“If he was creating monsters, probably no one would be troubled; but because his images are clearly intended to be human, one is compelled to ask why his faces have eyes high up in the forehead, or else scattered in profusion all over the face; why he paints the mouths that stretch like hair combs across the face, and limbs that branch out like thistles. Souza’s imagery is not a surrealist vision- a self-conscious aesthetic shock- so much as a spontaneous re-creation of the world as he has seen it, distilled in the mind by a host of private experiences and associations.” (Edwin Mullins, Souza, London: Anthony Blond Publishers, 1962, p. 39)
F N Souza’s striking imagery was the inevitable expression of his scepticism towards society and the hypocrisy of the Church. This is noted in his popularly known ‘Head’ series which is a representation of his critique of the face of our society. Energetically experimental, the series comprises portraits with thick virulent lines and mutated forms. Unlike portraits that are recognisable and give the viewer an understanding of the subject’s character, these heads are a satirical take on the hypocrisy of human society in general. He illustrated them in the manner of his developed visual language of symbolic imagery, bold strokes in a dark palette, as well as distorted forms and figuration. “With these distortions Souza was able to create a forceful denunciation of power and corruption.” (Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 31)
The ‘Head’ series has become very popular amongst collectors and admirers alike and is a testament to Souza’s tormented genius that is at once individualistic and appallingly honest. Broken Head, 1957, part of Saffronart’s Evening Sale this year, is a telling example of Souza’s artistic inventions of masterful planar modifications and distorted forms, where deep pain is expressed through lines that jut across the face. These heads are not only a breakthrough in the genre of portraiture, rich with layered connotations but also seminal for their unique formalistic breakthrough. While they display an allusion to Picasso’s portraits on the surface, they remain much farther from them in reality.
Souza’s heads can be compared to Francis Bacon’s portraits for the similarity in their disfiguration of the face and exploration of the grotesque. Souza and Bacon were contemporaries who displayed their artistic temperaments through similar gestural strokes, dark palettes, malignant subjectivity, and the metamorphosis of expression and anatomy. Another commonality is rightly pointed out by Aziz Kurtha: “It is well known that both Bacon and Souza held the Russian painter Chaim Soutine, who lived in Paris, in high esteem and they both followed Soutine’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950. Even a casual observer could see Souza’s debt to Soutine as well as Rouault, especially in the figures drawn with heavy lines and exaggeratedly distorted human figures.” (Aziz Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2006, p. 42) Another interesting parallel can be drawn in reading the artist’ insights about their portraits where they both assert a need to express inner emotions – Bacon intended to reveal his subject’s personal damage and referred to it as ‘fact’, and Souza, on the other hand, employed the grotesque to symbolise what he called ‘affliction’.
Souza’s art also resonated with the post-war anxiety and disorientation displayed in the works of Expressionist artists such as Edvard Munch. His inclination towards European art movements strengthened upon his move to and subsequent stay in London, from about 1949 to 1967. This period also coincided with Souza’s execution of a number of heads which later became a hallmark of his artistic journey. Francisco Goya was one amongst the other Old Masters who inspired Souza and this admiration surfaced in his series of ‘Black Paintings’ whose formalistic quality is especially similar to Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Like Souza, Goya too bore an anti-clerical outlook, painting images as an exposé of the hypocrisy, bigotry, and cruelty of the Church as seen in his series called Caprichos. The “satirical ferocity of Goya may well have led Souza to revere him even more as an artist and to follow and to sharpen his own anti-clerical inclinations.” (Kurtha, p.40) It is more in Souza’s satirical reflections on society than the style in which Goya’s influences can be felt.
While Souza’s debt to artists such as Titian and Rembrandt is direct as he often quoted them through the imagery and titles, his affinity with the language of Goya and Bacon can be ascertained through the comparisons mentioned earlier. As Souza’s language matured, his heads progressively became more abstract, e.g., Untitled, 1974, “with what looks like reels of material or brain tissue bursting out of it.” (Kurtha, p. 117) They also displayed experimentation with colour to invite pastel pinks and blues that gave his palette a vibrant edge. These portraits usher the viewer into a space of contemplation and introspection. “Their impact is immediate and disconcerting. Here is an obviously gifted artist with considerable abilities as a draughtsman who has developed a very personal manner.” (Terence Mullaly quoted in Kurtha, p. 1910)
Bid on F N Souza’s works at Saffronart’s Evening Sale on 17 September 2022.
Watch Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani as he discusses F N Souza’s ‘Broken Head’ from his iconic series of ‘Heads’ from 1957.
Could you tell us about your journey as a collector – what set you off on this path, when did you begin, how long have you been collecting?
I’m an American. I was born on the banks of the Mississippi river in Missouri, and I did my PhD in ancient Indian history from the University of Chicago. I first came to India in 1968 and I stayed. I’ve been here for more than 50 years. When I came here, I realised that I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to work with craftsmen. So, for many years, I worked with marble carvers and inlay workers who work in the Mughal tradition.
But even while I was working with these wonderful classical craftsmen, I was fascinated by the Indian indigenous folk and tribal art, or Adivasi art. And I began collecting from the early 1970s. In those days, Delhi had the wonderful Crafts Museum that had a new group of artists coming in each month on Dr Jyotindra Jain’s invitation. Those of us who loved folk and tribal art ran there on the first day to be the first to buy, and that’s how I started collecting.
What prompted you to pick up ancient Indian history as a subject?
I’m part native American. My grandfather and I used to go to excavate ancient burial mounds in search of arrowheads, etc. He was a doctor, but he loved Egyptology. So, there were always books around the house on the ancient world. When I first went to the University of Missouri for my BA, they didn’t have anything on Egyptology, but they had just started an Indian studies programme. And I was hooked. I did my BA, my MA, and then started my PhD at Chicago in this subject. I got a Ford Foundation Fellowship to come and study here. And I’ve been here ever since. This is home.
You’ve spoken of your friendship with Jangarh Singh Shyam. Could you tell us how this came about?
In the mid-eighties, there was an artist whose work was beginning to appear with art dealers in Delhi. And I loved the art. His name was Jangarh Singh Shyam. And he became a close friend of mine. Then one day, around 1987, word came that he was showing at the Surajkund Mela. So, I got there early. He was putting out his paintings on a bamboo chatai. I ran up to him and told him that I loved his work. I think he got a little scared because here was this big American talking to him in Hindi!
I repeated that I loved his work and asked him if he visited Delhi. He mentioned that he came to Delhi every 3-4 months. I told him, “The next time you come to Delhi, you come to me. I’m not a foreigner who’s going away. I live here and I will buy from you.” And he came for the next 20 years or so, and I bought something from him every single time. We became friends. And then of course, he tragically committed suicide in 2001 which was a great loss.
A few years ago, we took out all of Jangarh’s paintings that were a part of our collection – about 250 of them – and made a book titled Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest. It’s a wonderful one, written by Dr Aurogeeta Das, on Jangarh’s works in The Crites Collection.
Tell us a little more about your association with Jangarh, particularly from the perspective of your conversations around his art.
I remember a conversation I once had with Jangarh where I said, “Jangarh, in America, we have a concept called wall power.”
Jangarh: “Sahab, what is wall power?”
Mitch: “Some artists, not all, can paint big.”
Jangarh: “Do you think I can paint big?”
Mitch: “I think so, and here are some big canvases and very big pieces of paper. You go home and you try.”
Two months later he came back, and he had painted big, wonderful deer, creatures of the forest, and trees, and he never looked back. He kept on painting bigger and bigger.
Jangarh also painted a lot of the gods and the goddesses. In fact, he once came to me and said, “You know sahab, I’m very scared. I didn’t ask them permission to show what they look like, and they’ve never been drawn before. Some of them are very strong and powerful, they come out at night and maybe they’ll come out and get me.” I said, “Jangarh, they haven’t come, have they? I think they’re happy with how you’re showing people what they look like. So, you keep on doing it.”
After Jangarh passed away, I was very sad. I kept looking for another artist of his incredible calibre. He was like a Renaissance painter, a Da Vinci who could do everything. I kept looking but I couldn’t find anyone. No Gond artist came, nobody. Then I found this artist – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga. She’s on the cover of our book (Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth), and I think she has the same talent as Jangarh. She’s 82 now and she started painting only when she was 69. She is remarkable. She just got the Nari Shakti award, the female empowerment award from the President. She’s very special.
What motivates you to keep working within this space of indigenous folk and tribal art?
Part of the appeal is that you get to interact with great artists. You get to help them, you get to nourish them, you get to support them, you see their lives change in front of your eyes, you see their families’ lives change. And I like that. I like interacting with them and coming up with ideas together. I never direct them too much though. I love the act of releasing what’s inside them. Sometimes they just need a tiny bit of paper or pigments or paint or brushes. Others might need a bit more guidance, but you have to do it in a gentle unobtrusive way. You have to let them do it their way.
I like interacting with the human condition, I like interacting with people – where they come from. I like to see change – families doing better, having enough money to educate their children, get medicines, etc. My mother was the same – she loved helping people, going to the old people’s home, giving to the poor. I like to, in a gentle way, improve their situation – see them grow, see it pass on to the next generation. I also encourage them to teach. Not just their own children, but others as well so the traditions are passed on since it’s the only way it’ll continue. I’m lucky to be doing what I love, and I plan to keep on doing it, no matter how many years I’ve got.
Why do you want to focus primarily on contemporary folk and tribal artists?
Well, I’m not as young as I used to be. And I think that the Adivasi artists need help more than anybody else. They’re struggling, more so during the pandemic which was a very difficult time for all artists. Some of them are virtually untrained, unschooled and don’t even have a visual tradition to draw from. But when you give them paper, pigments, and paint, somehow, they reach deep within themselves to find something I call ‘design DNA’. It goes back to the earliest roots of Indian culture and civilisation. This is the heartland; this is the beginning of your culture, and this is so exciting. A lot of contemporary artists get influenced by the West, or they studied under the British system – they’ve been polluted in a way. That’s not the case with these artists – these people are pure – and that’s what makes them so powerful.
There’s a group of baiga artists at our studio that we’re working with at the moment. The studio was set up by Aashish Swami, a contemporary artist from Umaria in Madhya Pradesh. He taught them about mixing paints and all that, not just how to paint. And out of it came this lady – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga.
In the show, there are these two paintings here. Dr Thiagarajan from Chennai, who was a clinical psychologist, he found a village of snake and rat catchers (Irulas) in Tamil Nadu. This was a very isolated village – no buses, no contact. He went there and gave them paints and everything and this is what they painted. Just extraordinary!
Talk to us about the genesis of Bhumijan.
It was during my conversations with other collectors like Minal [Vazirani] that I decided to do a show – one last big show. And I decided to go into my cupboards and trunks and warehouses and find the early paintings that I bought in the ‘70s and ‘80s and combine them with the best of emerging talent. So that’s what this show is about.
Bhumijan are, of course, people of the earth – a term that anthropologist Verrier Elwin liked to use for the Adivasi people. We adopted that phrase. This show is very important. Visually, it’s a treat. You see things from tantric to tribal and contemporary – you see a range of traditional talent. And we’ll never be able to do it again because I don’t have enough early material. The early material is all gone. I never had very much, most of it has been sold or destroyed because nobody took care of it. So, I can never do a show like this again. And, in a way, I’m glad because I don’t have to focus on the old masters anymore. I can just focus on the new talent. I’m 77 and I want to live the rest of my days in your country which has been so good to me and I’m going to continue working with folk and tribal artists and help them with their careers. And I’ll keep on going. Like I tell my assistant Caroline, one day I might be in a wheelchair, but I’ll still be able to hold the paintings and look at them. I’ll keep on working till I drop.
If you had to pick three of your favourites from the works on display here, which ones would they be?
One is the large porcupine. The artist Shaikh Usman Tirandaz was my friend, and he was wonderfully talented. He was from Jaipur, and he died last year. The porcupine is on a huge scale, something I wanted him to work on since he had wall power. He had the ability to take the Mughal tradition and contemporise it.
The second would be the Bholenath and the Mahua tree by Jodhaiya Bai.
And finally, I love this set of five paintings [seen above]. This is the panchtattva – earth, air, water, fire, ether. This is by Sundari Bai Rajwar who was the greatest in this tradition called Lipai. It’s a finger-painting tradition but it’s a very technical and complicated procedure. She also passed away last year. And she was a great master. She used to decorate homes with patterns. But I wanted her to try something conceptual. So, we started with fire. I told Sundari Bai, “I don’t want you to draw fire, I want you to draw the spirit of fire, the essence of fire.” When she remained puzzled, I asked her to take some time and think it over. She came to me in some time and said she wanted to try. The first thing she painted was this. And it’s fire! It’s the spirit of fire, it’s the essence of it. And then we went on to the other elements. She was wonderful. She had two disciples who are still alive, who I’m working with right now because the tradition is dying. Nobody wants this anymore, they want to put tiles on the walls, they want something more modern. So, unless you contemporise it, the tradition will die out. Luckily, this set is modern. These works have a level of abstraction in them that’s very powerful and will fit in any ultra-modern home.
Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth is an ongoing exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The exhibition consists of paintings and drawings from The Crites Collection and continues till 7 May 2022.
A historic year of record-breaking sales, powered by a thriving art market and a resilient and unified art community, 2021 has turned out to be one of the most exciting and spirited years we’ve seen at Saffronart. As we turn the page on 2021, we would like to take a moment to review a monumental year wherein Saffronart has consistently taken on a leadership role through the challenges thrown by the ongoing pandemic.
For Saffronart, one of the highlights of 2021 has been the increased interest in modern Indian art globally. The record-breaking sales which led each major Saffronart auction have underscored the tremendous interest for Indian art on a global platform. These auctions dramatically expanded our reach as we shifted to a live hybrid auction format that seamlessly incorporated state-of-the-art technology, expanded access, and an enhanced experience for art collectors and bidders from around the world.
With the heightened demand for Indian art and our updated auction format, we now reach twice as many bidders with four times the number of auctions in 2021 than we did in pre-pandemic 2019. In particular, the total number of auctions that take place on StoryLTD has gone up by nearly 500% during the same period, with a significantly higher percentage of lots sold in 2021. Along with this, we have also been able to expand the range of categories offered through StoryLTD to include jewellery, fine art, rare books, prints, photography, vintage cameras, ceramics, silverware, folk and tribal art, experiences, and other collectibles. These exciting new directions have taken shape through our new dynamic gallery space in Mumbai, featuring innovative displays and walkthroughs for art enthusiasts and collectors.
This year also bore witness to a dramatic increase in the number of top-value artworks being sold. In 2021, the number of artworks which sold for over INR 20 crores were four times that of the previous year.
2021 also showed us some of the most historic, record-breaking sales of modern Indian art, which included the sale of V S Gaitonde’s Untitled, 1961 at Saffronart’s Spring Live Auction in March 2021 for the price of INR 39.98 crores (USD 5.5 million), making it the highest value achieved for a work of Indian art in auction worldwide, as well as Amrita Sher-Gil’s In the Ladies’ Enclosure, 1938 at Saffronart’s Summer Live Auction in July 2021 for INR 37.8 crores (USD 5.14 million), making it the highest value achieved by the artist in auction and the second-most expensive work of Indian art sold globally.
That’s not all. We’ve had a year that’s seen record prices being hammered down for the works of Jamini Roy (Untitled for INR 4.32 crores (USD 583,784)), C Raja Raja Varma (Baby and Princess, 1887 for INR 3 crores (USD 402,685)), and Rama Varma (Untitled, 1914 for INR 2.16 crores (USD 289,933)). In our sales, about 40% of the works sold at prices that were well above the higher estimate.
2021 was also a year where Saffronart hosted two successful online auctions for fine jewellery, silver and luxury watches, as well as contemporary furniture, handwoven rugs and rare books. The jewellery auction featured a unique turban ornament designed by the late renowned jewellery designer Munnu Kasliwal, which sold for over INR 90 lakhs (USD 123,000).
While we were fortunate to have been in a position to innovate and adapt in a manner that helped us navigate the turbulent waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also an opportunity for us to give back when it was most needed. We hosted fundraising auctions through 2021 in partnership with arts, cultural and charitable organisations in order to support organisations working on the front lines to help those with the greatest need. This included Art Rises for India, a COVID-19 fundraiser auction, supported by artists, galleries, and members of the Indian art community, which saw a successful sale of 100% of the lots leading to a sum of INR 2 crores being raised through the auction; the Times Art Fest Auction that raised INR 1.26 crores; the Young Presidents’ Organisation Charity Auction that saw a sale of INR 1.3 crores, which was approximately four times above the lower estimated price; and the India for Artisans fundraiser auction, organised in collaboration with 200 Million Artisans and Creative Dignity, that raised over INR 23 lakhs to aid in the economic recovery of artisan communities across the country. In addition, we have conducted multiple single owner sales on StoryLTD with the proceeds going to various charitable organisations.
As the market leader for modern and contemporary Indian art for the last six years, Saffronart works consistently towards presenting strong works by leading artists. Having led the Indian art market through 2021 with over 35% of the market share, we remain committed to developing and growing the art market in the years to come. We thank you for your support and feedback through this year and look forward to sharing our new directions and innovations with you in 2022.
The Indian subcontinent has nurtured some of the oldest human settlements and civilisations in the world. Having hosted countless cultural awakenings, innovations and exchanges since prehistoric times, the region boasts a rich and fascinating artistic history that continues to influence aesthetic movements and captivate spectators even today.
Beginning with the sculptural masterpieces of Buddhist and Hindu art from the first millennium to the ground-breaking modernist art of the 20th century, here we explore India’s captivating art history through a selection of works from Saffronart’s upcoming Winter Live Auction this December.
Early Buddhist Art
Some of the earliest records of artistic experimentation in Northern India during the Common Era can be traced to the Kushan Empire, which, during its peak, extended from Ujjain, Mathura and Sarnath, across the Hindu-Kush to Afghanistan and Bactria. Under Kanishka, their fifth and most famous ruler, the empire witnessed a period of great wealth and flourishing visual arts traditions. The Kushans are credited with some of the earliest depictions of Buddha in sculptural form, which includes the 2nd century red sandstone sculpture below.
Medieval Indian Art
From the 4th to 6th century AD, a large portion of northern India was conquered and ruled by the Gupta Empire, who produced some of the most recognised and celebrated works of sculpture and architecture in Indian history. The incredible developments in technology, literature, religion and visual arts during this period went on to shape the artistic productions of the many smaller dynasties that emerged in the following centuries.
One of the most significant characteristics of art produced during the medieval period, i.e., the 7th to 14th century AD, is the influence of religion and religious texts. As evident in the above 8th century sandstone carving depicting Ganga, the river goddess in Hinduism, the representation of religious figures, storylines and even philosophies through sculpture grew to become a significant practice. This tradition is noticeable even in the sculptures of kingdoms of southern India, especially the Hoysala Dynasty. As observed in the 12th century grey schist sculpture of Lord Ganesha, the sculptures produced under the Hoysala Empire showcase a classical style that is distinct to that of the northern schools.
Along with stone, bronze was another prominent medium in the sculptures of medieval India. While stone sculpturing was often practised on temple walls and similar architecture, bronze works were smaller in size and relatively easier to transport – giving them a prominent role in the diffusion of Indian philosophies, practices and religion, especially Buddhism, in Southeast Asia. The 12th century Pala sculpture of Uma-Maheshwara, and the 14th century Kulu sculpture depicting Vaikunta Vishnu from our collection showcases that bronze sculpturing thrived not only in the realm of artistic innovations, but also in transmitting cultural discoveries and tradition.
Painting Courts and Indigenous Art
Following the golden age of Indian sculpturing was a period that saw the development of a diverse range of painting schools including Mughal, Rajputi, Deccani and Pahari courts. The period also saw the resurgence of age-old indigenous art practices such as Pat or scroll painting. Developed in then-Calcutta, Kalighat Pat is a scroll-painting technique that gained momentum in Bengal during the 19th century as the port city transformed into a thriving industrial and commercial centre. As seen in the above Kalighat Pat from the 1860s, practitioners of the Kalighat art form traditionally depicted scenes from the life of Lord Krishna as well as other narratives from Hindu mythology.
Early Bengal School
The presence of British and European trading companies and governing bodies in India during the 18th and 19th century led to the creation of a new school of art known as the Company School. The school depicted Indian people, sceneries and subjects in a traditional Royal Academy-style of painting, thus recording life in Colonial India from a foreign perspective.
The Early Bengal School of Art was launched as a response to the increasing prominence of the Company School. Artists of the Early Bengal School, who remain largely anonymous till date, combined the artistic styles of the East and West to forge a direction that was vastly different from any other artistic movement prevalent during this time.
The final phase of colonial rule in India saw many attempts by artists to merge the artistic traditions of European schools with the age-old traditions, themes and practices of Indian art. One of the most significant artists from this time, Raja Ravi Varma was known for incorporating oil as a medium and adopting European naturalism and realism to portray distinctly Indian mythological themes.
The movement towards India’s independence from colonial rule urged artists to launch a new style of art that accommodated the changing social, political and cultural conditions of the country. For Jamini Roy, this meant seeking a new aesthetic style that reflected his cultural roots and fulfilled his need for a more personal artistic identity. He went on to introduce a new style of modern painting that celebrated and preserved the country’s regional artistic traditions, particularly Kalighat patuas, while simultaneously reconceptualising them to adapt to the changing times.
Modern Art in Independent India
The year 1947, when India gained her independence, also welcomed the launch of one of the most influential artistic alliances in India: the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. Initiated by artists S H Raza, F N Souza, K H Ara, M F Husain, H A Gade and S K Bakre, the group went on to lead the modern art movement in India. Although most of these artists began with a formal training in traditional realistic painting, capturing urban scenes, landscapes and still life through their art, the post-Independence era encouraged them to reach beyond the scope of European Realism and the Revivalist movements of the early 20th century. While the immediate response to their entry in the art world was shock and aversion, their presence was met with national and international respect, recognition and admiration in the years that followed.
The 1960s were a period of great artistic experimentation and discovery. Increased exposure to European and American modern art movements, as well as a renewed interest in the imagery of classical and regional Indian art, aided the artists of modern India – such as Ram Kumar, Prabhakhar Barwe, M F Husain, S H Raza as well as the other Progressives – to develop their own independent styles that eventually came to define their careers.
During this period, artist Ram Kumar moved from figurative works to an increasingly abstract renderings of cities and landscapes, whereas M F Husain developed an artistic style that efficiently brought together European modern art traditions and classical Indian forms, subjects and motifs. For S H Raza, the ‘60s were a key period of experimentation, aided by his exposure to the works of American Abstract Expressionists, whereas for Prabhakar Barwe, it was a period when he delved into the genres of Pop Art as well as Tantric philosophy and its imagery.
While many of the modernists were settling into their own unique artistic style and identity, artists such as Jagdish Swaminathan and Bhupen Khakhar were still in the early stages of their career during the ‘60s. Swaminathan, who was concerned with the creation of a truly Indian modern art that was developed by turning inward, explored and adopted the symbology of ancient cave paintings and the nation’s age-old indigenous art during this period. Meanwhile, Khakhar, who had just moved to Baroda from Bombay, would create an iconic style that featured elements of Hindu symbolism and elements of the Baroda School in formats that were inspired by Western Pop Art.
Late 20th Century
The latter half of the 20th century saw Indian artists experimenting with diverse mediums, techniques and disciplines, as one can see in the works of Himmat Shah whose sculptures were made from materials as wide as brick, cement, plaster as well as terracotta and bronze. Despite their differences in medium, the majority of art produced in this period of Indian history were connected by a similar purpose – an examination of life in the modern age.
From exploring the aftermaths of the Partition of India to examining the contemporary struggles of migrants, refugees and the destitute, art became deeply relevant, conceptual and heavy in metaphors alluding to matters of social significance. These qualities are demonstrated in Krishen Khanna’s bandwallah series as well as Zarina Hashmi’s semi-abstract woodcut and intaglio prints.
“The history of art is the history of revivals.” These words by British novelist Samuel Butler powerfully resonate with the evolution of Indian art. Since its ancient beginnings, a plethora of artistic traditions and movements have prospered in the subcontinent, each reflecting the distinctive and diverse political, cultural and social influences of the period from which they were conceived. Nevertheless, as seen in this brief journey through India’s rich artistic past, these multiple independent aesthetic movements bear many similarities despite their differences in time, geographic origins, and socio-political circumstances. From the influence of the Ajanta frescoes and Mughal miniature on the Early Bengal School of Art, to Himmat Shah’s sculptures that were inspired by the prehistoric masterpieces of the Indus Valley Civilisation, Indian art has frequently touched upon the past when directing the future.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.