Homage: Still looking for Amrita

Published August 24, 2014
Amrita Sher-Gil with her paintings
Amrita Sher-Gil with her paintings

Born to a Hun-garian mother named Marie Antoinette and a Sikh father named Umrao Singh Majithia, Amrita Sher-Gil absorbed two very different sets of culture, tradition and ethics and ultimately brought forth a combination of modernity and convention in her visual idiom as a painter.

Sher-Gil, along with her husband, came to Lahore in August 1941 and started living at 23-Sir Ganga Ram Mansion, opposite the Lahore High Court building. In the same apartment, she embraced death. Her demise is still a mystery with assumptions of carelessness by her husband Dr Victor Egan, which Amrita’s mother called a murder.

Group of three girls
Group of three girls

Her presence in Lahore marked the last years of the colonial era. She had two exhibitions in this city; one at the Faletti’s Hotel Lahore in 1937 and the second in 1941 posthumously, at the Literary League Hall of the Shahdin Building. Her painting with an amalgamation of Western techniques and local Indian themes created an enchanting romance.

This romance enticed the sensitive Amrita to explore a world of deprivations and dreams which she had been oblivious of, during her early life in Europe. Her paintings, ‘Group of young girls’, ‘Bride toilet’ and ‘South Indian villagers going to market’ present the Indian atmosphere and characters.


The artist lived an unconventional life and offended the staid society with her eccentric ways. Her paintings are an eloquent symbol of the fusion between the East and the West


She could well be considered as a painter who, with her intellect and skill, inspired the art scene of Lahore in the 1940s where artists like A.R. Chughtai, Marry Roop Krishna, Razzia Serajuddin, Anna Molka Ahmad, were also present.

Self-portrait
Self-portrait

The modern techniques, themes, subjects and the concept of ‘art for life’ have started to prevail in the undivided India with the ‘Company Style’ paintings. However, when the local artists applied these new techniques, it resulted into a more mature and identified style; Amrita’s contribution in this regard is exemplary.

The artist breathed her last on Dec 6, 1941. Her body was cremated in accordance with the rituals of Sikh religion. Only a dozen of her very close friends along with her parents were there to escort her to the eternal abode.

Amrita could be titled as a feminist painter of India with her portraiture of female nudes for which she also explored her own figure. These paintings, made as early as the 1930s, present the feminine figure with grace, poise and elegance. Traditionally male painters, regardless of their ethnicity and geographical origins, have been obsessed with presenting the female body with connotations of sensuality or voluptuousness.

However, when she came across an Indian woman of the scheduled castes, clad in simple blouse-less saree, scarcely covering her tanned skin, she put that woman on her canvases with the same love that she had developed for the local populace. Interestingly, these paintings remind the viewer of Paul Gauguin’s portraitures of the women of Tahiti Island.

Her self-projection in nude may be considered as narcissism and was due to the dichotomy Amrita had in her DNA — being a child of parents having different religions, cultures and ethnicities. Her quest to find her real personality made her experimental, not only in her painting but also in her social and personal relationships. Whereas, her bold and blunt approach in displaying her own body as “nude” on canvas, might well be as tough, even for the modern Indians in the 1930s, as Édouard Manet’s ‘Lunch on the grass’ was rejected by the French society in 1863.

Young girls
Young girls

She was associated with many men of letters, having non-conventional and even scandalous relationships. Yashodhara Dalmia in her biography on Amrita mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru among Amrita’s friends whom she admired and adored a lot and met at the Faletti’s Hotel when he came to Lahore.

The eminent scholar and writer Khushwant Singh in his autobiography Truth, Love & a Little Malice, describes his first encounter with Amrita as: “I couldn’t look her in the face too long because she had that bold, brazen kind of look, which makes timid men like me turn their gaze downwards. She was short and yellow complexioned (being half-Sikh, half-Hungarian). Her hair was parted in the middle and tightly bound at the back. She had a bulbous nose with black heads showing. She had thick lips with a faint shadow of a moustache.”

Khushwant Singh’s memoir presents few controversial aspects of Amrita’s life, portraying her as a promiscuous young woman. Although Singh has titled these accounts as word of mouth, even then he never denies Amrita having many friends or lovers. “Vivan (Amrita’s nephew) admits that she had many lovers. According to him, her real passion in life was another woman,” writes Khushwant Singh.

In these circumstances, Amrita underwent an abortion administrated by her husband Dr Victor Egan. This caused an infection which could not be controlled and she died.

Her father wrote in a letter, “Amrita’s body was taken to the cemetery. Those fingers which had painted and that brain which had conceived her works were dissolving into the elements before our eyes.”

On Dec 21, 1941, two weeks after Amrita’s, death the Punjab Literary League organised an exhibition of her paintings at the Literary League Hall of Shahdin Building, Lahore and Justice Kanwar Dalip Singh inaugurated the exhibition. A catalogue with reproductions of her paintings and few articles was also published with a heart-touching foreword by L.H. Paresher, who concluded, “She is no more but her pictures are here. Amrita is dead! Long live Amrita! Through these paintings shines and will ever shine the immortal spirit that is Amrita.”

Time proved it so!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 24th, 2014

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