SHORMISHTHA PANJA finds that the amazing painter had completely assimilated all the western and indigenous influences to produce canvases with a vibrant Indian palette.
Remembering Amrita Sher-Gil
She is an amazing painter, yes. But she is also an amazing woman. She thinks nothing of being photographed, her breasts bare, her armpits unshaven, smiling that dazzling smile of hers up at the photographer. We see that smile again as she sits with her Parisian friends at a roadside cafe, her hair parted in the middle and clad in a chiffon sari. She is a woman who thinks nothing of taking men and women to her bed, of marrying her cousin Victor, much to her mother’s consternation, of writing letters—ah, those marvellous letters—telling her mother NOT to send her any more hand-knit sweaters and shuddering quietly to her sister at the thought of the years of marital silence that lay ahead with Victor. Her death is mysterious and so the rumours abound. Why did her doctor husband not ask for a second opinion when his wife was seriously ill? Was her death related to pregnancy? Even as she was planning the details of an exhibition, sending her mother minute instructions about the paintings to be packed, complete with miniature sketches of them and details of their location, she died, possibly of peritonitis, on 5 December 1941, in Lahore. She was only twenty-eight.
And now we run around holding seminars and issuing postage stamps and buying posters of her work. What would Amrita the woman, Amrita the painter, have said? Would she have dismissed us as philistines as she dismissed those who thronged her exhibitions in India? Would she have thrown back her head and laughed, as she seems to be doing in one of her self-portraits, at the celebrity phenomenon and the fact that her paintings are now the most expensive among Indian artists? Or would she understand that this is our way of paying homage to a spirit that refuses to be snuffed out, to a woman who lived as if gender equality was a given, to a person who dismissed all social orthodoxies with a hearty laugh?
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Image: Vivan Sundaram, Artist with ‘The Bride’s Toilet’, 2001, digital photomontage (Credit)