January 10, 2020
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Hamari Amrita

A life cut tragically short, but with more colour perhaps than one may find in her work

Hamari Amrita
Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram
Hamari Amrita
Amrita Sher-Gil—A Life
By Yashodhara Dalmia
Viking/Penguin Pages: 230; Rs 695
I met Amrita Sher-Gil twice and we wrote to each other a couple of times. I was among the handful of mourners present at her cremation in Lahore on December 7, 1941. She was only 28. I can hardly claim to have known her. However, she left a lasting impression on my mind—not because she came to be recognised as a great painter but as the most unusual woman I’d met. I read everything I could about her: Karl Khandalavala’s eulogy on her being India’s greatest artist, her nephew Vivan Sundaram’s candid exposure of her personal life, including her lesbianism, and her friend Iqbal Singh’s account of her life. Now we have art historian Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography which takes into account all that has been written about her, including what I had to say about the circumstances of her tragic death. She has done a thorough job of research and her opinions on Sher-Gil’s canvases, many of which are reproduced in her book, merit close scrutiny.

Amrita was the elder of two daughters of a part-Jewish Hungarian mother, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann, and a Sikh father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a widower with children from his first wife. He came from a distinguished, aristocratic family owning farmland, many houses and a large sugar mill at Saraya (UP). But Marie, a hard-headed, eccentric woman interested in the fine arts and music, went wrong in her calculations. She readily espoused the long-bearded and beturbaned sardar under the impression that he was a very wealthy landowner, only to find that he in fact drew a measly pension from his family and was deeply involved in studying ancient Sanskrit and Persian texts and spent long hours watching stars at night. It was a misalliance from the start: she cheated on him, having affairs that came her way. It remained so till she shot herself in the head with his shotgun in their Simla home on July 31, 1948.

Both Amrita and her sister Indira were born in Budapest, were baptised as Roman Catholics and spent the first years of their lives there. At a very early age, Amrita took to drawing pictures, and Indira to playing the piano. The family moved to Paris where the sisters pursued their studies, one in painting, the other in music. Amrita won recognition at Ecole des Beaux Arts. She grew conscious of her good looks. Marie encouraged her daughter using her charms to snare well-to-do men with a view to matrimony. An early suitor was Yusuf Ali Khan, son of the Nawab of Akbarpur. He made her pregnant and infected her with venereal disease as well. She turned to her cousin Victor Egan, a medical student, to get rid of the unwanted foetus and the disease. Amrita remained reckless in her affairs with men and women throughout her short life. One of her lovers, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote "that she was really a virgin because she’d never experienced the spiritual equivalent of copulation: she had many lovers but they’d left no scar. I’ll leave a scar". He failed to leave any scar but noted Amrita’s obsession with herself and boasting about her lovers.

Back home in India, Amrita was eager to win recognition. She found two champions: Karl Khandalavala, a noted art critic in Bombay, and fellow Hungarian Charles Fabri, who lived in Lahore. Both acclaimed her as perhaps the greatest painter of the century. Despite the build-up, she found few buyers. She travelled across India with her canvases. Nawab Salar Jung of Hyderabad kept her paintings for a few days but returned them. She tried the Maharaja of Mysore but he preferred Ravi Varma’s calendar art to hers.

Amrita was not as beautiful as she fancied herself and depicted in her self-portraits. She was fair, petite, with large, searching eyes and full-lipped. She wore bright-coloured saris and large beaded jewellery. She was liberal in the use of cosmetics and lipstick and doused herself in perfume. She attracted attention by her flamboyance wherever she went. Amongst her admirers was Pandit Nehru. She had countless lovers: her ravenous appetite for sex was legendary. She did not waste time in preliminaries. If her lover took too long to make the first move, she simply stripped and lay down on the carpet, naked. Badruddin Tyabjee gave a vivid description of his encounter with her one winter’s night in Simla.

Controversy pursued Amrita to her last and continues to this day. When she was taken ill, she put it down to food poisoning. The other and more reliable version is that she was pregnant and her cousin-husband Victor botched up the abortion. After her death, her mother accused Victor of having murdered her. He was lucky as the day after Amrita died England declared war on Hungary and Victor was put in jail as an enemy national.

Amrita’s life was more colourful than the bright colours she used in her paintings—this is a good look at it.

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