Inside Amrita Sher-Gil’s Ladies’ Enclosure

The Indian art world has, over the years, seen various artists making significant and often path-breaking contributions through their craft. But there are few artists who are as fascinating and brilliant as Amrita Sher-Gil. 

Considered to be a pioneer of modernism in India, Sher-Gil’s short but highly fruitful career established her as an eminent artist with an aesthetic sensibility that blended European and Indian elements skilfully. Through her work, Sher-Gil captured the lives and experiences of women in early 20th century India. Her paintings are lauded for their timeless themes and qualities that powerfully resonate with women’s narratives even today.

Amrita in her studio in Simla, 1937 | Photo: Umrao Singh Sher-Gil
Image courtesy: Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Archive, New Delhi

Sher-Gil was born in 1913 to a Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat, scholar and photographer. After her promising young talent was discovered at a really young age, Sher-Gil received formal training in art from reputable schools and tutors. In 1929, upon the recommendation of her uncle, Sher-Gil went on to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The following years marked the beginning of her success as an artist. Nonetheless, a newfound appreciation and longing for Indian art as well as a desire to be closer to her Indian ancestry prompted Sher-Gil to relocate to India.

Sher-Gil’s return to India in 1934 saw a change in her artistic practice. Along with a transformed colour palette that reflected earthy Indian tones, the subjects of her paintings also became increasingly representative of her surroundings.

Amrita painting In the Ladies’ Enclosure, Saraya, Gorakhpur, 1938 | Image courtesy: Vivan Sundaram

The oil on canvas masterpiece In the Ladies’ Enclosure was painted in 1938, a few years after her return to India. This seminal work of art marks the zenith of Sher-Gil’s evolution as an artist and is the outcome of her years spent in training and developing her talent. 

Painted at her family’s estate in Saraya, Gorakhpur, the work depicts a group of women gathered in a field. Notable artist, and Sher-Gil’s nephew, Vivan Sundaram explains that the female subjects present in this painting are, in fact, people known to Sher-Gil – including members of the Majithia family who had been living in the estate at Saraya over long periods of time.

Bride’s Toilet, 1937

The painting offers an arrangement of subjects that is similar to her earlier work Bride’s Toilet, 1937. In both paintings, the main subject is a young woman positioned in the centre with an older woman dressing her hair. However, both paintings, even though executed just a year apart, showcase varied painting styles and techniques.

A striking characteristic of In the Ladies’ Enclosure is the composition’s flat relief, indicating a further departure from realism. As noted by Sundaram, “The bride’s profiled features are drawn schematically: on a pale pink skin colour, four notational lines for the eye and a tiny dot for the pupil. This is to de-romanticize the face – modern art’s agenda to get rid of the shackles of realist painting. Amrita’s flat application of paint and minimal drawing gives this person a remote presence, a quiet austerity.” (Vivan Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil: In the Ladies’ Enclosure: A Close Reading and a Walk Through the Enclosure, Mumbai: Saffronart, 2021)

In the Ladies’ Enclosure, 1938, Oil on canvas, 21.5 x 31.5 in | Estimate: Rs 30 – 40 crores ($4.2 – 5.6 million)

In the painting, Sher-Gil uses a palette that is charged with vibrant and essentially Indian hues. The central figure dressed in a vermillion salwar-kameez and the reddish-brown sari-clad figure standing next to her are both connected by their vastly different shades of red. The small girl in a magenta kurta and the hibiscus flowers further diversify the reddish tones in the foreground. Accompanying the reds are the starkly different, yet complementing, blue and green tones of the land, hedge and sky. Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia explains that Sher-Gil’s choice of colours is perhaps an attempt to “bring out the contrast between the hot reds and the greens, one finds in the early Rajput miniatures” (Yashodhara Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, New Delhi: Penguin, 2006, pp. 106-107)

While working on this composition, Sher-Gil was also attempting plein air painting, incorporating the rich stylistic features of Rajput and Pahari miniatures. “In these she freely ignored the actual landscapes but used them in part in her compositions and colour organizations. Nor were the landscapes a motif for the foreground but were an integral part of the composition.” (Dalmia, p. 107)

Sher-Gil painted In the Ladies’ Enclosure in the final years of her brief but prodigious life. After her death in 1941, a portfolio of twelve of her most important works, chosen by Sher-Gil prior to her passing away, was posthumously published. In the Ladies’ Enclosure was one of the twelve.


Watch Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani as he takes us through the legendary Amrita Sher-Gil’s life and artistic journey, culminating in In the Ladies’ Enclosure.

Read the essay by Vivan Sundaram to find out more about the artist’s unique application of colour and who the subjects in the painting are.

Bid on Sher-Gil’s works at Saffronart’s Summer Live Auction on 13 July 2021.

The Art of Jangarh Singh Shyam

Gond art is among the most popular and well-known indigenous art traditions of India. Taking its name after the tribe which practices it, Gond art is mainly centred in Madhya Pradesh. Within this form, there is a wide spectrum of artistic styles, primarily connected to certain painters and their practices. The tribe’s strong tradition of oral narrative—often focussing on their gods who corresponded to elements of nature—transposes to their paintings as well.

These indigenous art forms have now evolved in their social and cultural roles. Efforts by art historians and the government have helped push them to prominence and artists themselves have painstakingly modified a centuries-old ethos to contemporary demand. At the forefront of giving the folk and tribal arts the recognition they deserved, was Jangarh Singh Shyam, famed for his Gond paintings and for popularising the art form abroad.

Jangarh Singh Shyam at his studio in Bharat Bhavan | Wikimedia Commons

Shyam is synonymous with this art form, so much so, that Udayan Vajpeyi, in his essay, “From Music to Painting” proposes that the art be called Jangarh kalam, or Jangarh style. (Sathyapal ed., Native Art of India, Thrissur: Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, 2011, p. 33) Hailing from the Gond tribe in Madhya Pradesh, Jangarh Singh Shyam lived in the jungles of Mandla until a chance encounter with the modern artist Jagdish Swaminathan in the 1980s. Swaminathan, who was leading an Indian collective on a study tour with the aim of creating a collection of tribal art in Bhopal, came across Shyam’s house, whose walls were adorned with his art. Upon enquiring, they met Shyam—only a teenager at the time, but with a striking style of painting.

Jagdish Swaminathan with Jangarh Singh Shyam and his wife at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, 1987 | © Jyoti Bhatt

Swaminathan took Shyam on as his protege, bringing him to the Roopankar Museum in Bhopal, where he learned to transfer his art from walls to paper. He created a series of works on paper and canvas which are displayed at Bharat Bhavan today. “His first large works on paper from the start of the 1980s contain highly expressive forms of great simplicity redolent of primitivism.” (Herve Perdriolle, Indian Art: Contemporary, One Word, Several Worlds, Milan: 5 Continents Editions, p. 61)

Shiv – Many-headed or Shesh Nag snake, trident and lingayoni (Gond Art), 1989, Gouache on paper, 19.5 x 25.5 in, Estimate: Rs 6 – 8 lakhs ($8,220 – 10,960)

In typical Gond tradition, Shyam’s art is based on the deities and divinities of the Gond tribe, and the animist culture of worship surrounding them. Suspended in space, he renders them like silhouettes creating the effect of shadow puppets, with bright colours, dots and hatched lines. The inspiration for using fine dots comes from the tribe itself, where shamans go into a trance and imagine that the particles of their bodies disperse into space to join with those of spirits to form other beings. The intricacy and control in his dot-based designs is seen in the works of all Gond artists, as are his most common subjects – the tree of life and various animals.

Sher (Gond Art), 1990, Ink on paper, 14 x 11 in and Gughawa Pakshee (Gond Art), 1993, Ink on paper, 21.5 x 14.5 in, Estimates: Rs 3 – 4 lakhs ($4,110 – 5,480) and Rs 5 – 6 lakhs ($6,850 – 8,220)

In 2010, the Muse du quai Branly in Paris held an exhibition called Other Masters of India, which carried large works on paper by Shyam from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which according to Perdriolle, “reveal a development in the direction of a profusion of psychedelic colors and more elaborated forms. The second half of the 1990s was marked by an unusual refinement, pictorial maturity, and graphic mastery that resulted in some of his best works.” (Perdriolle, p. 61)

Birds (Gond Art), 1996, Ink on paper, 11 x 13.75 in, Estimate: Rs 4 – 5 lakhs ($5,480 – 6,850)

Shyam worked with several mediums throughout his career, including drawing and silkscreen painting, rediscovering a new style and representation every time. As he achieved fame, Shyam encouraged other artists in his community to paint, giving them access into the mainstream. His house was the studio, where he provided his students with paper, canvas and paint, encouraging them to find their own expression through new mediums.

Shyam passed away in Japan in 2001. He was in his early forties. The artist’s memory is preserved in his body of work, including the large murals he created for the Parliament building in Bhopal, and continued by the members of his family trained by him, including his wife Nankusia, daughter Japani, and son Mayank. In a short-lived but exceptional career, he left behind a powerful and dynamic legacy which reached for the new while preserving the roots of the Gond artistic tradition.


Saffronart’s Winter Online Auction features four works by the artist, and will be on auction on 9 – 10 December 2020 on saffronart.com.

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