Amrita Sher-Gil became a legend in her life-time, not only because of her exuberant lifestyle, but also because of her outstanding painting talents. She had remarkable control over her medium, oil painting and allowed her brush to glide on the canvas with a languorous sensuousness. The movement of her brush was steeped in melancholy reflecting her own angst buried deep in her persona. Nevertheless, she often endowed her subjects with glowing warmth, largely as a result of her vivid palette. She painted the ordinary people of Indian villages. By painting women engaged in their quotidian activities in the intimate environment of the women’s quarters, she created a genre in Indian painting. From the mid-3os onwards, Sher-Gil’s palette and figuration changed dramatically. She was deeply inspired by the Mughal and Pahari miniatures, just as the Ajanta and other murals excited her imagination.
Amrita Sher-Gil was born at Budapest in 1913 of an Indian father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh belonging to landholding gentry, and Marie Antoinette, a Hungarian. From 1929, she studied art in Paris at the Grand Chaumiere and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1934, she returned to India and it turned out to be a momentous homecoming. The country and its people made a strong impact on her. At the same time, she discovered with a sense of wonder and joy, the ancient and medieval artistic traditions of India. In 1936, she traveled widely through India. But even before that, she commented on the colours that she experienced in Indian, not the rich voluptuous colours of the travel posters, but the luminous yellow-grey land in the winter light and the “dark-bodied, sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women...” The relocation to India changed her style of expression totally. From the European naturalism seen in her paintings done in the 1920s, she evolved an eloquent stylization in her figuration and composition and shifted to a vibrant palette of reds, greens, rich browns. Her tragic and untimely death in 1941 cut short a genius that was yet to reach its full potential.
This portfolio contains six among her most well-known paintings in oil done during her stay in India.
Three Girls was painted in 1935. It was one of the earliest of her paintings done after her return to India. Three young girls with sad eyes are posed immobile looking out on an empty future. There is a feeling of poetry in their stillness while the use of bold red, flaming orange and white against a yellow ochre background give the painting an intensity.
Brahmacharis, painted in 1937 following her trip to west and south India, is considered a masterpiece. Painted on a large, horizontal canvas, the vertical lines of the seated figures of the young, aspiring ascetics create a fascinating rhythm. The subtle play of various shades of browns in the skin tones of the celibates against a deep red-brown background is harmonized by the use of different tones of white for the dhotis and the sacred threads. The painting conveys a mood of austere calmness.
Woman resting on charpoy painted in 1940 shows a recumbent woman in a state of somnolence. Her stance, a hand thrown back and a leg partially raised, has a seductive air about it. The torpid servant woman waves a fan languidly. There is a passive sexuality about the painting heightened by the flaming red of the woman’s clothes and the painted red legs of the charpai.
The Ancient Story Teller, also painted in 1940, is a perceptive vignette of village life. It is intriguing how Sher-Gil, despite her elite background, has painted the ordinary rural people with empathy and sensitively captured their dignity and strength. This painting also cleverly uses the conventions of miniature paintings, where figures, landscape, architectural elements are intricately combined on the same picture plane. At the same time, Sher-Gil executes a modern representation of a timeless rural scene with the woman churning buttermilk in the foreground, children clustering around the old Sikh storyteller, a little behind the woman and the white-washed domed structure in the background.
Haldi Grinders, another glimpse of a village scene, was painted in 1940. Although, it was just a year before her death, she was remarkably productive. The painting is a complex composition. Sher-Gil has represented the female figures in almost a semi-abstract style rendering them faceless but capturing the rhythm of their stances and their activity. The dominance of the colours green and red is inspired by the miniatures while the vertical lines of the tree branches dividing the picture space creates a modernist frame to focus on the scene.
Camels was painted in 1941 the year she died. It shows the felicity with which she handled animal forms just as the dexterity she showed in the representation of her human figures. She could capture the inherent rhythm in their forms. The keepers of the camels, the two human figures in the painting are semi-abstract renderings. The painting pulsates with her sympathy for all living beings.
Self-Portrait (7) (Cover Image) is one of a series of self-portraits done by the artist. It shows a charming young woman invitingly engaging the viewer with a happy smile. The painting belongs to her European style of expression. The visual language addresses formal concerns, rich application of glowing colours and fascinating textural treatment.
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