India’s Feistiest Woman Artist at NGMA Mumbai

NGMA Mumbai’s centenary celebration of Amrita Sher-gil’s birth through an exhibition of her works recreates the life one of the most powerful female voices in Indian art
–Rashmi Rajgopal

Yashodhara Dalmia next to Amrita's 1933 painting, Professional Model

Yashodhara Dalmia next to Amrita’s 1933 painting, Professional Model

The eve of 2nd June 2014 was a charged-up one at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Noted art historian and curator of the ongoing exhibition Amrita Sher-gil: A Passionate Quest, Yashodhara Dalmia, would be guiding visitors shortly through a carefully curated selection of paintings. This wasn’t an arbitrary crowd of appreciators new to Sher-gil’s art either: artists, art students, gallerists and collectors were present, eyes narrowed probingly (and knowingly).  Some were already steeped in private discussions over Sher-gil’s work, and in far more animated discussions about her life.

It’s almost a truism that interest around yesteryear celebrities generates feverish discussions on a scale that those around contemporary celebrities wouldn’t.  Amrita was just the kind of person who commanded attention. It wasn’t merely because of whom she was and when she lived—she was sensational. Outspoken and forceful in her beliefs, she had a personality that couldn’t go unnoticed. She was highly individualistic, which is evident in the many letters she exchanged with her family, friends and acquaintances.

Visitors at the NGMA for the walkthrough held on 2nd June 2014

Visitors at the NGMA for the walkthrough held on 2nd June 2014

If you’re among those unfamiliar with her as a person, the artworks on display may risk coming across as a set of pretty pictures. This superficial impression is partly deflected by a neat sectioning of her works into specific periods—they show her growth as an artist. Works from the early 1930s reflect an influence of Western academicism in their composition. This would be an unfair dismissal of their potency; Sher-gil showed a unique sensitivity in her approach to her subjects, poignantly capturing their inner turmoil. Among the works on display is one referenced in R. C. Tandan’s ‘The Art of Amrita Sher-gil’: Professional Model, 1933. Quoting art critic Denise Prontaux from the Minerva of Paris,

“The memory of one of her most recent pictures still haunts me. A woman seated in a pose as unaesthetic as possible with dishevelled hair and ravaged breast and in her eye all the misery of besotted humanity! From where has this young girl learnt to see life with such pitiless eyes and this absence of illusions?”

Left: Nude Professional, 1933

Left: Professional Model, 1933

Another work, part of her model studies, was alluded to colleague and painter Marie Louise Chassany—and a possible sexual relationship with her. Though Amrita was known to have been in relationships with both men and women, she had denied being in one with Chassany in a letter to her mother in 1934:

“…I believe that it is impossible to fully transform one’s sexual desires into art, to idealize it and tranquil it through art for a whole life-time this is only a stupid superstition of the feeble brains…Marie Louise was such an abnormal type of woman…we never had anything sexual between us.”

Brahmacharis, 1937

Brahmacharis, 1937

Her colourfulness deftly transits to poignancy again. This time the viewer notices a marked shift in style. These works aren’t academic—they break away from it.  Certain works have an interesting story behind them. Brahmacharis, 1937, shows a group of young South Indian priests—presumably Iyengar—made by Amrita after her return to Simla from the South. Story goes that she got her driver to pose for her as the central character, and servants to model for her. Also part of the exhibition is her last work—an unfinished painting that was, well, unfinished, owing to her untimely death at the age of 29.

Amrita's Unfinished Work

Amrita’s Unfinished Work

For all the debate over her approach to painting, one easily overlooks how feisty she was as a person. You might have read about/heard about her famous rejection of a prize awarded to her by the Simla Fine Arts Society for a painting made by her which she considered less superior to some of her other works which the committee had rejected. It isn’t just this. She had strong views on everything: on the prevailing Bengal School trend which she utterly disdained, on people, and on the course her own art would take. This comes through clearly in her letters, only one of which is included in the exhibition. And that’s a drawback for those who don’t have Vivan Sundaram’s exhaustive two-volume monograph on Amrita which has most of her letters—they reveal a strong-willed, highly intelligent and ambitious young woman who could have gone on to achieving much more had she lived.

A letter from Amrita dating to 1932

A letter from Amrita dating to 1932

That said, the exhibition definitely must be attended. These are works to be seen and experienced in person, so head to the NGMA before the end of this month.

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