Talk given by Vivan Sundaram Friday 24th May

Emily Jane Cushing recommends a talk by artist, activist and curator Vivan Sundaram as part of the ‘Unpacking Global’ series by Asian Art Archive (AAA)

Hong Kong: This talk by Vivan Sundaram will take place on Friday 24 May at 11 am – 12 pm at ‘A Space’, 10/F, 233 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.

For more information and to register for the talk, see the AAA website.

talk

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.

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.

‘Let The World In’ A New Two-Part on Indian Contemporary Art

Emily Jane Cushing recommends a two-part film on contemporary Indian art entitled ‘Let the World in’. 

Detail from the film’s poster with paintings by Sudhir Patwardhan (left) and Gigi Scaria (right) Image credit: http://in.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/910426/coming-soon-a-2-volume-film-on-contemporary-indian-art

Detail from the film’s poster with paintings by Sudhir Patwardhan (left) and Gigi Scaria (right) Image credit: http://in.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/910426/coming-soon-a-2-volume-film-on-contemporary-indian-art

London: A new two-part film, titled ‘Let the World in’, directed by Avijit Mukul and produced by Art Chennai, intends to document the evolution of contemporary visual art in India spanning three generations of artists and their work dating from the 1980s to the present day.

The premiere of the film was held at the National Film Archive of India in Pune on the 7th of June; and it is now travelling to film festivals in the UK from the 13th-14th and returning to India for its debut in Mumbai and Delhi.

Untitled, Arpita Singh, 2002

Untitled, Arpita Singh, 2002. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PreWork.aspx?l=8483

The film intends to document the depth and diversity in contemporary Indian art by outlining “the artists’ concerns reflected in their work, tracing it down to the present day,” according to the press release. The first volume begins discussing the monumental 1981 exhibition “Place For People” in Delhi and Bombay, in which a group of artists conveyed through their work and engagement with locality, class and politics and further touching on how younger artists have been impacted by the inherited legacy of this movement. Central characters in the first volume include artists Arpita Singh, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Vivan Sundaram; inputs are also heard from influential art critic Geeta Kapur and the late Bhupen Khakhar, a co-artist and close friend.

A Theory of Abstraction, T.V. Santhosh, 2001

A Theory of Abstraction, T.V. Santhosh, 2001. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=8286

The second part of the film focuses on practitioners such as Shilpa Gupta, Atul Dodiya and T.V. Santosh; major political and social changes in India make up the backdrop of the beginning of this volume. Issues such as the liberalization of the Indian economy and the funding of dangerous religious extremist that ensued and also the lack of sophisticated educational practices in Indian artistic establishments are all topics that contribute to the setting of the second volume.

The film also conveys the new Indian artistic generations preoccupation with the past and engagement with history; one of the films main goals is to re-ignite to public consciousness the significant role played by the senior generation of Indian artists who were dedicated to forming their unique artistic styles in previous times.

If you are in Cambridge on 20 June, then you can view the film at 17:30 pm at the Center for South Asian Studies; more information here.

For details of the multi-city screening schedule, visit the film’s Facebook page. The DVD will be released shortly.

Symposium on dOCUMENTA (13), Sharjah and Kochi-Muziris Biennales at SAA-JNU

Manjari Sihare shares details of a symposium on dOCUMENTA (13) and the Sharjah and Kochi-Muziris Biennales hosted by the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU and the Goethe Institute, Delhi

New Delhi: The School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA), JNU, and the Goethe Institut are hosting a day-long symposium exploring key issues in international art exhibitions from the recent past on Friday, April, 19, 2013.

The symposium has been conceptualized by Geeta Kapur and focuses on dOCUMENTA (13) (June – September 2012).  Speakers are invited to address the curatorial concept of this edition. And to address, as well, a peculiar call on dOCUMENTA curators to offer, in the very form of the exhibition, a virtual world-view.

In the second part of the symposium, there will be a discussion on Biennales that are placed within more precarious circumstances. The risks and gains of working with a meager infrastructure, social taboos, uncharted aesthetics, will be brought forward. A substantial debate on the newest, most proximate Kochi-Muziris Biennale (December 2012 – March 2013) is expected. Participants will be invited to discuss, for instance, how this Biennale offered ‘site imaginaries’ in lieu of a predetermined concept; and an exhibitory poetics largely activated by participating artists. Also the role of the State (with reference to India) in supporting large-scale, audience-friendly and ground-breaking exhibition projects such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will be put up for scrutiny.

Friday, April 19 2013, 11.00 am – 5.30 pm
Auditorium, School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Session I (11 am to 1 pm)
Chair: Kavita Singh: Introduction and Sum-up

Vision Documenta
Referring to earlier editions, but focusing on dOCUMENTA (13) (June – September 2012), speakers are invited to address the curatorial concept of this edition; and to address, as well, a peculiar call on dOCUMENTA curators to offer, in the very form of the exhibition, a virtual world-view.

• Geeta Kapur: dOCUMENTA aesthetics in the 21st century
• Vidya Shivdas: Brief introduction to the dOCUMENTA project
• Panel: Jeebesh Bagchi, Sonia Khurana, Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Session II (1.45 pm to 3.15 pm)
Chair: Pooja Sood: Introduction and Sum-up

Ideological Readings: from Documenta to Sharjah
A reflection on Biennales placed within newer, more precarious circumstances; the risks and gains of working through untested locations, meager infrastructures, social taboos, uncharted aesthetics.

• Amar Kanwar
• CAMP
• Ravi Agarwal

Session III (3.30 pm to 5.30 pm)
Chair: Geeta Kapur

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012-2013
More than a ‘debate’ or even a measure of success and failure, understanding the conditions of production of the newest, most proximate Kochi-Muziris Biennale (December 2012 – March 2013) is important. Once staged, what are the meanings that accrue from the democratic mix of international and local viewers; with diverse spectatorship, is there a better case for state support of contemporary art? Can publics in relation to large-scale, ground-breaking projects (such as this), incite the art community into a discursive engagement with avantgarde art as a form of contextual combustion?

• Riyas Komu: ‘Against All Odds’; a presentation on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (with visual documentation)
• Panel: Vivan Sundaram, Sheela Gowda, Subodh Gupta, Gayatri Sinha, Sheba Chhachhi
• Summing Up: Parul Dave Mukherji

For further details please contact: programm2@delhi.goethe.org

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