V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-portrait in Letter & Writings, Vol. 2, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2010, p. 803
There exist few, if any, comparisons in the history of art to the spectacular career or pervasive influence of Amrita Sher-Gil. Like Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy, Sher-Gil is celebrated as one of the harbingers of modernism in Indian art. Amrita Sher-Gil bemoaned the contemporary artistic landscape in India, noting that the Bengal school was “more exotic than genuinely Indian”, whilst the Bombay school was locked in “the academic shackles” of western art schools. (A. Sher-Gil, ‘Indian Art Today’, The Indian Listener, 19 August 1941, in V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Portrait in Letters & Writings, Vol. 2, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2010, p. 733-735). What she really wanted was an art that was impelled from an urge from within, where stagnation came to an end, and in place of the “synthetically fostered and artificially stimulated revival, a new and more vital moment” (ibid.) was born. She went on to usher in this “new” and “vital” modern style.
STUDENT IN PARIS
Born in 1913 in Budapest, Sher-Gil grew up in a cultured and intellectual family who initiated and supported her early interest in art. Her mother was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and her father was an Indian Sikh aristocrat and scholar. She lived in Hungary, India and Paris during her lifetime, and her art embodies a bohemian combination of east and west.
Sher-Gil moved to Paris in 1929 when she was 16, upon the urging of her maternal uncle, the Indologist Ervin Baktay, where he felt that she would have better opportunities to hone and develop her talent. Whilst in Paris, Sher-Gil initially studied at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière and later at the École des Beaux-Arts, where she became a pupil of Lucien Simon. Here she began to paint with oils for the first time. “I went through an academic phase in the first few years of my stay in Paris, I had never imitated nature servilely; and now I am deviating more and more from naturalism towards the evolving of new, and ‘significant’ forms, corresponding to my individual conception of the essence of the inner meaning of my subject.” (A. Sher-Gil quoted in Y. Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & Life – A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p. 3)
In Paris, Sher-Gil was also exposed to the works of Paul Cézanne, Amedeo Modigliani and Paul Gaugin. She was particularly enamoured with their uncanny ability to blend the old with the new. Much like Gaugin’s depictions of Tahitian women, Sher-Gil’s paintings were stylistically simple yet visually complex. Just as Gaugin left France and was inspired by Tahiti, subsequently changing his style and subject matter, Sher-Gil left Paris for India in 1934 and became influenced by her Indian side, choosing to depict rural subjects and their way of life rather than the portraits that she had favoured in Paris. Her encounters with the various art forms and traditions of painting from different parts of India contributed to her own artistic idiom and style. She was inspired by the brilliance and novelty of Ajanta and Ellora, the technical delicacy of Mughal, Rajasthani and Basholi School of miniatures and the strength of the eighteenth-century frescoes at the Mattancherry Palace, Cochin.
THE LITTLE GIRL IN BLUE
Sher-Gil moved to declared to her mother in a letter: “I wish to return [to India] primarily in interest of my artistic development. I now need new sources of inspiration and here you will perceive Duci, how utterly mistaken you are when you speak of a lack of interest in India, its culture, its people, its literature, all of which interest me profoundly & which I wish to get acquainted with, and I think I will find it in India.” (V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Portrait in Letters & Writings, Volume 2, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2010, p. 164-165). Upon her arrival in December of 1934 she stayed with her uncle Sunder Singh Majithia at Majithia House in Amritsar when she painted The Little Girl in Blue. The sitter in the painting is her cousin Babit, the daughter of Mahinder Kaur. Kaur was the wife of Sir Buta Singh and the daughter of Sir Joginder Singh, a very close friend of Sher-Gil’s father.
Referring to this painting Sher-Gil wrote to her parents: "The small picture I painted at Amritsar – Mahindro’s daughter – “The little girl in blue" has been sold. This I owe to Chamanlal who has been very helpful & who manipulated the affair.” (V. Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Portrait in Letters & Writings, Volume 2, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2010, p. 424-425). A few months later, Amrita went on to paint the iconic Group of Three Girls (now at the National gallery of Modern Art) modelled by Nirveer Kaur, Beant Kaur and Harbhajan Kaur, also daughters of Mahinder Kaur and Babit’s older sisters.
In The Little Girl in Blue, Sher-Gil’s style of painting is very much in the same vein as Self-Portrait as a Tahitian painted earlier that year. The Little Girl in Blue, along with Group of Three Women and Self-Portrait as a Tahitian, were painted during a period when Sher-Gil was on the cusp of a change in her technique and approach to her subject. If one looks at subsequent works such as Hill Men and Hill Women (1935), the treatment of the subject has become more linear and flat. There is a definitive ‘simplification of form’ and an ‘elimination of unimportant detail’ which coincides with her return to India and her further appreciation of the Indian miniature school tradition.
The Little Girl in Blue is deceptively pioneering as is Sher-Gil’s entire body of work in the context of Indian art. This can be seen in its tight avant-garde framing and illumination of the figures. The Little Girl in Blue assimilates diverse visual cultures of Europe and India. Stylised and powerful in its presentation, set against a backdrop of a park or woodland around Amritsar, the work is both unequivocally modern and decidedly Indian at the same time. The colour palette of the female figures is distinctly Indian, while the treatment of the trees and the background is executed in a post-impressionist style. The figures, with their richly modulated flesh tones, dominate the image in a manner unique to Sher-Gil’s inimitable style. Their expressions emote a certain politesse, characteristic of many Indian women of the time. The girl in the foreground stares into the distance as though in deep thought, while the older woman in the background looks on with an almost apprehensive expression. The Little Girl in Blue, is a pictorial account of Sher-Gil’s time in Amritsar and the inhabitants she encountered. Dalmia contextualises the painting, in terms of Sher-Gil’s evolving style: “‘Girl in Blue, in which the colour blue made an impact with its rich, translucent hues... was a direct transference of her last phase in Paris, during which green and blue were a preoccupation. Yet, within two months her palette was transformed: Group of Three Girls reflects the earthly reds and browns of her surroundings.” (Y. Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, Penguin Books Ltd., New Delhi, 2006, p. 60)
THE FALETTI’S HOTEL EXHIBITION AND CHARLES FABRI
Very rarely does a singular event leave its mark on the collective perception of a culture as the week in November of 1937 when The Little Girl in Blue and its companion works were exhibited at Sher-Gil’s first solo exhibition. This was the critically acclaimed, Paintings by Amrita Sher-Gil at Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. A landmark exhibition of Sher-Gil’s highly avant-garde body of work, it fundamentally changed the manner in which the populace at the time viewed contemporary art. Sher-Gil’s art was a seen as a breath of fresh air and the show received endless praise both from critics and guests alike. During the 1920s and 30s, Lahore was a cultural hub where artists, writers and intellectuals gathered. 'The opening, on 21 November 1937, saw art lovers and Lahore's elite trooping in, as much to see Amrita Sher-Gil as to view her work. Amrita stood at the entrance, dressed in a gold-bordered sari draped twice around her waist, as was the fashion, worn with a brocade blouse and with chunky Tibetan jewellery.' (Y. Dalmia, ‘In the Limelight’, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2006, p. 100)
Interestingly, the most considered review came from Charles Fabri who was the art critic of Lahore's Civil and Military Gazette at the time. Fabri called the show a 'veritable feast for the eyes', and stated that Amrita's work was 'essentially modern without being fantastic' and that 'simplification and the grasping of important essentials is the key-note in most of her work.' (ibid. p. 100) It is believed that following the exhibition, The Little Girl in Blue was either bought by Fabri or given to him by Sher-Gil.
Fabri was a Hungarian Indologist, who was born in Budapest in 1899 and grew up in an affluent environment as the son of a manager of a chain of hotels. After joining the army during the First World War, Fabri went to university which coincided with the family losing its fortunes and emigrating to Italy. Fabri's interest and studies in Indian archaeology took him to Leyden where he worked with Professor J. Ph. Vogel at the Kern Institute. In 1932, he accompanied Sir Aurel Stein on an archaeological trip to India where he was involved with the Indus Valley excavations. A year later he was invited by Tagore to teach art history at Santiniketan. He then joined the Archaeological Survey of India, working in Delhi, Lahore and Mohenjodaro. Fabri's work was then interrupted when he was called to join the army during the Second World War. After the war, Fabri returned to Lahore where he became the curator of the Lahore Museum. At this time he met and married Ratna Devi Mathur, a renowned interior decorator, a noted art historian, painter and a graduate of the School of Fine Arts, Lahore. She was one of India’s first museum display specialists and one of the earliest interior decorators in India. She was credited with the displays at the Chandigarh Museum; The Indian Pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1964 and 1965; The Indian Exhibition in Mexico in 1968; The Indian Pavilion at the Expo 70 at Osaka in 1970; the interiors of the Rajput Suite of the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai in the 1960s; and the interiors of the lounge at Vigyan Bhavan in 1967. After Partition, the couple moved to Delhi where Fabri became the art critic for The Statesman.
After meeting Fabri at the Faletti’s Hotel exhibition, Sher-Gil was to form a close relationship with Fabri, the ‘broad-shouldered Hungarian bachelor who happened to be an archaeologist, an erudite art scholar and curator of the Lahore Museum.' (Y. Dalmia, ‘In the Limelight’, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2006, p. 100). Those close to Sher-Gil’s husband Victor, say that he believed the two were lovers. Fabri in his later writings did indicate an emotional attachment to Sher-Gil. 'Amrita Sher-Gil was a lovely, lovable, fascinating, towering personality. It was impossible not to react emotionally to the personality of so wonderful a woman, so divinely gifted, so astonishingly versatile and so brilliant in anything that she had touched; whether it was painting or music - in which she was the equal of almost any great artist on the concert platform - or literature, which she wrote with a facility rarely given to any but the most devoted stylist, or, languages, which she spoke with the ease of a born linguist... It seems to me impossible that anyone who knew Amrita Sher-Gil would remain detached and totally objective.' (C. Fabri, ‘Notes Towards a Biography of Amrita Sher-Gil’, in Y. Dalmia (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & Life – A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, p. 10) In 1947, Fabri wrote the novel Indian Flamingo which was dedicated to 'the beloved, undying memory of Amrita and her sisters and brothers of the New India'. The novel is the story of the love between John Fawcett, curator of the Lahore Museum and Padma, a young artist who is in the prime of her youth.
Fabri provided the emotional and critical support Sher-Gil needed in Lahore, just as critic, collector and connoisseur Karl Khandalavala had done for her in Bombay. After Sher-Gil’s death at the age of 28, Fabri wrote several articles on Sher-Gil and even questioned Khandalavala's assessment of her work. 'Amrita Sher-Gil was half Western half Indian… and whilst it has become a habit to claim her as “totally Indian”, she was, in fact the miraculous marriage of Indian and Western, brought up in the discipline of Western painting, suffused in her mental make-up with Indian feeling and attitudes. Even the observant friend, Karl Khandalavala, found it necessary to “sell” Amrita Sher-Gil's work to his fellow Indians by emphasizing that the Hungarian element was as good as nil in Amrita and W.G. Archer came to a similar conclusion. After a lapse of 22 years from her death, one may well ask: is such an apology really necessary? Would it not be much more correct to stress the astonishing combination of the two strands in her make-up, the Western and the Indian?' (C. Fabri, ‘Notes Towards a Biography of Amrita Sher-Gil’, in Y. Dalmia (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & Life – A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p. 12)
As Sher-Gil’s work demonstrates she belonged to no particular school or style of painting; in part due to her bi-racial and bi-cultural upbringing and her constant travels between India and Europe. Instead her work comes across as an immersion, absorption and very detailed understanding of aesthetic styles and traditions of the West and the East. As Fabri wrote ‘...It was the central task of her artistic career to build a perfect bridge between the artistic vision of the West and that of India. Others before Amrita Sher-Gil had attempted to bring the East and the West together by means of painting; there was Bellini, there was Delacroix, and there was Gaugin that most successful bridge-builder of all, captivated irresistibly, by the fascination of “exotic” beauty in Tahiti. But these were all westerners, trying to interpret the colour and shape and feel of the East to their western compatriots. None of them could ever have been so close to the East as this young girl, half Indian, half European, able to paint like a European, and feel and see like an Indian.’ (C. Fabri, ‘Amrita Sher-Gil,’ in G. Wojtilla (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil and Hungary, Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre and Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1981, p. 65)
Fabri discussing the later part of Sher-Gil’s career states, ‘This great artist, the greatest individual genius in modern Indian Art, created in those astonishing six years between 1935 and 1941 a body of work that showed clearly a line of development towards a tremendous future, a future in which she would have been able to complete this fusion of two streams of art unparalleled in the history of art... and when she died in 1941, her life was like an unfinished song, like a riven lute. We shall not see the like of her again.’ (C. Fabri, ‘Notes Towards a Biography of Amrita Sher-Gil’, in Y. Dalmia (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil: Art & Life – A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, p. 19)
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