A Hundred Years Of Amrita Shergil

  • Srimati Lal
  • India
  • Feb 15, 2013

 This season marks a major milestone on the Fine Art calendar --- the 100th birth anniversary of India's inimitably-flamboyant visionary painter, Amrita Shergil, a legendary art-icon and pioneer of modern art, unique in her genius and her ancestry.   This eminent artist, born to a Punjabi Sikh aristocrat father Umrao Singh Shergil and a Hungarian mother Marie Antoinette, is sometimes referred to as 'India's Frida Kahlo' – the radical Mexican Feminist painter who also happened to be a contemporary of Shergil.  Amrita's artistic contribution, however,  is far more pathbreaking – miraculously bringing-together an amalgamation of extremely diverse artistic strands. As a stylistic phenomenon never-before seen in the history of world Art, Amrita Shergil's brief and fiery decade-long painterly oeuvre is truly remarkable.


In India, Amrita's aesthetic legacy stands at par with that of the Masters of the Bengal Renaissance, and India's subsequent founders of urban Modernism. Amrita Shergil also happens to be the most expensive woman painter of India --- a credit rightfully based on her formidable painterly and figurative skills, that she honed to evolved heights with great dedication --- evidencing her genuine commitment to the fundamental core of true Art.  

Shergil's father was a Sanskrit scholar, a stylish portrait-photographer and aesthete, while her mother was an accomplished pianist. She was also the niece of the Hungarian Indologist Ervin Baktay, who guided her pivotally in the 1920s. Significantly, Baktay instructed her to use servants as models, rather than the aristocracy that she came from ---- in the worthy artistic traditions of  Caravaggio, Michaelango, and Da Vinci. The memories of these working-class models would eventually lead to Amrita Shergil's return to India, where she portrayed the poor and rural inhabitants with heightened beauty and poignancy.

To celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of this great Indian painter, three events have been organised in Delhi.  The first was the formal release, on Jan. 31, of a special Shergil Portfolio at the National Gallery Of Modern Art,  by Dr. Karan Singh  – in the presence of
Ms. Katalin Bogyay, President of UNESCO's General Conference. 

This Portfolio-release has been followed by a month-long Shergil Exhibition at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre,  from 1 Feb-1 March,  titled 'The Magyar Connection'. Curated by documentary film-maker Navina Sundaram, a niece of the artist, this show includes watercolours and drawings done by Amrita in Hungary, the country of her birth, along with rare archival material such as her handwritten letters and photographs taken by her.  To mark her Centenary, the Exhibition highlights one side of Amrita’s ancestry—the Magyar connection—the autobiographical, cultural, historical and social Hungarian context that formed and influenced her personality and work. As a third  parallel show, the Kiran Nadar Museum  in Saket has been exhibiting works by Amrita, along with seminars and discourses relating to women-artists of India, from January 31st – until November 2013.

A quote from the artist makes the brilliance of  her original contribution to international Art more clear – "It always surprises me to hear that those who can recognise the good in Western Art are unable to do so as regards Eastern Art.  To me, it seems incredible.  But perhaps this is due to my double atavism.....”    This Atavism that Amrita speaks of is her intense connection to both her Indian roots as well as her Hungarian traditions. In painting terms, the former helped Shergil brilliantly craft an individualistic new artistic language, that initiated Indian Contemporaneity. 

In order to understand Shergil's evolution, some details of  the painter's dramatic journey are necessary. At sixteen, in 1929, Shergil sailed to Europe with her mother, to train as a painter in Paris – first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant, and later at the École des Beaux-Arts (1930–34). She drew special inspiration from European painters such as Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, while also coming under the influence of her teacher Lucien Simon, and the company of artist-friends like the Russian Boris Tazlitsky. Her early paintings display a significant influence of  European modes of painting as practiced in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the 1930s. In 1932, Shergil painted her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933 – making Amrita the youngest-ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition. Her technical painterly expertise was unquestionable, as was the brilliance of her palette. At twenty, Amrita was already at a social pinnacle; she was young, beautiful, brilliant, and feted by the West's most elite Art-Salons – all this in the very heart of Paris

Fortunately for Art-history, Amrita did not continue to revel in the status-quo – for then came the pivotal turning-point, the difficult decision that was to change everything.  In 1934, while in Europe, Amrita wrote that she "began to be haunted by an intense longing for India – feeling, in some strange way, that there lay my destiny as a painter". The Artist returned to India the same year. Thus began her unique quest, at the age of 21, of a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian Art --- a pioneering search that was to continue until her untimely death—aged 28—in Lahore.  

Amrita initially stayed at the writer Malcolm Muggeridge's family home at Simla's Summer Hill for a while, before leaving for further travels in India – at the behest of the noted art critic Karl Khandalavala, who encouraged her to pursue her passion. Amrita was deeply impressed and inspired by India's Mughal and Pahari Schools of Miniature painting, as well as the cave fresco-paintings of Ajanta and Khajuraho. Many more wonders of Indian Art now awaited Amrita's gaze, as she made her Indian pilgrimages for Art-Darshan.

In 1937 Amrita toured South India, which further inspired her immensely – with its vivid palette and dramatic spectrum of Art, and its people. Amrita produced her famous South Indian Trilogy of paintings —Brahmacharis,  The Bride's Toilet,  and Tamil Villagers —revealing a mastery of linear figuration and a brilliant sense of colour, with  an equally involved empathy for her subjects. These eloquent, dark, poetic figures are often painted in their poverty and despair, but always expressing an unfailing beauty and grace. The evolution and transformation of Amrita's work was now complete. In its fullness, she had found her 'artistic mission'  --- which was to change the direction of 20th-c. Indian Art

According to Amrita, her life's mission was to express the life of Indian people through her canvas.  Politically, socially, culturally and visually, this was a radical and bold new painterly vision, dramatically distinct from the European-elite phase of the artist's inter-war years, where her work had initially showed an engagement with Hungarian Art – especially the Nagybanya School of painting. 

In her flowering as a Modernist Indian painter, Shergil now evolved her own distinct and powerful style – a style which, according to her, was "fundamentally Indian  in subject, spirit and technical expression". Her Art was now also subtly influenced by the paintings of the two great Tagores --- Rabindranath and Abanindranath – who pioneered the Bengal School of painting. Her brooding sepia-toned palette and poetic portraits of women evoked the mood of Rabindranath, while her use of chiaroscuro and bright colours reflected the neo-Expressionistic influence of Abanindranath.  

From my art-critical standpoint, I have always been astounded by the sheer pantheon of aesthetic influences that Shergil managed to blend so seamlessly into an entirely new 20th-century art-language. These included her very strong references to another radical-exile European painter—the French aristocrat Paul Gauguin—who left  Paris to live in the remote islands of Tahiti, and painted dark-skinned native women who were a world apart from western aristocracy and its rarefied urban Salons. 

Shergil stretched the visual idiom further, to incorporate, in her own complex Modernist language,  the deep, ancient fresco-textures of Ajanta and Ellora, as well as the contrasting jewel-toned, intricate figurations of Indian Miniature painting. She omitted no visual influences from India's vast artistic heritage, including folk and tribal palettes and forms. To manifest the best of European Modernism along with the most ancient strands of the Indian artistic heritage is no easy achievement.  Amrita Shergil was the first and only woman artist who accomplished this --- with the utmost mastery.

As an ironic contrast to Shergil's pinnacles of intellectual achievement is the inherent tragedy of the brilliant artist's brief life. A true visionary, Shergil single-mindedly devoted all her life's energies to the evolution of her artistic vision, rejecting the conventional expectations of feminine domesticity, marriage and the conformism of family structures. Not surprisingly, such brilliant individualism, intensity and beauty generated deep envy from her peers – including the men she befriended.  In most of her photographic portraits, Shergil's emotional loneliness is reflected in her brooding, direct and melancholic gaze. Expectedly, Amrita never found a suitable match – a soulmate who would understand and support her genius, her profound intellect and artistry. However, in 1938, at the age of 25, in a state of vulnerability and with a need for 'protection',  Amrita married her cousin Victor Egan, a doctor, against her parents' wishes. 

In 1941, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, Shergil suddenly became seriously ill and slipped into a coma. She died around midnight on 6 December 1941, aged 28. The real reason for her death has never been ascertained, but  her mother accused her doctor-husband Victor of having murdered her. It is of further interest that the very day after Shergil's sudden death, England declared war on Hungary, and her husband was sent to jail as an 'enemy national'

Thus ended the meteoric and flamboyant life-trajectory of one of the world's most charismatic, fascinating artists – a true Indian visionary, a woman ahead of her times. She produced, in a brief span of a single decade of inspired creativity, a formidable body of beautiful, profound and original artworks, that clearly surpassed  the works of her seniors. It is fortunate indeed for Indian history that Amrita Shergil was a determined woman, who demonstrated all the intense cerebral strength, commitment and energy that was required to evolve India's contemporary identity and artistic destiny. Shergil's Art transcends all categories and labels; she is larger than 'Feminism', 'Realism', 'Classicism' or any other such genres.  In Amrita Shergil's centenary year—2013—it is imperative that we laud this extraordinary woman-genius; that the art-world re-examines, celebrates and praises Shergil's unusual courage, and the awesome bounty of her Art – with immense admiration and gratitude.



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