April issue 2015

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 9 years ago

Like personal note-books, a self- portrait sometimes reveals much more than the author/artist bargained for. The recently published notebook of Frida Kahlo with critical texts has made possible a more personalised reading of her art, as doodles and notations demystify her thought process. I experienced the same while standing in front of the self-portraits of Amrita Sher-Gil, the enigmatic figure we only know through a fragmented narrative.

Amrita died in 1941 in Lahore, but the impact of her art practice and personality is so deeply embedded in social memory, that conversations about Amrita continue to interest people. Yashodhara Dalmia‘s recent well-researched biography and curated retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, not only celebrate the innovative artist’s birth centenary but re-open new contexts for interpretation.

Standing before Amrita Sher-Gil self-portraits cannot be without a dialogue as the visual stimulus offers provocation on multiple levels. The eight portraits created by the artist between 1931 and 1932 belong to her Paris years. Her expressionistic brush can be seen unlearning the skill to capture the face and figure in minute details. Here Amrita presents herself in striking contrasts, from formal austerity in a tailored dress sporting a turban style cap to playful bohemian flair. In the formal portraits the directly staring eyes are withdrawn and empty, which transform with an inner light in casual ones.

Born of Hungarian and Indian Sikh parentage in 1913, Amrita’s identity conflict emerges as a subtext in these works as the artist seems to be in search of her cultural space in the social milieu of Paris during the last decade of WWII. All the models she painted during this time were distinctly European, and in sharp contrast to her dusky skin, rounded nose and dark monobrow framed by long black hair. Even though Amrita had won prestigious awards in Paris and gained recognition, in many ways she remained an outsider as her professor pointed out, “…judging by the richness of my colouring, I was not really in my element in the grey studios of the West… my artistic personality would find its true atmosphere in the colours and light of the East” (Evolution of My Art by Amrita Sher-Gil). All this increased her yearning to return to India and explore it as a painter.

Amrita’s inner questioning is exacerbated by her mother’s demands on her to lead a more conventional life like her sister Indira. This frustrates her free spirit. Throughout the chapters of the biography by Dalmia, the clash between the mother and child weighs heavily on Amrita. These portraits can also be read as the different roles she played in her life, shifting constantly between a drab European woman to one with flying open hair and the colourful attire of a gypsy, the cultural prototype of defiance. The precocious side of Amrita, that is so often associated with her, confronts the viewer in two works, as the artist brings it to the fore with bare shoulders, posture and inviting eyes that convey confident sexuality. Amrita the artist is seen preoccupied with lips, which are always bow-shaped and luscious red, even in the formal self -portraits that seem to convince the viewer not to take her sombre mood too seriously.

Exploring her own personality in these self-portraits proved valuable to Amrita; it prepared her to portray the emotional alienation and helplessness of ordinary village women. In her iconic paintings, ‘Brides,’ ‘Toilet’ and ‘Mother India,’ among others, Amrita neither tried to isolate them nor idolise them, but recorded their human condition with respect and empathy in the new idiom she had evolved.

Looking into Amritas Sher-Gil’s eyes at the National Art Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, a dimension of her personality, not found in any text, was revealed to me.  It has helped me to understand the connection between the persisting melancholy that underpins her art and the exuberance with which she lived her life.


This review was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.

The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80’s.