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.