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AMRITA SHERGIL (1913–1941)

Amrita Shergil, also written Sher-Gil, was an avant garde poet and painter. She is known for the lyrical boldness of her canvases and the bohemian colour of her life. There were many rumours and stories of her lovers during her lifetime. Khushwant Singh has described her in his 2002 memoir, Truth, Love and a Little Malice.

Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia, was a scholar and Sikh noble. He met Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Jewish Hungarian musician and opera singer of Budapest, when Antoinette visited the daughter of Maharana Ranjit Singh in the Punjab in 1911. They were married and moved to Budapest, where Amrita was born on 30 January 1913. She spent her early life in Budapest and began to paint at the age of five. She came to India in 1921 with her parents, staying in Simla and in her father’s family home in the Punjab. In 1924 her mother took her to Italy where Amrita briefly trained in art at Florence, but they returned to India that same year. In 1929 when she was sixteen the family again returned to Europe. Amrita began to study art at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. She then shifted to the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts, becoming the first Asian to study at that noted art school. At the age of twenty she was elected an associate of the Grand Salon in Paris, once again the first Asian to achieve this distinction.

In 1934 she returned to India, becoming active in the art scene and holding group and solo shows. In 1936 she was awarded a gold medal at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts exhibition. That year she travelled through Ajanta, Ellora and South India. She was especially moved by the humanism of the Ajanta cave paintings. She became engrossed in the life of the people of rural Punjab and the hills around Simla.

She captured them and their lives in a series of perfectly composed paintings which have a sense of sensuous melancholy. Her style at the time incorporated many elements of miniature art. Her trip to Ajanta and South India brought a greater fluidity to her work. She painted mainly in oils, and sometimes used pastels. Her dislike for the Bengal School is well known. In 1938 she married her cousin Dr Victor Egan and moved with him to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. In 1941 they moved to Lahore. A few moths later she became ill and died. Although the cause of her death has never been determined, it has been suggested that a failed abortion had led to fatal peritonitis. She was only 28. Subsequently her husband was taken into police custody because Britain has declared war on Hungary and he was regarded as a citizen of a hostile nation. He was later released.

Her famous paintings include ‘Siesta’ ‘Storyteller, ‘Ganesh Puja’ ‘Hillside’ and ‘Hill Scene’ and ‘Elephants Bathing in a Green Pool’. Some of her greatest work was done after her visit to south India. ‘Brahmacharis’, ‘South Indian Villagers Going to Market’, ‘Banana Sellers’ and ‘Brides’ Toilette’ are imprinted indelibly on the minds of Indian painters. These paintings established a new genre, a totally new way of using colour, far removed from the paler, lighter hues of the impressionist painters, raw pigment used by Indian folk artists. She was an extraordinary colourist.
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