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.

‘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.

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

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

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India by Nancy Adajania

Manjari Sihare recommends an article by cultural theorist, Nancy Adajania commissioned for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Initiative on South and South East Asia

New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.

Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing  two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India

by Nancy Adajania

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.

Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.

Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.

Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.

Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.

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