Amrita Sher-Gil: India's First Celebrated Female painter
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
If you’ve ever had even a passing interest in Indian Modern Art, you’ve probably heard of Amrita Sher-Gil. She went down in history as one of the first influential women on the Indian art scene; indeed, one of the first women visible on the Indian art scene. And so, somewhat fittingly, a subject that comes up frequently when discussing Amrita Sher-Gil’s work is her identity as a woman and how it relates to her art.
A brief rundown of who Amrita Sher-Gil was as an individual; have you heard that song from the sound of music, ‘how do you solve a problem like Maria?’ And the line that goes ‘how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?’ Those are the kind of vibes Amrita apparently had. She was born into the higher echelons of society, with her father being a highly decorated soldier (in both the Indian and British armies, albeit at different points in time), who was given the title of Raja by the British army. So basically, Amrita grew up as what would pass for an ‘uptown girl’ back then.
Her parents - Umrao Singh the Rajah, and Marie Antoinette (who was probably named for the other more famous Marie Antoinette, and was about as beautiful and charming. Which is to say; very), met at a fancy soirée in Simla. They fell in love, and then moved to Budapest where they made little Amrita and Indira, whom they also loved very much.
That whole Hollywood trope of high society children having strict upbringings where their parents didn’t show them any love or affection causing them to grow up emotionally stunted and jaded by the world of the rich etc. did not, by many accounts, apply to this family. Umrao Singh and Marie were both, in fact, very supportive of Amrita’s artistic inclinations when they became apparent - and boy was she inclined; inclined like a vertical line going only up. If there was ever an artist who could be said to have popped out of the womb with a paintbrush in their hand, it was she. She had, it seemed, the kind of singular focus and drive that most people dream of achieving. Anyway, her parents, being supportive, figured if she was going to be an artist, she was going the be the best artist there was (but in a nice way, not in a tiger-mom way) and hired a private tutor for her to learn art the proper way. And this is where Amrita the modernist was born; she wanted nothing to do with the ‘traditional’ ways of practising art. And so, the tutor was politely dismissed, and Amrita was sent off to Florence to be trained by the greats. This was in about 1924.
Amrita didn’t much care for western tradition, though. When her parents sent her to a fancy school in Europe to a give her the opportunity to be at what was the artistic centre of the world at that point, she promptly got herself expelled for drawing nude studies. She was about 11 at the time. After Amrita yeeted herself out of Europe, she moved back to Simla with her parents and had a wildly successful career. She won a plethora of awards for what would become her signature style of combining bold modern palettes and forms with traditional themes and characters. There was also a brief segue during which she went to a fancy catholic school upon returning to Simla, which she also got herself expelled from, on account of being an atheist and partaking in blasphemy.
Amrita’s biggest supporters in her artistic endeavours were her uncle, and her mother. It was her uncle who was the first to encourage her, and suggested exercises to help her hone her skills, and when she was 16, her mom decided it was time for Amrita to study art seriously, and so she packed up the whole family and moved them to Paris.
Amrita won first place in the Ecoul des Bouex Art annual still-life and portrait competition three years running while in Paris, which contributed in large part to solidifying her place amongst the modernist artists of the time on an international scale. Her painting ‘Young Girls’ won when she was just 18.
Amrita presumably grew up in the lap of luxury, and was the life of every party she went to. One account described her as ‘extravagantly beautiful’, reminiscing that when she appeared in a room, all eyes would turn to her. When she married her cousin and moved to Hungary 1938, she took her lifestyle of decadence and wild abandon with her. Tragically, this wasn't to last; though she produced some of her most famous works while in Hungary, she grew bored of the west and she had her husband moved to Lahore in September of 1941. By December of that year, Amrita had contracted a mysterious illness and had passed away, leaving the painting she was working on at the time unfinished. She was 28.
Fun fact – Amrita also briefly crossed paths with Jawaharlal Nehru, and the two became very good friends. Nehru published some of the letters they exchanged after she passed away, one of which read; “I should like to have known you better. I am always attracted to people who are integral enough to be inconsistent without discordancy, and who don’t trail viscous threads of regret behind them.”
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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Arts and Entertainment