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.