One of the most talented painters ever to have graced the Indian soil, Amrita Shergil was an artist beyond compare. Though she lived for just 28 short years, she left an indelible mark on the history of contemporary Indian art. Amrita Sher-Gil was sometimes known as India’s Frida Kahlo. Born to a Punjabi Sikh father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother, she is today considered an important woman painter of 20th-century India, whose legacy stands on a par with that of the Masters of Bengal Renaissance.
Sher-Gil was the elder of two daughters born. Her younger sister was Indira Sundaram (née Sher-Gil), mother of the contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram. She spent most of early childhood in Budapest. She was the niece of Indologist Ervin Baktay. He guided her by critiquing her work and gave her an academic foundation to grow on. He also instructed her to use servants as models. The memories of these models would eventually lead to her return to India.
In 1929, at the age of sixteen, Amrita Shergil sailed to France to study Art. She took a degree in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris. She also learnt to speak and write French. It was in France that she started painting seriously. During that time, she was greatly influenced by the European painters, like Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Her paintings reflect a strong influence of the Western modes of painting, especially the ones practiced in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. The Torso, one of her early paintings was a masterly study of a nude which stood out for its cleverness of drawing and bold modeling. In 1933, Amrita completed Young Girls. Critics and Art enthusiasts were so impressed by Young Girls that Amrita Shergill was elected as Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. Amrita was the youngest ever and the only Asian to be honored thus.
In 1934, Amrita Shergill returned to India and evolved her own distinct style which, according to her, was fundamentally Indian in subject, spirit, and technical expression. Now the subject of his paintings were the poor, the villagers and beggars. In 1937, Amrita Shergill went on a tour of South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy of paintings Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market following her visit to the Ajanta caves, when she made a conscious attempt to return to classical Indian art. These paintings reveal her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair. By now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her ‘artistic mission’ which was, according to her, to express the life of Indian people through her canvas. While in Saraya Sher-Gil wrote to a friend thus: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me”.
From Uttar Pradesh she began her second phase of painting which equals in its impact on Indian art with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of the Bengal school of art. Her portraits of women resemble works by Rabindranath while the use of ‘chiaroscuro’ and bright colours reflect the influence of Abanindranath.
It was during her stay at Saraya that she painted the Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure and Siesta all of which portray the leisurely rhythms of life in rural India. Siesta and In the Ladies’ Enclosure reflect her experimentation with the miniature school of painting while Village Scene reflects influences of the Pahari school of painting.
She died on December 6, 1941 and the artist was just 28 years old at the time of her death.