Along the Ganga Ram Trust Building on The Mall, a small street leads to a neighbourhood that had once the house of Amrita Sher-Gil, the most famous woman painter of the united India. The small neighbourhood that has somehow survived the test of time is called Ganga Ram Mansions. The magnificent Dyal Singh Mansion is also adjacent to it.
On the both sides of a broad street in the Ganga Ram Mansions, double-storey apartments are situated, having balconies and front patios. Though changes have been made in the colour of the ground floods and pillars, most of the upper floors, having balconies overlooking the street, are still in red. Apartment 23 (where Amrita Sher-Gil lived and died) is at the end. Now a family lives on the upper floor and the ground floor houses an office. The neighbourhood has offices in at least half of the apartments, some of them held by lawyers.
As you enter the apartment, a flight of stairs leads to the upper floor. Amrita’s husband had a clinic on the ground floor as she lived and painted on the upper storey.
The mansions, according to the residents, are owned by the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department which has rented them out for residences and offices. However, the Evacuee Trust Property Board, has the ownership of the trust building, which means the mansions must also be its property.
A young man told this reporter that his family had been living in the mansions for the last four or five decades. He said the permission had to be sought from the department concerned to make any alterations or repairs in the building. However, it seems there is little control on the way the mansions are being altered.
Maaria Waseem, an architect, photographer and blogger, who accompanied this reporter to the place, says she first visited the place about two decades ago as a part of the project and the mansions were mostly in their original condition then with little changes since the time of Amrita. The painter had spent the last days of her life in the same flat while she had also painted her last unfinished painting there.
Maaria says the buildings, all in the same design, are constructed in French style of architecture, all having small balconies and balconets (metal railing), while both floors have bay windows with stucco work, the floral decoration on the top.
Yashodhara Dalmia, the art historian in the biography Amrita Sher-Gil-A Life, writes that in 1939, just before the start of World War II, Amrita and her husband Victor Egan managed to leave Hungary before the closure of the border and shifted to India. Victor, a medical doctor, had found the future of the family grim in Simla, a possible place to settle. They spent some time in Saraya (near Simla) where Victor got a job as a doctor in a factory but both were unhappy there.
Amrita started suffering from depression. In June 1941, they visited Lahore to explore the possibility of settling down and stayed at Lahore’s Nedou’s Hotel (the hotel was set up in 1880 by Michael Adams Nedou, from Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, which was a part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. The hotel existed until the 1950s. Now Avari Hotel stands at its site). They decided to settle in Lahore. They had a friend Iqbal Singh who worked with the All India Radio’s Lahore Station. With the help of Dewan Chamanlal, another friend, they met a number of people.
“Amrita also realised that Lahore provided a better atmosphere for her work as an artist than any other place in the country (then India),” Dalmia writes. Amrita lived with the Chamanlals for a couple of days. It was here that she met Khushwant Singh, a friend of Dewan. He was a 26-year-old struggling lawyer then.
“After much hunting they finally rented a place near The Mall, then the fashionable part of Lahore -- Apartment 23 in Sir Ganga Ram Mansion, also known as the Exchange Mansion, which was occupied mostly by professionals. The building was in the neighbourhood of Fane Road where most of the better-known lawyers lived as it was near the High Court. Situated just behind a block of shops on The Mall, the building was protected from the din of the street. Within its two rows of the apartments, facing each other, their flat was the last one in the block, with a view of the High Court from the back. Victor had a clinic on the ground floor, the living rooms were on the first floor and the barsati on the top.”
The place became the first house of the couple where the visitors could see both Victor and Amrita polishing the floor or painting the doors and windows of the house.
Khushwant wrote in his autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice, “Her fame had preceded her before she took up residence in a block of flats across the road from ours (in Lahore).” He went on to say that she once visited him, telling him of the flat she had rented across the road. She wanted advice about carpenters, plumbers, tailors and the like.
Soon Amrita and her husband attracted the intelligentsia of Lahore. This was a time when Lahore drew creative people of all disciplines like a magnet and Ms Dalmia has called it the cultural capital of India, mentioning the art community that included Abdul Rehman Chughtai, B.C. Sanyal, Beban Petman, Roop Krishna and his wife Mary, Krishen Khanna, Satish Gujral, Amar Nath Sehgal, Dayamanti Chawla, Harkrishan Lal and Pran Nath Mago. Of them, Sanyal, a graduate of Calcutta School of Painting, had moved to Lahore in 1929 and got a job at the Mayo School of Art.
In 1936, he set up a teaching workshop, named Lahore School of Fine Arts, above the Regal Cinema where a ballroom-dancing school existed before.
In December of the same year, Amrita planned an exhibition at the Punjab Literary League Hall, above Lorang’s Swiss Café (Shah Din Building) in the Charing Cross area. Iqbal Singh invited her to broadcast a talk on art. Karl Khandalavala wrote the introduction while Ahmed Shah Bokhari (later known as Patras Bokhari) wrote the catalogue.
In the same apartment, Amrita made her last painting. “Amrita had now begun work on what she did not realise would be her last painting. She painted the view behind her apartment consisted of mud houses and buffaloes kept by the milkman who lived there. The painting has four buffaloes, two squatting in the front, one near the tough and another with a crow perched on its snout. A woman in a red veil bending over cow-dung cakes can be viewed on the roof. A blazing red glistens from the woman’s scarf and is caught by the portico of the facing house and the distant horizon.”
Karl described the painting as, “Old Lahore with its jumbled front-like dwellings rises in the background and the uncompleted brushwork leaves them as though they were ruins”.
The Last Unfinished Painting is now in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Before this painting, Amrita had made two paintings in Lahore in the 1930s. One was a portrait of her friend, Helen Chamanlal, and the other titled, The Red Brick House.
Before she moved to Lahore in 1941, Amrita had held a solo exhibition of 30 paintings at Faletti’s Hotel in 1937. The finance minister of the Punjab government, Manohar Lal, had inaugurated the exhibition and Charles Fabri, a Hungarian archaeologist and curator of the Lahore Museum, reviewed it for the Civil and Military Gazette.
Just two weeks before the exhibition, Amrita fell ill. She told Iqbal Singh on Dec 3 that she had some pakoras at the house of Sir Abdul Qadir, the judge at the high court, and was suffering from acute dysentery. Victor was treating her. On Dec 5, she went into a coma and died at the age of 28. After her death, her mother accused her husband of murder. There is another theory that she was pregnant with a child and Victor himself had performed abortion which went wrong. They did not tell about it because abortion then was illegal in India. Her body was cremated according to the Sikh ritual along the Ravi on Dec 7. The exhibition was held posthumously.
The flat of Amrita in the Ganga Ram Mansions has a historical importance and it’s still owned by the public bodies unlike other such buildings which were occupied or dismantled by the land grabbers and the government should take steps to preserve it or turn it into an art museum.
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2022