Amrita Sher-Gil


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On the Move....Again

In the winter of 1935, Amrita left Simla for a brief stay in Dumri, a small town just outside of Saraya. She stayed in the family winter retreat which was the house of her step-brother Sardar Vivek Singh Majithia. In February of 1936, she packed up once again and moved to Saraya because she had been asked by family members to come there and paint a portrait of her aging Uncle, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia. Also, she had been asked to paint an enormous portrait of her step-brother Bikki in which there would be a full length tiger in the foreground and Bikki in the background. Amrita described the paintings as "…more of a portrait of a tiger rather than Bikki".

Amrita's first task was to paint the portrait of her Uncle. "The old fellow posed very well" she said. "He only fell asleep twice." But the Uncle claimed he was not sleeping….he was "only meditating". Amrita's hope was that the Uncle, or his son, would buy the portrait. When the portrait was finished Amrita described it as: …"a good portrait from the accepted academic point of view…but a bad painting". Everyone admired the resemblance and it was bought by the family.

When she wasn't working on his portrait, Amrita was working on three other paintings: "Little Untouchable" which featured a little peasant boy she had found in the streets, a painting of a young girl and a landscape.

While still in Saraya, Amrita learned that she had won two prizes for her "Self Portrait" painting on display at the 5th annual exhibition of the "All India Fine Arts Society" in New Delhi. The Hindustan Times of New Delhi described her Self Portrait as being one "amongst the most striking pictures…" while The Times of India wrote that the painting struck "…a definite note of self confidence". Amrita felt that the prize winning Self Portrait was just ordinary and commented: "…naturally they awarded the prize for the worst of my pictures." In an interview for "The Tribune" of Lahore, Amrita gave her view on Indian art in general: "The art of a country reflects the psychology of its people. The quality of that art reflects the richness, or the poverty, of its creative force. And the quality of the appreciation of that art is an indication of the aesthetic and intellectual development of the people". When asked what she herself was trying to achieve through art, Amrita replied: "I am personally trying to be, through the medium of line, color and design, an interpreter of life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad."

It seems that in this year, 1936, the press in India began to take Amrita seriously as an "out of the ordinary" painter. The Sunday Statesman published her profile in a series on "Prominent Women of India". The article stated that Amrita's mission in life was to present to the world and her own people the misery of Indian life. The article went on to say that "…many consider her subjects ugly….not that they are really ugly, but that her conception of beauty is so novel and unusual…" Amrita was not surprised or upset when she read that her subjects were "ugly"….that seemed to be the general consensus among art critics at the time. The Civil & Military Gazette of Lahore published an article in which the author thought that Amrita was devoting herself to the formulation of a new technique "…which will be fundamentally Indian in spirit". He concluded his article by saying: "It should be emphasized, however, that the capacity to compose a picture is, with this artist, entirely intuitive; her work is not technique conscious, but is the product of the intuition of the true artist, combined with a deep understanding of human suffering which one would expect from a more mature person".

In her own defense, Amrita wrote an article for "The Hindu of Madras". The article, entitled "Modern Indian Art", began with a brief résumé of her life and work. She then launched an attack against the artists who paint the "Sunny" side of Indian life. She thought that their techniques and style were nothing more than "…cheap tricks of the trade" that had no place in producing true works of art. She concluded her article by saying: "I am an individualist evolving a new technique that, though not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit."


Bombay Bound

On November 16th, Amrita packed up once again and headed for Bombay to prepare for her next exhibition. She was accompanied by another artist, Barada Ukil, who was also exhibiting a painting at the same exhibition in Bombay. They arrived in Bombay the following day and checked in to the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was also the venue for the exhibition.

The exhibit opened November 20th, 1936. As usual, the gala was attended by noted art critics and journalists from the major newspapers from around India. The reporter from The Times of India described Amrita as being "one of the most promising of the younger generation of Indian painters". He went on to say that he considered her heads and torsos to be "undoubtedly splendid, alive with feeling and power and intensely vivid in their expression". That was not an opinion with which Amrita agreed. She liked painting portraits only when she found the subject pictorially interesting. She hated painting commissioned portraits of people who wanted, and insisted on, being painted in their true human likeness. Another critic wrote that Amrita's art was inspired by the poor of India, the villagers and the hill tribes. Amrita's response was: "It is their sincerity, nobility and dignity that attracts me…it is these [people] that I want to portray". A writer for The Bombay Man's Diary of The Evening News of India wrote: "For a remarkably beautiful girl and not an unhappy one either, Miss Sher-Gil has an astonishingly gloomy eye"…an apparent reference to the subject matter of most of her paintings.

The Bombay exhibit was a great success. It was at this exhibition that for the first time in India, Amrita received some measure of the recognition which she so richly deserved. She was elated with the results of the exhibition and the response of the general public to her work. However, although the exhibition was a great success artistically and career wise, financially it was far from being a success. She earned only one thousand rupees. Like so many other great artists, that was the case throughout her entire life.

During the last week of November, Amrita, accompanied by Barada Ukil, left Bombay. But before leaving, she sent four of her paintings to the Bombay Art Society's 46th annual exhibition. The exhibition opened January 15th, 1937 and one of Amrita's entries, "Group of Three Girls", won the Society's gold medal. The art critic for The Sunday Standard wrote: "Here the most outstanding work is Miss Sher-Gil's entry of four pictures. Her Group of Three Girls has been awarded the Society's gold medal and the quality of her pictures can be gauged by the fact that each one of her remaining three exhibits is equally worthy of that honor". Again at this exhibition, Amrita received high praise from the critics which made it clear that as an artist Amrita had not only "arrived" but in the world of Indian art she was going to be a power to contend with. Whether you liked her work or not, you could no longer ignore her…she would dominate Indian art and remain to the end of her days a focal point for controversy in which she reveled.

Journey to South India

One of Amrita's ambitions as a painter was to paint the life and culture of the indigenous poor and working class of South India. "I am personally trying to be", she said "through the medium of line, color and design, an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and the sad". In the last week of November, 1937, Amrita, again accompanied by her artist friend Barada Ukil, left Bombay. Together they would explore the Southern regions of India and capture the lives of its inhabitants on canvas.

Their first stop was Ellora where she was entranced by the cave temples and the silence of the region. After two days she journeyed to Ajanta and described it as "curiously subtle and fascinating". In a letter to her friend Karl, Amrita wrote: "I made a number of little drawings of Ajanta and Ellora and have learnt a lot." To her parents she wrote: "Ajanta was wonderful. I have for the first time since my return to India learnt something from somebody else's work".

Their journey continued and on December 3, 1937, they arrived in Hyderabad where she was a guest of the state. She had made prior arrangements to show her works in an exhibition at the Hall in the Public Gardens. She was amused by the fact that they provided a police guard at the exhibit to insure that "none of my masterpieces is pinched". The exhibit opened December 8 and was attended by the elite and distinguished nobles of the local area. A critic who attended the exhibition described her works as being "inspired by India, the India of Child Wife and the India of the Villagers". The Hyderabad Bulletin highlighted her work as: "one of the most outstanding figures in the younger generation of modern artists…" He concluded the article by saying: "She turned her eyes from the academies of France and the art-houses of the West to her own home, India, the land of numberless villages and hills, of wide-stretching meadows and fields of corn, of the poor, contented folk of the countryside with their melancholy faces…it was here that she found inspiration for her art.".

During her stay in Hyderabad, Amrita met Nawab Salar Jan, whom she described as one of the richest men in Hyderabad and who was also a "connoisseur and collector" of art. He asked her to send him two of her paintings from the exhibit… "Reclining Nude" and "Group of Three Girls". He invited her to visit his home and view his extensive art collection. When Nawab asked Amrita what she thought of his collection, she described it as "…millions of rupees worth of junk". Insulted by her remarks, Nawab returned the two paintings that Amrita had sent saying that he had "no use for these Cubist pictures." The Hyderabad exhibit was not a financial success…she sold only one painting for 250 rupees.

From Hyderabad she and Barada traveled to Madurai and Rameshwaram which she found both to be "exceedingly interesting" because of the thousands of religious pilgrims that inhabited the area. From Madurai they drove on to Trivandrum and she described the road between Madurai and Trivandrum as "a wonderful place". For the first time she had encountered a completely different life-style that was unique only to Southern India. This is what she had been looking for.
"The earth was of red ochre with rich vegetation of emerald green on it, coconut trees and bananas, palm trees, tiny bamboo huts and red clay hamlets, and everyone wearing white. Not a single European and no trace of European civilization."

In a letter to her sister, she described it as: "The people, men, women and children are extra-ordinarily beautiful. The women wear a bodice and a dhoti, leaving the middle portion of their body naked. They have a wonderful way of doing their hair. Both men and women wear white exclusively."

After seeing all this, Amrita wondered how she would ever be able to live and paint in Simla…or for that matter, anywhere in Northern India. Amrita continued her tour of the South in Trivandrum where she again experienced the absence of Europeans which she described as being "…aesthetically, and in many other ways, a blessing". She had taken a few paintings with her to Trivandrum in hopes of selling them. The Maharaja and Maharani of Travancore expressed an interest in her works but declined to buy any of them saying "…the paintings did not match the furniture of the Palace". The local art museum inquired about her paintings but after seeing them they too declined to purchase any. So, once again this stop proved to be a financial disappointment.

From Trivandrum she travelled to Cape Comorin where she stayed for the next eleven days. During her stay, she produced two paintings. The first was "Fruit Venders", a large painting of a woman and two children on an apple green background. The figures in this painting are painted in dark red and raw sienna and are dressed in white…consistent of her new style of painting…the "South Indian" style. The second painting was a small composition "Women on the Beach" which she considered to be "one of the best things" she had done.
From Cape Comorin, Amrita continued her odyssey to Cochin where she discovered the frescoes in the Matancherri Palace. In a letter to her father, she wrote: "I saw a lot of admirable frescoes at Cochin…quite different in style but in quality sometimes even equaling the frescoes of Ajanta. Many of the panels depict erotic scenes, and even the process of birth in human and animal life."

Cochin was the last stop in her South Indian odyssey. She and her friend Barada left Cochin for Allahabad where she was to hold an exhibition of her paintings.

Fame but No Fortune in Allahabad

The exhibit in Allahabad was the brain-child of Professor Tandon of the Allahabad University in collaboration with the Roerich Institute of Art and Culture in Allahabad. In an article in the exhibit brochure, Tandon summarized Amrita's background and her achievements and then went on to say: "Her work is so strongly individualistic, so original that it cannot fail to receive notice…"

The exhibit opened on February 2, 1937 and about 500 guests did indeed take notice of her and her work. She signed about a hundred autographs and the exhibit catalogue was a "best seller". There were numerous journalists scrambling to get an interview, photographers wanted her photo and endless dinner parties "to meet Miss Sher-Gil" were arranged. Amrita described the chaos as "a perfect scream" and as she expected, her work provoked violent reactions, both Pro and Contra. The following day, an article in the Allahabad daily newspaper began: "When one sees an exhibition of Miss Sher-Gil's art for the first time, one feels as if one is rudely shocked….we are not used to this. And yet there is something compelling in these paintings. Such paintings either we hate or love: we cannot be indifferent to them."

Although she received a lot of acclaim and recognition for her work, once again she received no monetary compensation. This exhibit, like many previous exhibits, was a financial disappointment….she sold nothing. She was approached by a publishing house to write a book on "Modern Indian Art". But, at the time she didn't think much of what was currently classified as "Modern Indian Art". She didn't feel that she could write anything positive about it and knew that if she did write a book the Indian artists and art critics would "…all set on me like a pack of hyenas and tear me to bits." She declined the offer.

The Lahore Exhibit

It was now late November and Amrita's last days in Simla where spent selecting and packing paintings for an exhibition in Lahore. She arrived in there about a week before the opening to unpack and set up the exhibit in the ballroom of the best hotel in town, the Faletti. The exhibit opened on November 21st, 1937, a cold early winter day. The curious art lovers and the elite trickled in one by one. Although most of them knew of Amrita Sher-Gil as a stunningly beautiful woman, most had not seen her work before…but they were acutely aware that she was "innovative".

As usual, her collection of 30 paintings sparked mixed reactions from the viewers. Some gasped with excitement and some gasped in horror while others just stood there in awe of her work. Some thought her paintings were ugly and distorted and some even thought they were immoral while others said they just didn't understand it. But Amrita focused on the few who were quite perceptive and who could not withhold their admiration for her work. On the whole, her canvases evoked a great deal of praise from the art critics and even from the press.

The event was such a success that it was extended by a few days. Some came not to see her paintings but just to see Amrita herself….she was always present and spoke to most everyone. However, the "success" of the exhibit was measured solely on the number of people that attended. Financially, it was not a success. She was only able to sell just a few paintings, one of which was returned a few days later. She did manage to get commissioned to paint a couple of portraits while there. She detested doing portraits but needed the money. When they were finished she hated them and even left one of them unsigned.

While in Lahore, Amrita received word that she had been awarded the prize for best work by a "lady artist" for her painting "View from Studio" which she had painted while in Paris. The painting was part of an exhibit at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Exhibition held in Deli. As you might expect, Amrita was not pleased by being categorized as a "lady artist". About that she said: "I do dislike this type of distinction; it rather smacks of concession due to the feebler sex." Furthermore, she felt that some of the other paintings that she sent to the exhibition were far superior to that one.

In the first week of February, 1938, Amrita left by train for Saraya where she would spend the rest of the winter months in familiar surroundings and among the poor of the land whom she had learned to love.

Thoughts of Marriage

Once in Saraya, Amrita immediately immersed herself in her work. She began with two small paintings: "Elephants Bathing in a Green Pool" and "In the Ladies Enclosure".

But painting was not all that was on her mind. She was having thoughts of marriage. Until now she was satisfied being alone and single but she now began to think about the future and she hated the thought that she might one day find herself "…a lonely old maid".

Since childhood she had always known, and always said, that she would one day marry her best friend and first cousin Victor Egan. She wrote to a friend that "I feel fairly convinced that I am not made for marriage but I am trying it out all the same…I don't think I will make an ideal wife."

Victor was in Hungary and still in medical school. They both agreed that Amrita would come to Hungary as soon as possible and remain there until Victor could complete his medical school…about a year and a half. However, Amrita made it very clear that they would be returning to India because she "… could not paint in Europe…she could only paint in India". In a letter to her friend Karl she wrote: "I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque and many others…India belongs only to me."

It was Amrita's mother who first introduced the pair to each other and was the first to suggest they get married. When Amrita broke the news to her parents that she was going to marry Victor, their reaction was totally hostile. Somehow, over the years, Amrita's mother for some unknown reason had turned against Victor. She wanted Amrita to marry someone rich and important but Amrita was not interested in marrying someone strictly for their wealth, social position or status in life. Amrita's father was against the marriage because Victor was her first cousin. Marrying blood relation was just not done in India. But, Amrita was determined to carryout her marriage plans and over time she eventually won the blessing of her parents. In a letter Amrita's father wrote: "…and we decided not to oppose in any way our dear daughter's wishes. We told her that we would do all we could for them." After a brief visit to Simla and Bombay, on June 29th, 1938, Amrita set sail for Hungary.


During her short stay in Simal, Amrita had a brief but intimate affair with a young and handsome Englishman, Walter Collins. It was while she was en route to Hungary that she learned she was pregnant…obviously as a result of her affair with Walter. The ship's doctor attempted to perform an abortion but was unsuccessful.

When the ship docked in Naples, much to her surprise, Victor was there waiting for her. He boarded the ship and they continued on to Genoa together…there was no mention of the pregnancy. When they arrived in Genoa, they stayed the night and the next day boarded a train for Budapest.

It was early July, 1938 when they arrived in Budapest. The couple stayed with Victor's mother in her two room flat. The plan was that they would spend a couple of years in Hungary so Victor could finish his medical school and acquire some "on the job training".

This was not a peaceful time for Hungary. The Nazis were at the boarders of Hungary and Hungary and Czechoslovakia were involved in their own dispute. Victor's uncle, a government official, warned Victor and Amrita that a war was imminent and they should leave for India immediately. But, as fate would have it, the warning came too late. Victor, a member of the Army Reserves, was called to duty.

Shortly after, Amrita started to hemorrhage and a large bloody clot was discharged. Concerned about Amrita's health, Victor sent the specimen to a medical laboratory to be examined. He later learned that the specimen was an unborn fetus.

Strangely enough, the aborted pregnancy did not affect their relationship nor their plans to marry. Victor's mother was not opposed to the marriage but was sadden by the thought of losing her only son who would be living in India.

Before they could be married, Victor was assigned to military duty in Kiskunhalas. The first opportunity he was able to leave his regiment for a couple of days he returned to Budapest and on July 16th 1938, he and Amrita were married. It was a simple civil ceremony performed at the Registrar. (NOTE: In order for Amrita to marry Victor, she had to surrender her British Indian Passport and acquire a Hungarian Passport so technically she is now a Hungarian national.) A day later Victor returned to his military duty. Soon after he was assigned to the medical corps. The rest of his regiment was moved to the front lines but fortunately, Victor was allowed to remain behind to perform medical exams on new recruits.

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