The 101 on Amrita Sher-Gil

She was born in 1913, Budapest, to a Hungarian mother and Indian father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, who later came to be recognised as the pioneer of modern Indian photography.

She studied art first in Florence, where she got acquainted with the works of Italian masters, and then in Paris. At the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, (and this is the school that gave us Hubert Givenchy) she really came into her own. Her 1932 painting ‘Young Girls’, propelled her into the Grand Salon (an elite club of artists), making her the youngest and the only Asian with this honour.

She returned to India in 1934. And toured the country to get closer to Indian art: Mathura sculptures, Ajanta, Pahari and Mughal miniatures, all of which influenced her work.

She was just like us. Sher-Gil struggled with facial hair. And even complains about it to her mother in one of her letters; it’s documented in the book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-portrait In Letters And Writings, edited by her nephew and eminent artist Vivan Sundaram.

She had radical views on sexuality, in both, her art practice and private life. She’d been in many open relationships with men and women. Eventually, she married her first cousin, Dr Victor Egan, despite strong opposition from her parents.  

She was Rabindranath Tagore’s contemporary. Unfortunately, the two legends never crossed paths.

She took selfies. Well, the early equivalent of a selfie anyway: Sher-Gil painted self-portraits, based on photographs of herself. “Both father and daughter had to have been somewhat narcissistic, for he took around a 100 self-portraits over a 50 year period,” says Sundaram.

She passed away in 1941 – just days away from her solo show in Lahore, which in those was the centre of political and artistic activity. She was only 28 at the time.

‘Self-portrait’ by Amrita Sher-Gil (1927-28) (pictured above)

In Dialogue: Amrita Sher-Gil And Lionel Wendt is on till October 25 at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

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