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Amrita Shergill:
The Great Painter of Modern India





This month we celebrate the birth centenary of Amrita Shergill ((30 January 1913 - 5 December 1941).


Amrita SherGill  (30 January 1913 - 5 December 1941) was an eminent painter born to a Sikh father and a Hungarian mother. She is sometimes known as India's Frida Kahlo, and today considered an important woman painter of the 20th century. The market for her works today have given her the honour of being the 'most expensive' painter from the subcontinent.

She was born in Budapest, Hungary to Umrao Singh SherGill Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and scholar, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish Opera singer from Hungary. Her mother came to India as a companion of Princess Bamba, a daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh who had been exiled in England after the annexation of the Sikh Empire by the British.

Amrita was the elder of two daughters. Her younger sister was Indira, mother of the contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram.

Amrita spent most of early childhood in Budapest. She was the niece of Indologist Ervin Baktay. He guided her by critiquing her work and gave her an academic foundation to grow on. He also instructed her to use servants as models. The memories of these models would eventually lead to her return to Punjab and the subcontinent.

In 1921, her family moved to Summer Hill, Simla, and soon began learning piano and violin, and by the age of nine she, along with her sister, were giving concerts and acting in plays at Simla's Gaiety Theatre at Mall Road.

Though she was already painting at the age of five, she formally started learning painting at age eight.

In 1924, Amrita's mother moved to Italy along with Amrita, and got her enrolled at Santa Annunziata, an Art School at Florence, Italy. Though Amrita didn't stay at this school for long, and returned to the subcontinent in 1924, it was here that she was exposed to works of the Italian masters.

At sixteen, Amrita sailed to Europe with her mother to train as a painter at Paris, first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and later at École des Beaux-Arts (1930–34). She drew inspiration from European painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, while coming under the influence of her teacher Lucien Simon and the company of artist friends and lovers like Boris Tazlitsky.

Her early paintings display a significant influence of the Western modes of painting, especially as being practised in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. In 1932, she made her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition hence.

In 1934, while in Europe, she "began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India,"… "feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter", as she later wrote about her return to India, in the same year.

Soon she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death. It was also during this period that she pursued an affair with Malcolm Muggeridge.

She stayed at their family home at Summer Hill, Simla, for a while before leaving for travel in 1936, at the behest of an art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala, who encouraged her to pursue her passion for discovering her Indian roots. Subsequently she was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and cave paintings at Ajanta Caves.

Later in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy of paintings, Bride's Toilet', 'Brahmacharis' and 'The South Indian Villagers' that reveal her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair. By now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her 'artistic mission', to express the life of Indian people through her canvas, as she herself admitted.

This was distinct from her European phase, in the interwar years, when her work showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya school of painting.

Amrita married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan in 1938, and moved with him to India, to stay at her paternal family's home in Saraya, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

Thus began her second phase in painting, which equals in its impact on Indian Modern Art, with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of Bengal school of art. The 'Calcutta Group' of artists movement was yet to start in 1943, and the 'Progressive Artist's Group', with Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Bakre, Gade, M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza among its founders, laid further ahead in 1948 Bombay.

In September 1941, the couple moved to Lahore, then in undivided Punjab, and a major cultural and artistic centre. She lived and painted at 23 Ganga Ram Mansions, The Mall, Lahore, where her studio was reported to be on the top floor of the townhouse she inhabited.

In 1941, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, she became seriously ill and slipped into a coma, and later died around midnight on 6 December 1941, leaving behind a large volume of work. The mystery behind the real reason for her death has never been ascertained, something expected in view of the overly sensationalised accounts of Amrita's life in the words of her contemporaries. A failed abortion and subsequent peritonitis also have been suggested as the possible causes.

She was cremated on 7 December 1941 at Lahore.

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,[24] and a postage stamp depicting her painting 'Hill Women' was released in 1978 in India, and a road in Lutyens' Delhi, was named after her as Amrita Shergill Marg.

Besides remaining an inspiration to many a contemporary Indian artists, in 1993 she also became the inspiration behind, the famous Urdu play, by Javed Siddiqi, Tumhari Amrita (1992), starring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh. Her work is a key theme in the contemporary Indian novel "Faking It" by Amrita Chowdhury.


January 7, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Vijaya (Budapest , Hungary), January 25, 2013, 9:38 AM.

Enjoyed reading this - thanks.

2: Karuna Rajput (Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India), January 15, 2014, 5:47 AM.

The great woman artist of this land ...

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The Great Painter of Modern India"

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