June 27, 2020
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White Shadows

A rare Amrita Sher-Gil study of rural women is sold for a record Rs 6.9 crore

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White Shadows
White Shadows
The recent sale of Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1938 painting Village Scene for Rs 6.9 crore at Osian’s auction in New Delhi —the highest price ever paid for a painting in India—testifies to the growing value placed on her work. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, but the astronomical price is also because Sher-Gil’s work rarely comes up for sale. Most of her approximately 200 works are either with the National Gallery of Modern Art or her family. Classified as national treasures, they cannot be sold outside India.

Village Scene, bought by Delhi-based industrialist Nand Khemka (see box), is one of a series of paintings Amrita did while staying at her uncle’s estate in Saraya, in UP’s Gorakhpur district (the family owned sugar mills there). The leisurely, monotonous rhythm of life on this rural estate gave Amrita the opportunity to spend hours observing village women as they went about their chores. Village Scene captures the grace and beauty she saw in their humdrum lives, the colour, form and composition she instilled into quotidian rural scenes. The painting also shows the different artistic traditions, both foreign and Indian, from which she drew inspiration.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was born in Budapest to a Sikh aristocrat and his Hungarian wife. She spent her initial years there, and at the family’s country home outside the city, where she became familiar with pastoral life. On their return to India, the Sher-Gils settled in Shimla and it was here that, recognising her talent, the parents decided to have her trained in Paris. Amrita learnt the basics at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the premier art institute of the time. She lived life to the hilt in the cafes and streets of the city, plunging with abandon into the bohemian Paris art world.

In 1934, Amrita returned to India, determined to root herself in the country where she felt she belonged, and with a mission to "interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially". Amrita’s ability to blend the classical artistic traditions of India with her Parisian training led to several inventive works, which showed the way for many succeeding generations of Indian artists.

It was after her travels in South India that some of her masterpieces began to emerge. She was considerably influenced by the Ajanta frescoes—her palette transformed to deep, earthy colours, her forms became imbued with the rich style of the frescoes. A particularly fine work from the period is The Brahmacharis (at NGMA) which frames a group of young Brahmin boys with the white of their dhotis flashing against the amber red of the canvas. The perfect balance between ritual demeanour and the individual characteristics of the figures makes it a masterpiece.

Apart from the Ajanta style, Pahari, Rajasthani and Mughal miniatures had a deep impact on Amrita. In the months spent at Saraya in 1938, Amrita also produced some other works which reveal her experiments with the miniature style and its ability to encapsulate a whole gamut of activity. In Siesta, for instance, a rural woman lies on a cot being fanned by another, while a group spins the charkha. About this work she wrote, "The figures in this one are like gems studded on an ochre foreground and a gleaming background afforded by the white walls of the houses. I want to achieve sonorous modulations of colour, an unctuous texture."

In the Ladies’ Enclosure is another painting done at Saraya, showing an everyday ritual—dressing of a woman’s hair. As in miniatures, it depicts the woman adorning herself but, far from being erotic, it highlights the grace of intimate domestic routines.

Her fascination with the composition and lyricism of Pahari miniatures is evident in Village Scene, where a group of women engaged in daily chores—chatting with each other, tending to children—weave a rhythmic pattern on the canvas. A basket of red chillies blazes in one corner, echoed by the red sari on the other side. The women’s faces are in shadow, covered with saris, but the body language of each one is distinctive. Amrita empathised with women and their solitary struggles, always showing them as individuals in their own right, vulnerable yet instilled with strength and dignity.

An exceptional use of white always marked out Amrita’s paintings. She had discovered that white, if used effectively, could enliven a painting, like a flash of lightning which would illuminate the entire space. In Village Scene, she uses white, nuanced in different ways, to spell-binding effect. The white of the women’s clothes glimmer against their dark bodies, and the white walls in the backdrop create halos around their heads, adding quiet drama to the composition.

Ironically, when Amrita tried to sell her works to Nawab Salar Jung, the Nizam of Hyderabad’s prime minister, who prided himself on being a great connoisseur, he rejected them. Salar Jung’s dismissal was partly out of pique, because Amrita in her typically outspoken manner had pointed out that his prized collection was full of junk art from the West. If he had bought her works then, the Salar Jang Museum in Hyderabad would have had the largest collection of Sher-Gil paintings today.

Amrita’s short, turbulent life was as filled with passion and colour as her paintings. She lived it on her own terms, shocking the society of the time with her love affairs and unconventional ways. She died in Lahore after a sudden illness at the tragically young age of 28, unaware of the priceless legacy she was leaving behind.

(Dalmia is an art historian and author of a new book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life)

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