Amrita Sher-Gil has sometimes been called “India’s Frida Kahlo,” and indeed their passionate, groundbreaking lives were similar in many ways. Sher-gil, who was the daughter of an aristocratic Punjabi Sikh father and a bourgeois Hungarian-Jewish mother, studied painting in Europe and participated in Paris’ sexually liberal society in the early 1930s, but found her true artistic calling in India, where she remains one of India’s most famous female painters. At a time when Indian art was not widely known internationally, Sher-Gil sought to act as an “interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and the sad” for domestic and international audiences. The Indian government has declared her works National Art Treasures, and in 2006 her painting Village Scene sold at auction for the highest amount paid up until then for a painting in India. Today, her self-portraits are numbers seven, ten, and eleven among the most expensive Indian paintings.
Sher-Gil was born in 1913 and her family moved from Hungary to Shimla, India, when she was eight years old. In Shimla, she began formally learning painting, performing public piano and violin concerts, and acting in plays. At age sixteen, she went to Paris to train as a painter, first at the Grande Chaumiere art institute and then for three years at the École de Beaux-Arts, where she studied works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Sher-Gil focused on self-portraits, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, each year winning the school’s prize for portraits and still lifes. Breaking with the then-common European themes of glamorized Parisian life, Sher-gil preferred to capture the “sordid underside” of this gilded society. In 1932, she painted Young Girls, a painting that led her to be appointed the next year as the youngest ever—and only Asian ever—Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris.
Self-portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil (1933)
Sher-Gil used art to explore her dual “European” and “Indian” identity, and in her personal life she alternated between wearing Western fashions and Indian saris. Additionally, she took advantage of Paris’ Bohemian culture to explore her sexuality, carrying out affairs with both men and women. While at the École de Beaux-Arts, a rumor started that she was in a relationship with her best friend and roommate Marie Louise Chassany. Sher-Gil wrote to her mother denying the relationship, but added, “though I would have something with a female when the opportunity arises.” This opportunity came quickly: Sher-gil started a sexual fling with a Hungarian pianist named Edith Lang, who was six years her senior. Moreover, Sher-Gil may have lied to her mother: when later she found out that her parents had burned the letters she kept from Lang and Chassany, she chastised them for destroying what she characterized as “old love letters.” Sher-gil’s nephew Vivan Sundaram has characterized her painting Two Girls as “a painting of the physical and emotional longing of two women for one another” (that is simultaneously also about the conflict between dark and light, East and West), indicating that fluid sexuality was a theme in Sher-gil’s life that made its way into her art.
Two Girls (1939)
In 1934, Sher-gil returned to India, feeling “that there lay [her] destiny as a painter.” She spent the next few years traveling across India, incorporating influences by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting as well as cave paintings at Ajanta in an attempt to create her own painting style inspired by Indian classical art. Rejecting the styles and color of European art, she wrote to a friend: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque. India belongs only to me.” She became obsessed with painting the life and culture of rural India’s poor, and many of her works focused on the boredom, isolation, and other emotions of women living on feudal estates. She began to achieve recognition throughout India beginning in 1936, but financial success eluded her and she struggled to sell her paintings.
Sher-gil died suddenly in 1941 at the young age of 28, so most of her legacy has been posthumous. This legacy is twofold: first, she stands as an example of a sexually free woman in the 20th century who boldly ignored social taboos to pursue affairs on her own terms (including possibly with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru), and second, her work stands as one of the foundational blocks of modern Indian art. Her distinctive style and opinions on the direction of art in India continue to inspire Indian artists today.