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Father, Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil,
was born in Majithia, India, and was the eldest son of a noble aristocratic
family in Punjab, India. Umrao was a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian
with pronounced religious philosophical interests. Umrao's other interests
ranged from astronomy, yoga, calligraphy, carpentry, photography and
he spoke five languages fluently.
It was in London that Umrao met the Princess Bamba, the cultured and eccentric granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Umrao became quite friendly with her and she too was attracted to the young handsome Sikh aristocrat. Some years later their paths would cross again.
After his first wife died in 1907, Umrao again met up with Princess Bamba in Lahore, India. The Princess had hoped to marry Umrao but unfortunately for the Princess, Umrao was more attracted to her traveling companion Marie Antoinette Gottesmann-Baktay. Marie Antoinette was a Hungarian woman from an affluent bourgeois family in Budapest. They eventually married in Lahore, India, in 1912 and soon after moved to Budapest because Marie insisted that her first child be born there.
In the early 1930s, Umrao and his family returned to Simla, India. Once there, Umrao became a political activist sympathizing with the national movement for freedom from the colonial rule. When the British Intelligence discovered that he had links to a revolutionary group fighting for India's independence, the British confiscated most of Umrao's property. He then turned his attention to his scholarly inclinations, his family life and his passion for photography. In the following years the family photo album became an archive of their everyday life and more than 80 self-portraits.
the untimely death of Amrita and the suicide of his wife, he gradually
lost his memory. He lived out his last few years with his second daughter,
Indira, in Simla and Delhi. He died in Deli in 1954 at the age of 84.
Marie Antoinette was the eldest daughter of 5 children of a Hungarian father and a French mother. She came from an affluent bourgeois family who was not only part of Budapest's upper class but culturally sophisticated and with international connections. Marie Antoinette had a flair for entertaining and the family hosted lavish parties and mingled with the high society of Budapest. She had a gregarious, gushing personality, which could charm society snobs, but for those close to her could become unbearable. She was a lady with a passion for music and the arts and was an accomplished pianist and singer talents that she inherited from her mother. Marie Antoinette had ambitions of becoming a professional opera singer and traveled to Rome to learn from the masters, including Puccini. However, she never pursued her career in opera.
Marie Antoinette came from a very well traveled family. While visiting London, she met the Princess Bamba, the cultured and eccentric granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Princess had placed an advertisement in one of the local newspapers seeking a lady with wide cultural interests and musical background who would like to accompany her on a visit to India. Marie Antoinette applied and was accepted for the position. In 1911, the two set off for an adventure in India. While visiting Lahore, they attended a soirée which was also attended by Umrao Sher-Gil. Umrao's attention quickly turned to the flamboyant flaming-red haired Marie who sang while playing the piano. Some time later he proposed to her, she accepted and they were married on the 4th of January 1912. Soon after, the couple moved to Budapest where Marie Antoinette's father was a government official.
Marie Antoinette was devastated by her daughter Amrita's sudden and mysterious death. After several failed attempts of suicide, on July 31st, 1948, she took the gun from her husband's study and shot herself.
It was a cold snowy Sunday morning in the Hungarian capital of Budapest when Amrita came into the world. It was January 30th, 1913, and the bell from the near by church tolled the hour of noon. Her official birth certificate records her birth name as "Amrita Dalma Sher-Gil" but five years later she was baptized a Roman Catholic as "Amrita Antonia". The baptism certificated shows the mother's religion as "Catholic", although she rarely attended Mass, and her father was listed as having "no faith" and "living in Majithia as a British citizen".
Soon after her birth, the family moved to a villa in the Buda Hills, an urban area inhabited by the fashionable elite class. It was there that Amrita's sister, Indira, was born on March 28th, 1914. Amrita became very devoted to her new baby sister and gave her all sorts of pet names derived from the animal world. They would form a strong bond that would last a life time.
World War I
The Sher-Gil family wanted to return to India but with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the family was forced to remain in Hungary. By 1916, the War was at its peak and access to the family's money in India became more difficult and eventually was cut off altogether. Short of funds, the family was forced to move to Marie Antoinette's parent's country house in Dunaharaszti, a peaceful suburb of Budapest on the banks of a river. Due to the War, the commercial supply lines were interrupted and the basic staples needed for everyday living became scarce. Meat, milk, butter and other perishable food were in short supply and often rationed or non existent. The children's health suffered the most. It was during this period that Amrita became very ill with the "Spanish Flu" (also known as the "1918 Flu Pandemic"). Over the next two years the deadly virus spread around the entire planet and has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history". Estimates put the death toll at as many as 100 million people worldwide. "We thought she was going to die" Umrao said, "there was no doctor in the village " After several days of watching, waiting and praying, Amrita's health began to improve and she eventually made a full recovery.
After her recovery, Amrita began to play in the garden with her sister Indira and their cousin Victor who spent a great deal of time with them. The house was located very near the Danube river where Amrita, her sister, and Victor would often play. It was here that Amrita first encountered the common village people, their animals and their culture. Amrita's mother recalls that at age 5½ Amrita was able to read and write small sentenced in Hungarian. She also began to show an interest in drawing with colored pencils. She began to sketch the objects around her: toys, dolls, carts and teddy bears. Around age 7, she began to illustrate the stories that her mother would tell her and later composed and illustrate her own stories. Her cousin, Victor, recalls that he knew from a very early age that Amrita was destined to become an artist. She would draw or paint on any little scrap of paper she could find .she even painted on the walls. As a young child, the presents that she most looked forward to were paint-boxes, colored pencils, drawing paper and picture books.
World War I ended in 1919, but due to the political and social unrest in the British ruled country, it was not safe for them to return to India. They remained in Hungary for another 2 years. In the meantime, the political climate in Hungary was beginning to change for the worse and life as they knew it was becoming uncertain. Umrao contacted his family in India to try to make arrangements for their safe return. However, when the British government learned of his impending return they objected and life got even more complicated. It seems that during the War, Umrao had been corresponding with several Indian political exiles in Germany and the British government disapproved of contact with the "undesirables". But, eventually, Umrao's younger brother, Sunder Singh, who was in good standing with the British rulers, managed to sort thing out and clear the way for the Sher-Gils to return to India.
Return to India
The family had been in Hungary for nearly ten years. Finally, on January 2, 1921, the they set sail for India. En route, they stopped for a two week tour of Paris. Their stop included visits to the usual tourist attractions but it was at the Louvre that Amrita for the first time was able to see original works of art by the great masters. She was most impressed with the "Mona Lisa" and stood staring at it for a long time.
After their "Parisian experience", they once again set sail for India. Amrita celebrated her 8th birthday while on board ship. They arrived in Bombay on February 2, 1921 and soon departed for Delhi where they remained for the next two weeks. The next stop was Lahore, where they stayed for two months with Umrao's brother, Sunder. Prior to going to Hungary, Umrao divided his remaining property in India amongst his children from his first marriage. So, the first order of business was to find suitable housing for the family. He purchased a large home in Summer Hill, Simla, in the northern part of India. He named his new acquisition "The Holme". In April, the family moved to their new residence and Marie Antoinette immediately began the task of furnishing the estate in keeping with her elegant lifestyle.
Once settled into their new home, Marie focused on her daughters education in the arts. She saw that both of her daughters studied piano and violin. Although Marie recognized Amrita's artistic talents, she preferred that she become a musician rather than an artist. But, Amrita's obvious artistic talents could not be denied and Marie hired an art teacher, Major Whitmarsh, for Amrita. Whitmarsh was a perfectionist and insisted that Amrita draw everything accurately with no compromise. Amrita soon became bored with his style of teaching and Whitmarsh's services were terminated. Soon after, Amrita began to study art under the direction of Hal Bevan Petman who had recently arrived in Simla from London. He was best known for his portraits of society women and teaching art to children. Petman also stressed the importance of drawing saying: " that it is the basis and form of all art". Although Petman's method of teaching was very disciplined, his approach to teaching was more suitable to Amrita's personality and she spent a considerable amount of time with him. Petman was so impressed with Amrita's artistic talents that he recommended she be trained in the finest art schools in London and Paris. Although Amrita's mother agreed with the recommendation, her future personal circumstances derailed the plan.
The Italian Rendezvous
In 1923, Amrita's mother, who spoke fluent Italian, became acquainted with an Italian sculptor who befriended the Sher-Gil family. The relationship began with the artist helping Amrita with her drawing but Marie wanted more. Although the sculptor had a wife and children in Florence, Marie Antoinette began an intimate affair with the artist. Soon after he returned to Italy and Marie was not far behind. She convinced her husband that a tour of Italy would be a great exposure for her daughters to the Italian language and Renaissance art. Amrita's father, unaware of the affair, agreed and in January of 1924, Marie and her two daughters set off for Florence. When they arrived, Amrita was admitted to the Santa Annunziata school of Art run by Roman Catholics, a school well known for its strict discipline. Amrita disliked the regimentation there and she was threatened with expulsion for drawing a nude. Amrita described the school as an: " enormous, elegant but hateful school". Amrita's mother felt that the school was doing more harm than good to Amrita's quest to become a painter. Five months after their arrival, Marie's relationship with the Italian sculpture faded and she withdrew Amrita from the school. They returned to India.
Return and Rebellion
Once back in Simla, Amrita was enrolled in the Jesus and Mary Convent school. Amrita opposed the idea of being sent to another Catholic run institution. Attending Mass on a regular basis was mandatory and a ritual that Amrita vehemently opposed. In an act of rebellion, she wrote a letter to her father saying that she was an atheist, did not believe in God or religion and most of all had no use for the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for Amrita, the letter was intercepted by the Mother Superior who immediately expelled her.
Between June 1924 and April 1929, Amrita spent most of her time in Simla with occasional family trips to Saraya. In 1927 at age 14 and while in Saraya, Amrita's mother decided that her two girls need to be exposed to the people and culture in other parts of India. Marie Antoinette took her two daughters on a journey to Benaras, Calcutta, Darjeeling and Lucknow.
Also in 1927, Amrita's uncle Ervin Baktay, her mother's brother, came to visit in Simla. Ervin, who was also a painter, was best known as an Indologist and wrote several books on Indian culture and art. Baktay was very interest in Amrita's style of art. He encouraged her to use live models for her drawings and paintings. With that encouragement, Amrita began to use the domestic help in their home as models .a practice she would continue for the rest of her life. Baktay, like Petman and many others, recognized Amrita's natural artistic talents and urged her parents to allow her to go to Paris where she would have the best opportunities to develop her talents. Amrita's mother was very supportive of the idea but Amrita's father, Umrao, was reluctant to make the move. Bad memories of the previous 8 year stay in Europe were still fresh in his mind and he was something less than enthusiastic about the whole idea of "being trapped" in Europe again. But, in the end, Umrao saw that is was in the best interest of Amrita's career and, in 1929, the family packed up and set sail once again for Europe.
vie à Paris
When they arrived in Paris on April 19th, 1929, Amrita was just sixteen. Young, impressionable, and with a passion for art, she would spend the next five years of her life in the city known as the "Mecca of the art world". It was this city of modernism, imagination and experiments with individual art forms that attracted a cultural melting pot of artists, writers and poets from around the globe .a city where "self expression" ruled.
After a brief stay in temporary accommodations, the family moved to 11 Rue de Bassano, an area near the fashionable Champs-Elyees. Marie Antoinette already knew several important people in the artistic, literary and social structure of Paris. She immediately set about doing what she liked best . hosting lavish parties and socializing with the high society of Paris. Umrao, on the other hand, preferred to remain in his study and research Sanskrit and Persian literature.
Aside from art, Amrita also had a passion for music. She and her sister Indira had learned to play the piano and the violin. Marie Antoinette, an accomplished pianist herself, encouraged Amrita to take piano lessons and enrolled her at the Alfred Cortot School of music. Not long afterwards Amrita abandoned the piano lessons saying that she could not do both become a pianist and an artist. She felt that the piano lessons were a distraction from her true passion in life .painting. Although she gave up the lessons she continued to play for the rest of her life.
Soon after their arrival in Paris, Amrita began to study French, and with the help of her mother who spoke fluent French, it was not long until she could speak and write French fluently. Armed with her command of the French language, Amrita threw herself into the social life of Paris. Her primary goal was to create her own circle of friends that were around her own age. In her search for new friends, Amrita discovered the "seedy" side of Paris in the "Quartier Latin" filled with dark smoky cafes and studios. Because of her youth and striking "foreign" appearance, Amrita became the center of attention as she strolled the streets of Bohemian Paris. Seemingly overnight, Amrita transformed herself from the shy innocent child from India into the new "extroverted" Amrita of Paris.
Attending one of Marie Antoinette's social gatherings was the Hungarian painter Jozsef Nemes. It was Nemes who introduced Amrita to Professor Pierre Vaillant of the Grande Chaumiere art institute. So impressed with Amrita's ability at such a young age, he immediately admitted her to the art institute. Amrita spent the first few months sketching nude models. But her drawings were different from the other students. They were not precise and accurate and she veered away from naturalism a style which caused a conflict in her relationship with Professor Vaillant. In October of 1929, Amrita's work at the institute ended suddenly when she suffered an appendicitis attack and was hospitalized. After recovering from the operation she returned to the Grande Chaumiere institute....but not for long.
The Hungarian painter Nemes had been keeping an eye on Amrita's progress at the Grande Chaumiere. Sensing that her interest in the institute was fading, he recommended that she enroll in the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, the primary art institution in Paris at the time. Amrita was introduced to Professor Lucien Simon, a post-Impressionist, who was quite impressed with her work. Although Amrita was under age for admittance to the institute, Simon allowed her to join his studio. Simon's liberalized style of teaching focused on individual forms of self-expression an approach which better suited Amrita's style of art. It was from Simon that Amrita learned to appreciate the use and importance of color.
Amrita continued her work at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts for the next 3 years. She benefited greatly under Simon's direction and just a few days after her arrival at the studio, Simon told her that "One day I shall be proud that you have been a pupil of mine". In an effort to perfect her drawing skills of the human body, Amrita created hundreds of sketches, in pencil and charcoal, mostly of male and female nudes. She also began to experiment in painting with oils.
Between 1930 and 1932, Amrita produced more than 60 paintings; self-portraits, portraits, still lifes and landscapes, but mostly portraits and self-portraits all done in oil. Every year she was at the institute she won the first prize for portraits and still-lifes. The theme of Amrita's paintings was not the usual images of the glamorous Parisian life style. Instead, Amrita chose to capture the "sordid underside of the glamorized Parisian life". In her 1933 painting "The Professional Model", Amrita chose an aging model who was suffering from pulmonary consumption. The painting depicts the sadness of an ageing woman who is sick and feeling old and neglected. Her breasts sag and her back is stooped but the spirit is still alive in her eyes. The style of this painting shows a Picasso influence mixed with Amrita's own style of elongated body parts. Amrita found this theme very appealing and used this theme and the same model in two other 1934 paintings: "Study of Model in Green" and "A Study in Brown".
Other notable paintings from this period include: "Portrait of a Young Man", 1930, for which she won a prize at the École in 1931; "Marie Louise", a portrait of her good friend and colleague Marie Louise Chasseny, 1932, and a painting entitled "Young Girls", 1932, for which she won the Gold Medal from the Grand Salon in 1933 and as a result was appointed an associate member of the Société Nationale. "Torso", a 1931 painting, was a provocative painting in which Amrita used her own nude back as the model for the painting. It was exhibited at the 1932 Grand Salon annual art exhibition and attracted more than its share of attention and controversy from the art critics. A critic described it as " a masterly study" and " although the twist in the back of the model is wonderfully suggestive, the pose is no doubt academic but that should not hinder our appreciation of this highly accomplished work". By this time Amrita's acceptance into the art world was sealed.
While studying at the École in Paris, Amrita shared a studio apartment with her good friend and colleague Marie Louise Chasseny. The apartment was near Notre Dame des Champs which led to the Montparnasse, the artistic center of Paris at the time. Amrita spent little time in her apartment and extended an "open door" policy to all of her friends who frequently used her apartment when she wasn't there. The key was readily available from the old concierge who stood watch at the front door of the building. Although Amrita devoted most of her time during the day to her work, the nights were spent in conversations with her friends in dimly lit smoke filled nightclubs and cafes in the dark corners of Paris. Amrita was lured by the city's seductive ways but for now she preferred to remain in the shadows and only watch. She had contempt for the big city crowds but craved the stimulation and life they brought to it. At the same time she felt compassion for the poor and the exploited harlots and beggars who roamed about in this forgotten part of Paris.
The 1920s and 1930s were a time of "sexual exploration" in the Bohemian life style of Paris. It was fashionable to "experiment" with unorthodox sexual encounters with partners of the opposite sex and of the same sex. In the early 1930s, while Amrita was visiting in Hungary, it was rumored that she was having a lesbian affair with her best friend and roommate Marie Louise Chasseny. Although they both denied it, Amrita felt compelled to write to her mother in Paris about the alleged affairs and dispel the rumor before she heard it from another source. In her letter she attempted to console her mother by saying: "I never had anything to do with Marie Louise and won't have it either in the future." She went on to say that she understood her mother's thoughts about the "disadvantages of sexual relations with men" but she also understood that her growing sexual desires could not be satisfied by her passion for art. The letter seemed to be very convincing until she wrote: " so, I though I would have something with a female when the opportunity arises " By now Amrita's mother was convinced alright convinced that the rumors were true and that her daughter was in fact on the path to becoming a lesbian a lifestyle that she would neither condone nor allow to materialize.
Fearing for her daughter's future, Amrita's mother immediately set out to find a suitable husband for her "sexually confused" daughter. While Amrita's mother searched for a husband, the "opportunity" for Amrita to experience a sexual relationship with a female presented itself in Paris. A Hungarian girl whom Amrita met had fallen for her. Her name was Edith Lang and although she was "manly" looking she was an attractive girl of 27 Amrita was just 21 at the time. Their first encounter took place at Amrita's studio apartment and ended abruptly when Amrita's roommate Marie Louise unexpectedly walked in on them.
From early childhood, Amrita was very close to her cousin Victor Egan. They spent most of their childhood growing up together and remained in touch with each other when they were apart. While in Paris, Amrita would write him letters that seemed to be just friendly chit-chat about her work, her friends and her life in Paris. But between the lines there was a hidden message of her love for Victor. Although they were cousins, it became very clear that they were destined to be married. They became secretly engaged. Of course Amrita's mother, who didn't particularly like Victor, would never sanction such a union. She was determined that Amrita would marry into a well-to-do aristocratic family of importance in the social world.
The Search for a Husband
Amrita's mother found what she thought was the "perfect son-in-law" .a young handsome man who just happened to be visiting in Paris at the time. His credentials were impeccable. He was Yusuf Ali Khan, the son of a wealthy noble from Akbarpur Taluqua in the United Provinces and a great lover of Hindustani classical music. His mother, an Indian Christian, was the sister of a Chief Judge. Marie Antoinette set about to bring the two together. She invited Yusuf to her soirées and although Amrita, at first, was not a willing participant in her mother's "match making" scheme, she was impressed by the very polite, well mannered, handsome perfect gentleman. Being young and impressionable, and feeling pressure from her mother, Amrita broke off her secret engagement with Victor and got engaged to Yusuf . Soon after Amrita discovered that she was pregnant, but to complicate matters even more she had contracted a venereal disease from him. Fearing that the disease would affect her future sexual capacities, she turned to her cousin Victor, who was a medical student, for a cure and an abortion. On August 25, 1931, she wrote to her mother saying that "Yusuf is far from being faithful" and that he " looks at every good looking woman on the street". She went on to say that she was concerned about a "Mohammedan marriage" in that she could end up being one of Yusuf's many wives with no recourse. She concluded her letter by saying that " I am going to decide weather I want to marry him or not and it is me who will say by October the final yes or no".
Amrita broke off the engagement with Yusuf and, disillusioned by the failure of her relationship and marriage in general, she began having a number of promiscuous affairs. Soon after she became bored with the meaningless affairs and once again turned her affection towards her cousin Victor.
Between 1930 and 1932, Amrita produced more than 60 paintings while in Paris. Some of them she sold but many of them she just gave away. But after the fiasco with Yusuf, she lost interest in painting and during 1933 - 1934, she produced only a handful of paintings. By now Amrita felt that her destiny as an artist could only be fulfilled in India and she had an intense longing to return. Even Amrita's professor, Lucien Simon, remarked that Amrita's style of painting and use of rich color could better be expressed in India rather than in the grey atmosphere of Paris.
Although she was convinced that returning to India was the right thing to do, in 1934 Amrita decided to make one last trip to Hungary to see Victor. Upon her arrival she learned that Victor was involved with another woman. Once again the drama of betrayal and rejection drove her to engage in numerous careless and promiscuous relationships that had serious consequences. Amrita again became pregnant but this time had no idea as to the identity of the father .it could have been any one of many. Desperate for help, she once again turned to Victor for an abortion. But this time things didn't go so well .she became seriously ill and spent more than a month in the hospital. This abortion left her permanently damaged internally and she would later describe herself as: "I am like an apple...all red from the outside but rotten inside".
In August of 1934, Amrita wrote to her mother in Paris telling her how dissatisfied she had become with her recent paintings. She tells her "I am staggering, I am yet unskillful, but it doesn't matter I have enough time left." In this letter she also broke the news to her parents that she had definitely decided to return to India " in the interest of my artistic development" a decision that she thought would surely please her parents. She could not have been more wrong. In response to her letter, her parents, especially her father, expressed their objection to her return to India and to the Sher-Gil family home. Amrita's father was concerned about how Amrita's "promiscuous and immoral" behavior in Paris would tarnish the Sher-Gil name and reputation. In a September 1934 response to her father, Amrita wrote: "I was rather sad to realize that you place the conservation of your good name above your affections for us [Amrita and her sister Indira]". She went on to say that: "I don't in the least consider myself an immoral person I am not immoral.". She tried to convince them that she has since changed but they had not noticed. She dispelled the fact that her father felt that she had lost interest in India, in its culture, its people, its literature. Amrita wrote that in fact she was profoundly interest in India and its culture and wanted to get acquainted with it. She explained that her time spent in Europe helped her to discover India. She concluded the letter by saying: "There is nothing to talk over or discuss, I have decided to return " The last sentence of her letter ended with " I have so little time".
Return to India
In late November of 1934, Amrita and her parents left Paris and in December they arrived back in India. Amrita did not go to Simla to live with her parents. Instead, she spent the first few months in Amritsar at her ancestral home, Majithia House.
Amrita decided to immerse herself in the culture of India and began to wear only saris. Her style of art suddenly took on a revolutionary change. In Europe she had been painting in the purely Western academic style but now back in India her style became more fundamentally Indian. She devoted herself to painting the life and culture of the indigenous people of rural India particularly the poor. She found a strange beauty in their angular brown bodies and in their ugliness. She wanted to reproduce on canvas the impression that their eyes created on her with her own new technique of dark color and form. Her subjects were everywhere .the dark bodied, sad faced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently through the village streets looking almost like silhouettes. Not at all the India that Amrita had expected to find.
Her first painting was completed just two months after returning to India. It was entitled "Group of Three Girls" and portrayed a group of three young village girls. This painting was clearly an expression of her new style of art. She was now using bolder colors and simpler but more clear lines. Later in January 1937, this painting won Amrita the Bombay's Art Society's first prize and Gold medal for the best work in the Society's exhibition.
By the summer of 1935, Amrita had reconciled her differences with her parents and she returned to Simla to live with them in their suburban home in Summer Hill. Once there, she set up her studio in a spacious annex that had been built specifically for that purpose with living quarters above. She immediately began to paint and by September she had produced two paintings: "Beggar Woman" and "Portrait of Father".
For decades, the Simla Fine Arts Society hosted the best art exhibitions in India. Every artist, or wanna be artist, wanted their works to be shown at this exhibition. For the September 16th, 1935 opening, Amrita sent 10 of her paintings but the committee of judges rejected five of them. One of the accepted paintings, "Conversation Piece", was awarded His Highness the Raja of Faridkot's prize for a portrait or figure study. However, an art critic for the Lahore Gazette newspaper was not as impressed with her work. He described her painting as: " it would have been a better painting if it weren't for the carelessly painted table in the foreground." Another art critic for the Calcutta Statesman newspaper was not impressed with the award winning painting either. In his article he commented that: " It is good, but not nearly so good as some of her others.". However, he later commented that he thought the best two paintings in the exhibit were by Amrita: "Beggar Woman" and "Portrait of Father". In an interview for The Illustrated Weekly of India, Amrita was quoted as saying: "I am trying to bring a new living element into the art of India.". In the same article, the unidentified correspondent wrote: " those few people in Simla who know anything about modern painting have been immensely impressed by the five paintings of the young Indian girl artist, Amrita Sher-Gil ". Although he felt that her paintings had: "nothing in common with the Indian tradition", he found her work to be "almost brutally realistic ". But, he did conclude his article on a positive note by saying: "There is no question of Miss Sher-Gil's being in the front ranks of women painters of today."
The Simla Fine Arts Society Exhibition was Amrita's first major exhibition since her return to India. Her reaction to the exhibition was something less than pleasing. She was not amused by the judging committee's selection and rejection of her paintings. In her opinion, the rejected paintings were far superior to those that were accepted. In an unprecedented move, Amrita wrote a letter to the committee telling them that she had decided not to accept the prize awarded to her and that she was returning the check that had accompanied it. She went on to slam them by saying that in the future she would not display her works at the Simla Fine Arts Society but instead would exhibit at the Grand Salon Paris of which she was an Associate and at the Salon de Tuilleries known all over the world as the premier exhibition for Modern Art. Her letter and decision was widely criticized by the newspapers, art critics and of course the committee judges who saw it as being "in bad taste". Nonetheless, Amrita was uncompromising where her art was concerned and she did not accept the award nor the check.
During Amrita's brief stay in Amritsar, she painted only three paintings. But once back in Simla, she began painting profusely and by the end of 1935 she had produced 11 paintings. She was particularly proud of one of the paintings, "Mother India". She described it by saying: "I have painted an excellent picture of a beggar woman and her two brats.". During this same period she produced two other important works: "Hill Women" and "Hill Men", both depicting the quiet dignity of the poor people of Simla.
The British Encounter
In the spring of 1935 while attending a fair near Simla, Amrita met Malcolm Muggeridge, a handsome British journalist 10 years her senior. Malcolm was a journalist for the Calcutta Statesman and had been sent to Simla to represent the paper while the Government of India was in their summer session there. He was somewhat of a "maverick" journalist and some of his "raw" articles from Simla ruffled the feathers of his bosses in Calcutta. Soon after he lost interest in his work but had not lost interest in Amrita. In an interview years later, Malcolm said that when he first saw her at the fair he thought she was extremely beautiful and he immediately approached her. He said he talked with her as though they were old friends and from that moment on they became close friends. After that meeting, Amrita and Malcolm met, dined and danced on several occasions.
In the city of Quetta, there was a devastating earthquake and Muggeridge felt compelled to go there to report on the event for the Calcutta newspaper but he didn't. In his diary he explained the reason as: " because of Amrita". It was then that he realized his true feelings for Amrita. He concluded his diary entry by saying: "I love her. This is the truth".
Their friendship continued and in June, Amrita invited Malcolm to have tea with her and her parents. In his diary Malcolm described Amrita's mother as having red hair and being an extremely vulgar woman. As for her father, he wrote only that he found him to be "an attractive figure". After tea Amrita took him to her studio to show him her paintings. Muggeridge later wrote in his diary that the paintings " were not commonplace, but how good they are I can't be quite sure. At the same time she's got a touch of genius.". A couple of days later they met again and went for a walk. This time Amrita opened up to him and told him about her abortion, her previous lovers and why she had come to India. It seemed that the relationship was growing and becoming more romantic rather than platonic but apparently there was something about the relationship that wasn't to Malcolm's liking. In a diary entry he wrote about his "Love/Hate" relationship with Amrita. A few days later he had planned to spend the day alone with Amrita on a picnic but when he arrived Amrita's mother and another friend were also there. After spending the day with them, Amrita and Malcolm left together. That night in his diary he wrote: "Now there was perfect harmony between us.".
In a letter to her sister Indira, Amrita tells her about the "extraordinary Englishman" she has met. In the letter she compared his qualities to those of Marie Louise .the highest possible praise she could bestow on anyone.
Sometime during 1935, Amrita painted a portrait of Malcolm which now hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art. He described the work as: " the hands are much bigger and out of proportion with the rest of the body" and that he thought of the painting not as a "portrait" but rather as a "likeness". But, he also admitted that "I am handicapped by being quite an ignoramus about modern art".
In the fall of 1935, Muggeridge received a telegram from the editor of "The Evening Standard" in London offering him a job. He immediately accepted the job and submitted his resignation to the editor of the Calcutta newspaper. They met the morning of his departure and spoke very few words they both knew it was the end of their relationship forever. She, speaking in French, told him that they had some "beaux moments some delightful times and even beautiful times together." That was the last time they would see each other.
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