defies a need for comparison. Like Frida Kahlo, Amrita was an unconventional woman of her time, bold and pioneering in both life and in art. However, the artist was unique, creating a lasting legacy all of her own. Her work not only reflected and aided a growing insurgence of Indian strength in identity, but significantly linked both East and West, reflective of Amrita Sher-Gil’s own sense of self and self rule as both artist and woman.