“It seems to me that I never began painting, that I have always painted. And I have always had, with a strange certitude, the conviction that I was meant to be a painter and nothing else. Although I studied, I have never been taught painting in the actual sense of the word, because I possess in my psychological make-up a peculiarity that resents any outside interference. I have always, in everything, wanted to find out things for myself”, wrote Amrita Sher-Gil in an article ‘Modern Indian Art – Imitating the Forms of the Past’, published in The Hindu on 1 November 1936.
A strongly opinionated and independent artist with a keen eye for detail, Sher-Gil had tremendous clarity of mind which she used to articulate her observations with openness in her artworks, writings and letters. Creating through imagination, the artist always selected her subject matter and form based on emotion rather than beauty. Sher-Gil filled the short span of her life with travels, copious writing in various forms, painting and art that opened her heart and mind to the worlds she lived in.
With her paternal roots from Umrao Singh Sher-Gil in Lahore, Pakistan and maternal roots from Marie Antoinette in Budapest, Hungary, the artist lived her life between Europe and pre-independent India. Between these two cultures, her mind developed into thinking uniquely, parallelly and in comparative ways at a very young age. Her sketches and paintings indicate the amalgamation of worlds and languages, which she navigated deftly to form her observations of people and circumstances – personal, social and political.
As is evident from Sher-Gil’s writing and paintings, she never hesitated to express her keenness to learn, to explore and to experiment. She critiqued and praised her own works and wrote about them in great detail in letters to her parents. Her sensibility to comment and critique came from a very strong sense of observation that focused on details of incidents, scenes, stories and exchanges that seeped in through her travels. The female form, as also seen in this exhibition, dominated this period and went on to become a central part of Sher-Gil’s sketches and paintings in her self-portraits as well as in studies and depictions of various scenes. She focused on the form of figures and human relationships, all mainly women.
The self-portraits from the early Parisian years show Sher-Gil with an immediate adaptation to the fashion and culture of Paris. However, she did not allow herself to settle in Paris and after gaining much recognition for her work in Europe, she chose to return to India in 1934 for the rest of her career and life until her untimely death in Lahore in 1941, at the young age of twenty-eight. Despite a short life, Sher-Gil paved her way into a significant period of modern Indian art history where her works and writings are portraits for observation, even today.
Amrita Sher-Gil - A Portrait of Observations is on view till December 16, 2023 at Akara Modern.
Words Veeranganakumari Solanki