"I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque.... India belongs only to me", were the words Amrita told her friend.
Born in 1913 to her Indian father and Hungarian Jewish mother, Amrita Sher-Gil was a painter and artist. Her family had moved to India in 1921 following a financial crisis. She was deeply attached to India, painting alongside the Bengal Renaissance artists. Her art was personal and touching; she painted mostly women and, at times, distinctively interesting self-portraits. She was inspired by the lightness of the East, the simplicity, and the vibrance. Often painting common day scenes and common people.
Sher-Gil was much more of a person than her art. Her art reflected loneliness, sometimes monotony, and sadness. She felt often unfulfilled in her life when in Europe and was depressed when she settled down in Saraya, India. Many have cited their opinions about her personal conflict over her Hungarian and Indian identities, resulting in constant anxiety about her stance in life. She was also in a dilemma about her sexuality. Her mother questioned her about it, and she refused such claims to her. But many suspect she married to free herself from her family, marrying her cousin. But throughout her life, she remained somewhat of a sensual subject, having many associations with intimate relationships with several men.
In another letter, she wrote, “Little by little I realize that every person carries within herself a calling against which it isn’t hopeless to fight.” She voices her thoughts about societal expectations and motherhood in this letter. Sher-Gil’s husband was a doctor, and it was suspected he helped her procure abortions, ultimately resulting in her death due to a botched one at the age of 28. Speculations can be drawn about her anxieties around motherhood, becoming somewhat of a Mary Shelley character but in a completely different sense. But this anxiety was visible in her art. Her portraits drawn of solitude exude a sort of sadness, desolate and at times nude, stripped of all worldly garments, true and raw and also vulnerable, of everything that has upset her throughout her life.
Amrita’s art was heavily influenced by Indian miniature paintings of the Pahadi school; the brilliance of the hues appealed to her. In her ‘Haldi Grinders’, women are featured grinding haldi or turmeric roots; she uses contrast and almost a two-dimensional depiction. The women have blank faces, found in multiple of Sher-Gil’s paintings. But her art was also influenced by Gaugin, whose style she must’ve picked up while she was in Paris. Her extremely popular painting ‘Three Girls’ is an excellent example, here she paints the three daughters of a Punjabi politician, whose eyes’ reflect a sombre, grim uncertainty. Women in her day faced many hardships, and Sher-Gil empathized with them and executed this constant reminder in her paintings in the most excellent manner.
Amrita’s life is a legacy. She was a prime example of sui generis. Her mix of European and Indian elements in those times set her apart. But her self-portraits and her paintings present no originality when one perceives them beyond the canvas; they almost read between the paints, simply because they held nothing but the lives of many women and herself in their common setting, sending out a message so deep and profound about their feminine existence. This resonated with Amrita’s life, whose feminine identity was the only thing she held onto throughout her life, without betrayal.
Sher-Gil’s depiction of Indian women offered a foreign perspective, not only because she was a foreigner but also because, for a relatively privileged woman like her, she chose to paint women who, in plain sight, looked content but hid in their obscure sorrow. She had the power to unite this mutual emotion of what it is to be a woman devoid of the differences that set all women apart. The Haldi grinders, the three girls, herself, and many more whom she painted carried in them the same mutual burden of being a woman, which Amrita herself felt, throughout her life, despite her privilege.
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