Masters of Indian Art: Amrita Shergil
Everybody knows who Frida Kahlo is — the great Mexican painter. But, do you know who is ‘Frida Kahlo of India’?
Yes, it is Amrita Shergil.
The most expensive woman painter of India. She, in her short three-decade long life, achieved more than most other artists did in their full quota of human life. She has left her mark in the Indian art world, one that will never fade off.
Let us take a closer look at the life and art of this amazing woman.
Life of Amrita Shergil
Amrita Shergil was born in 1913 as the daughter of a Punjabi father and Hungarian mother. She was born in Budapest, Hungary. By the age of eight her family moved to India and settled in Shimla. It was at this time that she started to create paintings. A couple of years later, in 1924 to be exact, she was sent to Italy to get formal education in art. However, she didn’t stay there for long and the same year returned to India.
Back in India, Amrita was enrolled to a convent school for further studies, only to be expelled later. At the age of 16, Amrita went to Paris to learn more about art painting. There, she was a student at the Grande Chaumiere and École des Beaux-Arts. This is where she actually got to know more about art painting. She was inspired by paintings by artists like Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin etc.
Later in her life, in 1938, Amrita Shergil married her cousin, Victor. By that time, she had already created so many paintings and won lots of recognitions. The same year, she moved to India to permanently settle there.
There started another legendary phase of her life. She painted most of her famous works during this time. Though she made many famous paintings, it was tough to sell them. During those years, she also toured South India in search of inspiration for her next painting. After the South Indian tour, she had a couple of exhibitions in Allahabad and Lahore. Both exhibitions were huge success in terms of crowd participation, but not in financial terms.
By 1940, she had become quite a celebrity. The next year, Amrita and Victor moved to Lahore. Later that year, days before the first solo exhibition at Lahore, she passed away at the age of 28, due to reasons still unknown.
Amrita Shergil’s Famous Paintings
We already saw how artists like Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne influenced Amrita Shergil. This influence was somewhat evident in most of her early works. After retuning to India, she discovered the real art in her and started to create paintings. She also found the cave paintings of Ajanta highly inspirational. During her long exploration of India, she wrote to a friend,
I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me.
During the start of 1930s, while in Paris, Amrita Shergil painted more than 60 canvases. Majority of them were portraits and self-portraits. Some of them were also landscapes and still life. Some of the popular works during that period include “The Professional Model“, “Portrait of a Young Man“, “Marie Louise“, “Young Girls” etc. After that, for a couple of years from 1933 to 1934, she produced only a handful of paintings. After these struggling years, she returned to India.
What she found in India was overwhelming for the artist in Amrita Shergil. Wherever she looked, she could find subjects for her next painting. In no time, “Group of Three Girls” was completed. In the next couple of years, the artist in Amrita Shergil grew to another level and she went on to produce works like “Beggar Woman” and “Portrait of Father“. She also produced the famous “Hill Women” and “Hill Men”. In the next few years, before death in 1941, she produced some of the best paintings in the history of Indian art.
Major Exhibitions, Recognitions
As an artist, her first award came while training at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Every year, she won the first prize for still life and portraits. “The Professional Model” is one such painting that won a prize at the École in 1931. In 1932 she painted “Young Girls”, which won the Gold Medal from the Grand Salon in 1933. In 1935, “Conversation Piece” won His Highness the Raja of Faridkot’s prize.
In the 5th annual exhibition of All India Fine Arts Society, Amrita Shergil won the prize for best portrait. She also appeared in the ‘Prominent Women of India’ list in Sunday Statesman. In 1936, her ‘Group of Three Girls’ won gold medal at Bombay Art Society’s 46th annual exhibition. In the following years, she went on to bag so many awards and recognitions at various exhibitions across the country.
Her paintings influenced artists like S.H.Raza, Arpita Singh etc. Today, her works are considered national treasures. If you want to see some of the paintings of Amrita Shergil, visit National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. ‘The Village Scene’ is the painting that made her the most expensive woman artist of India, when it was sold for Rs. 6.9 crore at an auction.
Although the likes of Gauguin and Cezanne influenced Amrita Shergil, she was not entirely under the influence of these artists. She also took inspiration from the two Tagores and created her own style of painting. According to her, “I am trying to bring a new living element into the art of India.” Later, this ‘new element’ went on to inspire people like S.H.Raza, and continues to inspire many young painters.
Now a quick question for you. Which is your favorite work of Amrita Shergil? Are there any women artists in India better than Amrita Shergil? Have your say in comments.