It is ironic how art is so gendered and presumably “female” and yet somehow, if you were asked to name 5 women artists, you’d struggle. March is the month where every brand, every advertisement and every event focuses on “women”, so its only fair that we put some spotlight on some amazing women artists of India – starting with the iconic, ‘first woman artist’ of India, Amrita Shergil.
Before the Calcutta Group came into prominence (1943) and way before the Bombay Progressives (1948), came the art of Amrita : a mix of two different worlds, straightforward, unapologetic and real, just like her personal self.
So who was Amrita, and where did she come from? Watch the introductory video which refers to some of her best known works, and letters.
Amrita Shergil’s Women
Three GirlsEven back then, Amrita’s work wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Did you know, that the Nawab Salar Jung III (Prime Minister of the Nizam of Hyderabad), rejected the famous “Three Girls painting”? According to Karl Khandalavala, an art collector from Mumbai in the 1930s, Amrita lacked the tact to sell her works and market her art. This is reflected in Yashoda Dalmia’s biography of Shergil, where the Salar Jung incident finds mention. Amrita had apparently seen the Nawab’s collection, and remarked that it was junk, and that he should have collected the Impressionists instead. [Has this thought ever crossed your mind while visiting the Salar Jung Museum ? ]
Later, yet another painting of her sister won her a prestigious Gold Medal from the Grand Salon.
In this painting, “Young Girls”, it is believed that while the subjects were Indu (her sister) and a French friend in conversation. The two women, one poised and assured, the other more awkward with her face buried beneath streaming hair, have been believed to be embodying different sides of the artist herself.
Amrita Shergil: her painting style
Even though Amrita came from a very privileged family, her art reflected the rural poor and mostly centered around women. During her time in Paris, she chose to paint the grim reality of the glitzy glamourous Paris. Like in this one, she painted a professional model – one that looks tired, with a body fading away. She didn’t make her nudes in a way that was erotic or sensuous; her art reflected reality and the nudes never met the gaze of the viewer.
Indian art traditionally tended to the sketchy and sentimental, but Amrita was determined to find a new way of showing the reality of the country that her father had taught her to love. Her art from her time in India is marked by angular faces and big eyes; and the women are suddenly more relatable and real.
Amrita Shergil’s time in India
‘There are such wonderful, such glorious things in India, so many unexploited pictorial possibilities, that it is a pity that so few of us have ever attempted to look for them even (much less interpret them)…’excerpt from a letter written by Amrita Shergil
Looking at the art of Amrita Shergil:
If realism defined Amrita’s art, ambiguity was its hallmark. Look at her paintings from NGMA, New Delhi or this one above. Are the figures hopeful or without life? Are they celebratory or sacrificial? Are the women in control, or are they submitting to their fate? Even in Woman Resting on Charpoy – is the woman relaxing or tired / ill?
“In Europe I felt that I have to go away from this kind of greyness and from this strange light in order to be able to breathe. Here everything is natural. There I was not natural and honest because I was born with a certain thirst for colour and in Europe the colours are pale – everything is pale.” She mused that “the colour of the white man is different from the colour of the Hindu and the sunshine changes the light. The white man’s shadow is bluish-purple while the Hindu has golden-green shadow. Mine is yellow. Van Gogh was told that yellow is the favourite colour of the gods and that is right.”
Like the figures from the Ajanta frescoes, rounded and simplified like wooden effigies, the figures in Bride’s Toilet and Brahmacharis sit grouped in rhythmic arrangements, painted in varying shades of yellow, red and brown. Even in the Vina Player (now at the Lahore Museum), the faces and their structure resemble those in Ajanta frescoes, as does the colour scheme. The use of white and shading is yet another common feature in both Shergil’s art as well as the murals of Ajanta.
“The Mughals have taught me a lot. Looked at rightly, the Mughal portraits can teach one everything almost that matters. Subtle yet intense, keenness of form, acute and detached somewhat ironical observation, all the things I needed most at the time I got acquainted with them.”
Things you can think about :
- Do you think the first image is merely a pose?
- Do you think the second one is almost voyeuristic?
- Can Woman Bathing be classified as a Nude?
- Which one is more sensual? Why?
- How does space change the mood of the painting? (one is perhaps a bedroom – and the other, an enclosed bathroom)
In 2018, her painting “the little girl in blue” sold for a record 18.69 crore.
The painting along with others was unveiled at Sher-Gil’s inaugural exhibition at Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. The subject is Amrita’s then-eight year old cousin Babette Singh Mann; the painting was commissioned by Babette’s mother, Lady Buta. As the story goes, she was quite unhappy and rather aghast at this portrait which did not “look realistic enough” and “did not make Babette look pretty enough”.