Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
2013 is the birth anniversary of Amrita Sher-Gil. This astonishing creature, no less astonishing as a painter than as a woman, was born in Budapest on 30 January, a hundred years ago, of a patrician Sikh scholar father and Jewish Hungarian opera singer mother. She spent the first years of her life in Budapest getting painting lessons while her younger sister Indira got paino lessons. The sepia- tinted photographs of her childhood in her niece Navina Sundaram's excellent documentary film show two sisters, discreetly dressed, seated in bourgeois surroundings in Budapest and then in Shimla. Amrita could very well have spent all her life, short as it was, as a wealthy socialite interested in the arts.
However, two things changed all that-her entry into the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, when she was only seventeen (this is where she drew live models and imbibed the work of Cezanne and Gaugin) and her relocation to the place of her father's birth, India. She had lived in Shimla earlier, earning plaudits for her performances at the Gaiety Theatre while still a child. This inordinately talented painter earned accolades very early on for her talent in Paris. But if one looks at the scenes of Hungarian village life or the prize-winning study of her sister and a woman friend, the latter partially undressed, sitting in a salon, there is nothing there that strikes one as genius. However, if one looks at the paintings that she produced in rapid succession, one after the other, almost as if she knew time was running out, in Shimla and in Saraya, Gorakhpur, there is something unmistakeably hers. One can speak of many influences, as she herself generously acknowledges--first the fescoes in Ajanta then the Mughal and Rajput miniatures and, above all, the life of the underprivileged, both in the north and the south of India--but the end product is uniquely Amrita. All the influences, western and indigenous, have been completely assimilated to produce canvases in which the post- impressionist form is punctured with a vibrant Indian palette: burnt siena and fuscia and mustard. Think of the nut brown brahmacharis, the head of one of which drove her to despair, with their creamy dhotis and blazing vermilion tilaks, the red verandah with the Punjabi phulkari work on the charpoy, the deep brown elephants with the blaze of sindoor on their foreheads. Look at the ancient storyteller. Amrita focuses not on the life of luxury and ease that was her birthright as a result of the Sher Gils' enormous wealth, but on the figures outside the massive white walls of the family compound-the storyteller with the children seated around him on the ground. Look at her paintings depicting women in their enclosed, intimate spaces, the woman in red relaxing on a charpoy with her maid by her side, the bride at her toilet, raising a supercilious eyebrow at being caught in the middle of her busy preparations, the three sisters, heads demurely covered and bent but eyes flashing with unspoken messages, the sad eyes of the woman model painted both in the nude and with clothes on. Or gaze at the last unfinished painting dominated by the large, tranquil buffaloes, as oval and fluid as the back of Ingres' Odalisque....
She is an amazing painter, yes. But she is also an amazing woman. She thinks nothing of being photographed, her breasts bare, her armpits unshaven, smiling that dazzling smile of hers up at the photographer. We see that smile again as she sits with her Parisian friends at a roadside cafe, her hair parted in the middle and clad in a chiffon sari. She is a woman who thinks nothing of taking men and women to her bed, of marrying her cousin Victor, much to her mother's consternation, of writing letters--ah, those marvellous letters--telling her mother NOT to send her any more hand-knit sweaters and shuddering quietly to her sister at the thought of the years of marital silence that lay ahead with Victor. Her death is mysterious and so the rumours abound. Why did her doctor husband not ask for a second opinion when his wife was seriously ill? Was her death related to pregnancy? Even as she was planning the details of an exhibition, sending her mother minute instructions about the paintings to be packed, complete with miniature sketches of them and details of their location, she died, possibly of peritonitis, on 5 December 1941, in Lahore. She was only twenty-eight.
And now we run around holding seminars and issuing postage stamps and buying posters of her work. What would Amrita the woman, Amrita the painter, have said? Would she have dismissed us as philistines as she dismissed those who thronged her exhibitions in India? Would she have thrown back her head and laughed, as she seems to be doing in one of her self-portraits, at the celebrity phenomenon and the fact that her paintings are now the most expensive among Indian artists? Or would she understand that this is our way of paying homage to a spirit that refuses to be snuffed out, to a woman who lived as if gender equality was a given, to a person who dismissed all social orthodoxies with a hearty laugh?