Amrita’s village

Saraya, a little-known village in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, will always be remembered for Amrita Sher-Gil’s masterpieces. J.N. SINHA pays tribute on her 100th birth anniversary.

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She had already travelled in India extensively and was immensely impressed by its art tradition, especially of Ajanta, Ellora and Mathura. By now, she had painted various subjects and had an occasional peek at rural life, too ( Hill Men, 1935; Girl with Pitcher, 1937). But Saraya proved an eye-opener. The simple life of the poor, with curious limitations and containment drowned in an all-pervading loneliness and gloom, attracted her instantly. Now she wanted to settle in India and paint as an Indian. She wrote: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me.” Saraya inspired her to break her umbilical connection with the West.

Sadly, she was in extreme mental stress at the time. Married recently and brought to settle in a remote village, she was at a loss. In fact, before leaving for Europe, her father had distributed his property among his sons from his earlier marriage. So when forced to return to India after the First World War, he was virtually homeless, so to say. Amrita’s stay was a makeshift arrangement courtesy her uncle Sunder Singh. Her parents were under acute economic strain and both of them were suffering from psychiatric conditions. Amrita’s bohemian lifestyle and rebellious nature made matters worse. She had very unhappy relations with her parents, especially her mother. So, once the initial bonhomie of the family subsided, things became monotonous and unproductive at Saraya. Her mother’s nasty letters devastated her tender mind. She could have committed suicide, but she found in painting a source of deliverance. She identified her destiny with that of the poor masses and associated herself with their miseries and hope.

At Saraya, she painted numerous scenes capturing the simplicity and grace in the midst of poverty, beginning with View from Majithia House (1934). The Little Untouchable (1936), Red Clay Elephant (1938), and Ancient Story Teller (1940) are representative offerings. Moments of relief and happiness are captured in Resting, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, The Swing (1940), and The Village Group (1938)—the last sold for Rs.69,000,000 in 2006. “[T]hese little compositions are the expression of my happiness and that is why perhaps I am particularly fond of them,” she remarked later.

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Image: Amrita Sher-Gil, Woman on Charpai, 1940, oil on canvas (Credit)

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