Amrita Sher-Gil


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Living in Budapest without Victor was quite depressing for Amrita. But not long after his departure, Victor was able to send for her to join him. The couple stayed in a small hotel which she described as "very cozy". There was not much to do in the small town so she spent her time reading and roaming around the town making sketches of what she saw. She eventually became bored with sketching and reading and once again was inspired to paint. In a November 9th, 1938 letter to her friend Karl, she describes a new picture that she wants to paint: "…a village church in the background, a market place with little figures in black, the sky grey and the church tower white". When finished, the painting became known as "Hungarian Market Scene" and is one of the best pictures she painted during her stay in Hungary. A couple of months later she painted a snow landscape, white with bare trees, railway lines and telegraph posts in black. This painting was called "Winter Scene". Amrita painted at least eight pictures while in Hungary. Among them were: "Hungarian Church Steeple", "The Potato Peeler", "Nude", "Hungarian Peasant" and "Two Girls". The others she either gave away or left behind with Victor's sister.

By the middle of 1939, the situation in Europe had worsened and the threat of war was imminent. Very possibly the boarders could be closed and Victor and Amrita would be unable to leave the country. Victor's uncle, Nandor Menet, arranged for Victor to take a long leave without pay and made all of the arrangements for them both to leave the country immediately. There was just one problem…they were broke. Since Amrita was still an "unknown" artist in Hungary, she was unable to sell any of her paintings. Victor's military pay was just barely enough for the two of them to live on and nothing left to save. They were eventually able to recover some "family money" from Germany and on June 19th, 1939 they left Budapest. On July 2nd they arrived in Colombo with just two British Pounds each. While in Colombo they were able to acquire more money and on July 5th they boarded a train for Madurai.

Return to India....Again

Amrita and Victor stayed in Madurai for two days and visited some temples and carvings. From there they traveled on to Madras to see Mahabalipuram. Amrita described Mahabalipurm as "the most haunting place in all South India". After spending the next day in the railway station waiting room, they left for Simla where Victor and Amrita planned to live. Victor would set up his medical practice and Amrita would paint. But, their stay in Simla was brief and Amrita was only able to complete one painting, "Resting". Amrita's cousin, Kirpal Singh Majithia, invited the couple to come live with him in Saraya. So, once again they packed up and left stopping on the way in New Delhi for two weeks to stay with her sister's husband, K.V.K. Sundaram.

Once they arrived in Saraya, their future was still uncertain. It was never their intention to settle down there. It was just a temporary stop-over until they could decide where they really wanted to settle. But things didn't go well. In a December 18th letter to her friend Karl, her mood was one of depression. She was discouraged by the lack of appreciation for her paintings. Despite that, she sent four paintings to the annual exhibition of the Bombay Fine Arts Society. She became even more depressed when some of them were rejected…especially because she felt the rejected paintings were the best of the lot. She was further insulted when someone offered to buy one of her paintings for a ridiculously low price.

Amrita's mood improved with time and a couple of months later in a letter to her sister she wrote: "We are in better spirits now….I am happier now than I have ever been in my life.". Despite the uncertainty of their situation, Amrita once again began to paint and in January and February of 1940 she produced what she referred to as "some good things"…"Ancient Story Teller" and "The Swing". She also accepted a commission to do some sculpturing…two large tigers and a small elephant head. Of the pieces she said they were quite good technically but she would do them quite differently if they were for herself.

In an effort to gain some recognition as a painter, Amrita sent four paintings to Deli for an exhibition which had been arranged by her friend Barada Ukil. Unfortunately none of her paintings won a prize…not even a mention. Despite that Amrita continued to paint and during the first half of 1940 she produced some small paintings which she referred to as "about the size of Ganesh Puja (Clay Elephant)". She also completed a painting of a girl in red flowered clothes reclining on a charpai (Woman Resting on a Charpa). This painting would continue to be one of her favorite paintings.

By August of 1940, Amrita had found peace with herself and was content with her life in Saraya and with Victor. In a letter to her parents she wrote: "We are so pleased and happy….I am producing good things. Victor has got a job, and not such a bad one either, far better than we hoped for in fact we are quite satisfied with our lot."

Life for Amrita and Victor was a struggle financially. Victor's monthly salary of 160 rupees was barely enough for them to make ends meet. Amrita's mother was providing another 100 rupees a month but that still wasn't enough for them to really enjoy the "good life" that they wanted. They wanted to get their own place and a car but with their limited income it was impossible. It was frustrating for them…they felt trapped.

In December of 1940, Amrita began feeling very depressed and discouraged. In a letter to her sister (Indira) she tells her that she dreads the tomorrows that will come and that her life has become grey, melancholy, empty and a complete vacuum. She goes on to say that her relationship with Victor is drifting apart. "Although we are tremendously found of each other we are alone together….we sit for hours in silence". Amrita ended the letter with a confession: "I am hardly the happy person with rich, full life, radiating joy as I go. I am fast losing my interest in people and the desire to approach them. I am becoming bleaker and bleaker, less and less interested..."

Amrita and Victor's life was even more complicated by the war. It seemed that everyone was preoccupied with the war and not much was happening in the world of art…her work was not getting any exposure. Victor had not heard from his mother in Hungary for months and feared that she was not receiving his letters. Amrita summed up their frustrations by saying: "How we wish that this infernal war were over".

In January of 1941, their frustrations were temporarily put aside by a visit from their long time friend Karl Khandalavala. Although the visit was brief they found it to be a very much needed and pleasant diversion. Karl recalls that he spent a great deal of time with Amriata. He watched her paint and she spent hours and hours at the easel and nothing could take her away from her work. This was his first time to ever see her paint. He could see that she was serious about her work. He also saw her sculptures and found that she was very talented there as well. Karl also witnessed her performing domestic chores and was quite amazed because he, in the past, had expressed to her his doubts about her ever becoming domesticated. After three days Karl left…never suspecting that he would never see her again.

During Karl's visit, Amrita was on an emotional and mental high and her mood cheerful. After Karl's departure, as expected, a deep sense of gloom soon descended upon her and she suffered what she described as a "nervous crisis". In a March 14th, 1941, letter to Indira she wrote: "I passed through a nervous crisis and am still far from being over it. Feeling impotent, dissatisfied, irritable and not even able to weep…"

Concerned about Amrit's mental state, Indira came to Saraya to comfort her sister. Indira's visit didn't seem to have much effect on Amrita because Indira had problems of her own so it turned out to be a "misery loves company" visit. Indira's stay was very brief and she soon returned home.

What Amrita hated most of all was that this atmosphere of "gloom and distress" was affecting her work. In a letter to Indira she wrote: "I have not done a thing since you left…" While Indira was visiting in Saraya, Amrita told her that she wanted to start a new painting….one of a funeral procession. In her letter to Indira, Amrita told her that she hadn't started the funeral painting but would one day. Trying to sound more upbeat she added: "Of course it will be a gay picture if I ever do paint it". She never did paint it but she did draw a sketch of it.

Overwhelmed by frustration and gloom, Victor and Amrita decided that their life needed a change. That change was to be brought about by moving to Lahore. Victor first went to Lahore on his own to explore things there, then, in the summer of 1941, Amrita and Victor both returned to Lahore to weigh the pros and cons of a move…especially the prospects of Victor being able to set up his medical practice. After two or three days of prospecting, Victor learned that many of the Doctors in Lahore had been called into military service so there was a shortage of doctors in Lahore, and therefore, chances of Victor establishing a profitable medical practice were favorable. Amrita spent her time scouting out the climate of the art world in Lahore. Much to her surprise she found that, despite the war, there was a lot happening in the art world in Lahore. Both convinced that Lahore was the place they needed to be, they decided they would move to Lahore sometime in September. Once the decision was made, Amrita's mood quickly changed and she became her "happy go lucky" self again. Victor returned to Saraya but Amrita remained in Lahore for another couple of days.

A Tragic Ending

Around the third week in September of 1940, Amrita and Victor arrived in Lahore. They spent the next few days looking at flats and apartments in an area called the "Mall", a fashionable part of Lahore. They eventually settled on Apartment No 23 in Sir Ganga Ram Mansions, commonly known as the Exchange Mansions and occupied mostly by the elite and professionals. It was a two-story apartment with a veranda overlooking the driveway and a small barsati on the top. Victor's clinic would be on the ground floor, the living rooms on the second floor and the barsati would be Amrita's studio. They both set about cleaning, painting, decorating, and of course Amrita hung several of her paintings on the walls. They bought some furniture and Amrita's mother also sent some furniture and furnishings. Victor was able to equip his clinic with equipment that he had brought from Saraya and some that he had bought locally. And finally, they were able to buy a small Ford car. Everything was going just as planned.

Once the place was in order, Amrita immediately started inviting friends and admirers for tea. Their apartment soon became a meeting place, or sort of "open house" for a select group of people.

In late October, Amrita decided to once again "test the waters" of the Lahore art world by holding an exhibition of her works. It would be held sometime in the second week of December in the hall of the Punjab Literary League, above a fashionable café facing the Mall. On Sunday, November 30th, Amrita and Victor went to the site to make the final arrangements.

Excited about the upcoming exhibit, Amrita started work on a new painting that would be on display at her exhibition as a specimen of her latest work. From her apartment roof top and just behind her apartment, Amrita could see some mud houses and a man who kept four buffaloes. That would be the subject of her last painting.

On Wednesday, the 3rd of December, Amrita became very ill with what she, and her doctor husband thought, was dysentery. Dysentery in India is quite common and everyone gets it occasionally so neither of them ever suspected that she was fatally ill. She was lying in bed and looking very pale with a greenish tinge to her. Victor was doing all that he knew how to treat her but despite his efforts Amrita slipped into a coma. Two other doctors were summoned to examine her but by the time they arrived it was too late. She was suffering from severe dehydration and peritonitis had already perforated her intestines. There was nothing else that could be done. Just after 11pm, in a last effort to save her, Victor called on another well known physician to come and examine her. But it was too late…by the time he arrived she was already dead. He told Victor that had he called him just a day earlier he could have saved her….the last thing Victor needed to hear.

Amrita's parents had decided she was to be given a Sikh style funeral. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Amrita's body was carried to the burning ghat on the banks of the river Ravi. The ceremony was attended by Amrita's parents, her sister Indira and her husband Kalyan Sundarm, Victor and some 30-40 friends. A pile of chopped wood had already been prepared in the shape of a bed on which Amrita's body was laid. More wood was carefully piled on top and some sandal wood sticks and ghee (clarified butter) were added. The last rites were performed by Amriat's father, Umrao. He lit the funeral pyre and uttered his parting words: "She had entered the prenatal world at Lahore and death seemed to have conspired with life to release her spirit from its physical chrysalis in the same city."

The following day her ashes were collected and cast into the river Ravi. So ended the mortal existence of Amrita Sher-Gil. We shall never see the likes of her again….but her legacy will live forever….

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