Amrita Shergil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings ~ A Book Review by Salman Rushdie

But the figure that, so to speak, "gave me permission" to imagine her personality, to invent a woman painter a...

Vivan Sundaram talks about Amrita Sher-Gil

Portrait (93K)
Collection of Navina and Vivan Sundaram
Amrita Sher-Gil, Self Portrait as Tahitian, 1934, oil on canvas,

Book Review:


2 Volumes, edited by Vivan Sundaram,

Tulika Books, India, 2010. Hardcover, with a slipcase, with full-colour illustrations, pp 900. ISBN 10: 8189487590, ISBN 13: 9788189487591. `. 5750.00.

The following article was written by Salman Rushdie and first published in February 2007, when the above-noted books were still in the works. Nevertheless, you will find that it serves well as a fitting introduction to this new publication.

In the mid-1990s, when I began to think about my novel The Moor's Last Sigh, I soon realised that it would contain an account of the character (and also the work) of an entirely imaginary 20th-century Indian woman painter.

I thought about my friendships and acquaintanceships with a number of fine contemporary artists - Krishen Khanna, Bhupen Khakhar, Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Anish Kapoor - and of others I did not know personally but whose work I admired - Pushpamala, Navjot, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel, Dhruva Mistry, Arpana Caur, Laxma Goud, Ganesh Pyne. The work of all these painters helped me think about the pictures my fictional Aurora Zogoiby might create.

But the figure that, so to speak, "gave me permission" to imagine her personality, to invent a woman painter at the very heart of modern art in India - to believe in the possibility of such a woman - was an artist I never met, who died tragically young, and whom I first encountered in a luminous painting by Vivan Sundaram, her nephew.

That artist was Amrita Sher-Gil.

The painting is of a family at home. A male figure stands brooding in the background, a western woman sits stiffly on a chair (and there is a pistol on a table at her side). The room is rich in furnishings and art, and the whole is portrayed in a palette of glowing oranges and golds. But for all the lushness and mystery of the scene, the eye is drawn to the young woman in the foreground, strikingly beautiful, faintly smiling: an intelligent, amused face.

This is Amrita.

I did not know much about her in those days. I knew she was half-Hungarian [her father was Sikh: Sardar Umrao Singh Sherg il-Majithia], and I had seen some of her paintings of scenes of village life - storytellers, young girls - both in the National Gallery in Delhi and at Vivan's home.

And while I was writing my book, I resisted knowing more. I conjured up an imaginary Amrita for myself - a woman much influenced by Gandhian ideas, who dedicated herself to painting the "true" life of India, the life of the villages - and decided that my Aurora would be in many ways her antithesis, an unrepentant urbanite and sophisticate. It was only after the book was done that I permitted myself to know the real Amrita a little better, and I discovered at once that she and my Aurora had much more in common than I suspected. Indeed, in some ways - her sexual proclivities, for example - Amrita Sher-Gil was a more bohemian, less inhibited figure than the flamboyant woman I had made up.

In her letters, the real Amrita leaps from the page.

"You will think I am self-opinionated," she writes in 1934, aged just 21, "but I will stick to my intolerant ideas and to my convictions."

Her outspokenness, which makes her so very much the sister, not the antithesis, of Aurora Zogoiby, is one of the most delicious aspects of her correspondence. She praises Nobel prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore, but she also says, "his eminence is due to the surrounding flatness of the country". Her anger at the philistinism of the Nizam of Hyderabad leads her to speak bluntly to his face:

"He has millions of rupees worth of junk at the same time as beautiful jade and good Mogul and Rajput paintings in his palace ... and when I saw the Lord Leightons, the Wattses, the Bouguereaus amassed there and everybody in the party spouted admiration and praise, I felt so sick that, when he asked me what I thought of them, I asked him in return how on earth anybody with any taste could buy Leighton, Bouguereau and Watts when there were Cézannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins in the market."

After this, he unsurprisingly refuses to buy her two "cubist" pictures, and she is "of course, furious".

And, writing to her close friend and great ally Karl Khandalavala, she talks about his art criticism in terms that might have damaged a lesser friendship: "One has an impression of a lucid impersonal account written by an objective person, the possessor of a calm and collected mind. And while one is reading it one is inclined to say aloud, 'quite so', but as soon as one has laid it aside one forgets it. That is to say, 'It creates no powerful or lasting impression on the mind.' It is too moderate in its mode of expression (perhaps the fault lies in your choice of words)."

Perhaps her most heightened contempt is reserved for the artists of the Bengal school, whom she compares dismissively to the ancient Ajanta cave-painters: "Ajanta is painting with a kernel, the painting of the Bengal school has only got a shell, it is a lot of things built round nothing, a lot of unessential things and it would cease to exist if those unessential things were taken away from it." She admits that Jamini Roy has "a certain talent", but refuses to allow his line to be compared to the masters of Ajanta, either.

This ferocity of mind and sharpness of tongue, combined with an unashamed openness about her own behaviour, and an insistence on her right to behave as she chooses, is also present in her thoughts about her own family and friends. W

When her father ("Duci") hesitates about her proposed return to India from Europe, and accuses her of lacking interest in India, she delivers herself of an extraordinary text that is at once an artistic testament and an assault on her father's narrower mores of social and sexual conduct:

"I wish to return primarily in interest of my artistic development ... how utterly mistaken you are when you speak of our lack of interest in India, in its culture, its people, its literature, all of which interest me profoundly ... Our long stay in Europe has aided me to discover as it were, India. Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain that, had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realised that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musée Guimet is worth more than the whole Renaissance! In short, now I wish to go back to appreciate India and its worth ... I was rather sad to realise that you place the conservation of your good name above your affection for us. I was also disappointed to know what a place of importance you give to the bickering of public opinion ... I don't in the least consider myself an immoral person, I am not immoral ... Besides I think you are rather dramatising the situation (a thing you are apt to do at times) when you say that the ruin of your good name is synonymous with our returning to India. Fools and mischief-makers will always talk, even if one doesn't give them food for it. And there are narrow-minded prejudiced and fanatical people all over the world, in India too (as you found out at your expense) but need one bother about them?"

She chides her mother, too, first for maltreating servants and later, as that troubled lady descends into mental instability, for her lies.

"She charges us indiscriminately with every vice, criminal ingratitude being the least of them, of filth, sloth and abnormal sexual manias ..."

Caught between a cold, conventional father and an increasingly deranged mother, Amrita takes refuge in an artistic vision remarkable not only for its outspokenness, but for its passionate love of what is beautiful. In a letter to her sister Indu, she tells of frescoes found in Cochin:

"I spend my days from morning till evening, that is to say till the light fails, at a deserted palace here. It contains some perfectly marvellous old paintings that haven't been 'discovered' yet. Nobody knows about them and the local people, even so called responsible people, like the Diwan would destroy them, I am sure. If that were in their power - because some of the panels depict erotic scenes. Animals and birds are copulating with the utmost candour, but curiously enough the human figures are never depicted in the act ... it is only when one starts copying them that one realises what an astounding technique these people had and what an amazing knowledge of form and power of observation they possessed. Curiously enough unlike the slender forms of Ajanta, the figures are extremely massive and heavy here. The drawing perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen."

The Cochin frescoes return in a passionate letter to Khandalavala, and it is clear they influenced her deeply, just as Breughel did, and Renoir. She became convinced that "all art, not excluding religious art, has come into being because of sensuality: a sensuality so great that it overflows the boundaries of the mere physical".

Her taste in art is impeccable, whether it be European literature (Rousseau, Verlaine, Proust) or the majesty of the Ellora carvings and Ajanta cave-paintings ("Dear Karl, ELLORA, AJANTA. Revelation.")

Her taste in human beings is good, too: "I have met a wonderful woman at last, [the poet and politician] Sarojini Naidu. And her two interesting daughters. One of them a felinish creature beautiful in a negroid way, who curiously enough is intelligent and witty, and her younger sister who looks the older of the two a strange wild creature, sympathique comme tout, and extremely interesting to say the least."

Such a woman could perhaps not be expected to be happy in such a time. She writes to Indu in March 1941, "I ... have passed through a nervous crisis and am still far from being over it. Feeling impotent dissatisfied irritable and unlike you not even able to weep. There seem to be forces at work - elemental forces - disrupting, throwing things out of equilibrium. The chaos and darkness of the lives of individuals - the wars, earthquakes, floods all seem to be indefinably interconnected. We are not alone. I see it everywhere." (But then, a few lines on, she finds time to criticise her sister's handwriting - "you must make an effort to render it lisible" - and to be glad that a new divan "looks lovely".)

Six months later, she was dead, aged just 28, of a cause that remains uncertain.

It is immensely moving to encounter, in Amrita's letters, this impassioned, opinionated, brilliant voice that spoke so clearly but for such a brief time. To return to her paintings after this reading is to find new depth in her sombre palette, all earth tones and shadows. She writes, only partly ironically, of choosing to depict "principally the sad aspects of Indian life ... It may be that the sadness; the queer ugliness of the types I choose as my models (which to me is beauty that renders insipid all that which, according to the standards of the world, goes under the category of the word 'beautiful') corresponds something in me, some inner trail in my nature which responds to things that are sad, rather then to manifestations of life which are exuberantly happy or placidly contented."

Amrita Sher-Gil's is an art which moves naturally towards the melancholy and tragic, while keeping its eye fixed firmly on high ideals of beauty. That it, and she, were so often misunderstood is poignant, but not, perhaps, surprising. In a letter from abroad, written to her parents in August 1938 after they had burned a "roomful" of her letters, including old love letters, she resigns herself to a "bleak old age unrelieved by the entertainment that the perusal of old love letters would have afforded", and ends, piteously, in Hindi: "Me kohi aysi baat nahin kahungi ya karungi jisse aap ko dukh pahunche" - "I will not say or do anything that would cause you pain".

She was denied old age, bleak or otherwise, but neither her exuberant, magnificent self, nor the work it made, contained anything for which she needed to apologise. Time has passed, and her art endures.

As Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby wrote of his mother Aurora: "Even now, in the memory, she dazzles, must be circled about and about. We may perceive her indirectly, in her effects on others ... Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them; the giant dead whom we cannot tie down, though we grasp at their hair, though we rope them while they sleep."

[Courtesy: The Guardian]


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