By Shikha Sreenivas
Amrita Sher-Gil was an Indian painter in the early 20th century, when the field of painting was dominated by men. She is also, apparently the most expensive woman painter of India. She was born today, in 1913, and died at the young age of 28, in 1941. The roots of her style are spread across Indian, European and Hungarian technique, which she was exposed to because of her mixed parentage — an Indian father and Hungarian mother, and also having spent her childhood in Europe.
Sher-Gil, who was also known as India’s Frieda Khalo, returned to her mother’s country after her childhood in Europe. She writes, “Towards the end of 1933, I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.”
Yashodhara Dalmia writes in her book Amrita Sher-Gil — A Life, that when Amrita saw the women of Saraya, it stirred something inside her. Dalmia writes, “She understood their stifling lives, the waste of capacities that could have easily made them into productive, outdoor people.” She paints the everydayness of their behaviour, but also the frustrations, desires and their sexuality.
The women of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings exude a stillness which cannot be fully understood. If you thought Mona Lisa was mysterious, look at the women who inhabit Sher-Gil’s canvases.
They are sometimes quietly melancholic, and other times they wear smiles for something unknown. They slouch, they lie sprawled across beds, they tilt their heads with smirks. There is loneliness, yet they are completely self-contained — their eyes contain stories of frustration, ambition and sexuality. The women of her paintings had agency beyond the physical.
Though she is from the colonial era, Sher-Gil is considered as one of the pioneers of modern art in India. Her own promiscuity and the unabashed sexuality of her subjects, not only paved a way for women in painting, but told a story of women which would otherwise be stigmatised.