Amrita Sher-Gil was a prominent Hungarian-Indian painter. She is considered ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women of the 20th century’ and a ‘pioneer in modern Indian art.’ Her paintings are the most expensive ones among all the women Indian painters. She has been nicknamed as the ‘Indian Frida Kahlo.’
Amrita Sher-Gil was born on Thursday, 30 January 1913 (aged 28 years; at the time of death) in Budapest, Hungary. Her zodiac sign is Aquarius. When she was a young girl, she used to get her servants model for her, so that she could paint. She spent most of her early childhood in Budapest. Her family faced financial problems in Hungary, which led them to move to Summer Hill in Shimla, India in 1921. Their villa in Shimla is known as ‘The Holme.’
Soon, she began learning piano and violin. At the age of nine, she began her professional training in art in Shimla from Major Whitmarsh, and later, by Beven Pateman. She studied at a convent school in Shimla, but she was expelled from the school after she declared herself an atheist. In 1923, she came across an Italian sculpture. When the sculpture returned to Italy, Amrita and her mother, went along with him in 1924. The sculpture got her enrolled in Santa Annunziata, an art school in Florence, Italy. However, she didn’t stay there for long and returned to India, the same year. At the age of 16, she travelled to Europe to learn painting, first at Académie de la Grande Chaumière under Pierre Vaillant and Lucien Simon (where she met Boris Taslitzky).
She later took her formal training at École des Beaux-Arts, Paris (1930–34).
Talking about her studies, in a letter to her mother, she wrote,
Although I studied, I have never been taught painting…because I possess in my psychological makeup a peculiarity that resents any outside interference…”
Family & Ethnicity
She was baptised as Roman Catholic. She considered herself an atheist.
Parents & SIblings
Her father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia was a Sikh aristocrat, a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, and a pastime photographer. Her mother, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann was a Hungarian Jewish Opera Singer, who belonged to an affluent Bourgeois family. Her mother was the second wife of Umrao Singh.
She was the eldest of the daughters of her parents; her younger sister was Indira Sundaram, who is the mother of the contemporary artist, Vivan Sundaram. Vivan is also the author of the book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings (2010).
Relationships & Marriage
She was in a relationship with the French Artist Boris Tazlitsky, while she was studying in Paris.
She was also in a relationship with the painter John Walter Collins, writer Edith Lang, and lawyer and politician Badruddin Tyabji. In 1931, she was engaged to Yusuf Ali Khan, the son of Raja Nawab Ali, a prosperous landowner in Uttar Pradesh.
Yusuf impregnated her and left her with venereal disease. She turned to Egan to get rid of the disease and get her abortion done. Some of her letters even reveal that she was in a relationship with women; one of them being with the painter Marie Louise Chassany.
She met English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in 1935, and both came into a relationship, for a short time.
At the age of 25, she got married to her first cousin and doctor, Victor Egan in Budapest.
Her early paintings depict an influence of western modes of paintings, especially, post-impressionism and engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya school of painting. In the 1930s, she practised Bohemian circles of Paris. In 1932, she made her breakthrough with the oil painting, Young Girls.
The painting won her many accolades including a gold medal at the Paris Salon, a renowned art show, and the election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933; she was the youngest member, and the first Asian to receive the honour. During her stay at Paris, her work included self-portraits, life in Paris, nude studies, still life, and portraits of friends and fellow students. The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi describes her self-portraits that she had made, during her stay in Paris as,
[capturing] the artist in her many moods – somber, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.”
In 1933, she felt a strong longing to come to India, as she describes it, ‘there lay my destiny as a painter.’ At the end of 1934, she returned to India and met Malcolm Muggeridge. They both stayed at a family home in Summer Hill in Shimla, where she painted a portrait of Malcolm, which is with National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi now. In 1936, at the behest of art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala, she left for travel across India to rediscover her Indian roots. She was influenced by Mughal and Pahari School of Painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta. Following her visit to Ajanta Caves, in 1937, she produced her South Indian trilogy, Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market.
The paintings reveal her passionate sense of colour, and an equal empathy for Indian people, who are often portrayed impoverished and despaired. Her stay in India marked the new phase of her artistic career. After her marriage to Egan, she moved to her paternal family’s home in Saraya, Sardar Nagar, Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh. During her stay in Saraya, she painted Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, and Siesta; paintings that reflect leisure life of rural India. In the Ladies’ Enclosure and Siesta show the influence of the miniature school of painting and Village Scene shows the influence of the Pahari school of painting.
In September 1941, she moved with Egan to Lahore (then in undivided India). Some of her later works include Tahitian (1937), Red Brick House (1938), Hill Scene (1938), and The Bride (1940).
Her last work was left unfinished by her just before her death in December 1941.
23 Sir Ganga Ram Mansions, Mall Road, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan
In December 1941, at the age of 28, just a few days before the opening of her major show in Lahore, she fell ill and lapsed into a coma. She died around midnight on Friday, 5 December 1941. The reason for her death is uncertain. The possible causes of her death are claimed to be a failed attempt at abortion and subsequent peritonitis. Her mother accused her husband (Victor) for having murdered her. A day after her death, her husband was sent to jail as a national enemy, after Britain declared war on Hungary. Amrita was cremated on 7 December 1941 in Lahore.
- She liked to read and play the piano and violin.
- Her parents first met in Lahore in 1912, when her mother, Marie had come to India as the companion of the princess Bamba Sutherland, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
- Reportedly, her mother married her father, being drawn to his wealth. Marie was not happy with her marriage and cheated on Umrao Singh (her father) with men. Things remained unchanged, till she shot herself to death in their Shimla home.
- She was the niece of the Indologist., Ervin Baktay. It was Baktay who noticed her talent in art during his visit to Shimla in 1926 and advised her to pursue art. He was also instrumental in guiding her by critiquing her work and giving her an academic background to grow.
- At the age of nine, Amrita, along with her younger sister, Indira, began to perform on concerts and plays at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre at Mall Road.
- In Paris, she was inspired by the works of European Painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Her works were influenced by her mentor Lucien Simon, and the company of artist friends and lovers like Tazlitsky.
- When she was in Paris, one of her professors often said that judging by the richness of her colouring, Shergil was not in the element from the west and that her artistic personality would find its true colours in the east.
- Although critics like Karl Khandalavala and Charles Fabri acclaimed her as the greatest painter of the century, her paintings found only a few buyers in India; Nawab Salar Jung of Hyderabad returned them and the Maharaja of Mysore chose Ravi Varma’s paintings over hers.
- At the age of 18, in October 1931, she wrote to her mother,
I painted a few very good paintings, Everybody says that I have improved immensely; even that person whose criticism in my view is most important to me — myself.”
- Although her family had ties with British Raj, she was a Congress Sympathiser. She was also attracted by Gandhi’s philosophy and lifestyle.
- She described her artistic style as ‘fundamentally Indian.’ She wrote in a letter to her mother,
I realized my artistic mission then: to interpret the life of Indians and particularly of the poor Indians pictorially, to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies.”
- In 1937, her painting, Three Girls, won a gold medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society.
- In February 1937, she met Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time at her art exhibition in Delhi. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was deeply influenced by her beauty and talent, and in October 1940, he went to meet her in Saraya. Despite being friends with Nehru, she never drew any portrait of him, supposedly, because he had a lot of good looks.
- Reportedly, she even exchanged letters with Nehru, but those letters were burnt by her parents when she was getting married.
- Amrita’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh, and her portrayal of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad. Contemporary artists in India have both reinterpreted and recreated her works.
- The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Some of her paintings also hang at the Lahore Museum.
- Amrita was able to prove to western societies that Indians were able to make fine art. Her work is deemed to be so important to Indian culture that when it is sold in India, the Indian government has stipulated that the art must stay in the country; fewer than ten of her works have been sold globally.
- In 2006, her painting ‘Village Scene’ was sold for ₹6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi, which was, at the time, the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India.
- The Indian cultural centre in Budapest is named the Amrita Sher-Gil Cultural Center. Besides remaining an inspiration to many contemporary Indian artists, she became an inspiration for many literary works, including Urdu play Tumhari Amrita, Indian novel Faking It by Amrita Chowdhury, Aurora Zogoiby, a character in Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, was inspired by Sher-Gil.
- UNESCO announced 2013, the 100th anniversary of Sher-Gil’s birth, to be the international year of Amrita Sher-Gil.
- Sher-Gil was sometimes known as India’s Frida Kahlo because of the “revolutionary” way she blended Western and traditional art forms.
- In 2018, at a Sotheby’s auction in Mumbai, Amrita Shergil’s painting “The Little Girl in Blue” was auctioned for a record-breaking 18.69 crores. This painting is a portrait of Amrita’s cousin Babit, a resident of Shimla and was painted in 1934 when the subject was only 8 years old.
- The late writer, lawyer, diplomat, and journalist, wrote an incident in his book, My Unforgettable Women about an incident with Shergil. During a party in Shimla, Sher-Gil met Khushwant’s son, Rahul (writer and journalist), and called him ‘an ugly child.’ Khushwan’t wife was so angry at her that she cleared her name from the list of invitees in the future. When Amrita learned of this, she retorted that she will make her (Khushwant’s wife) pay by seducing her husband. Khuswant Singh expressed his dismay that she never actually did so.