Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913 – 5 December 1941) was a Hungarian-Indian painter. She has been called “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century” and a “pioneer” in modern Indian art. Drawn to painting from an early age, Sher-Gil started getting formal lessons in the art, at the age of eight. She first gained recognition at the age of 19, for her oil painting titled Young Girls (1932).
Sher-Gil traveled throughout her life to various countries including Turkey, France, and India, deriving heavily from precolonial Indian art styles and its current culture. Sher-Gil is considered an important painter of 20th-century India, whose legacy stands on a level with that of the pioneers from the Bengal Renaissance. She was also an avid reader and a pianist. Sher-Gil’s paintings are among the most expensive by Indian women painters today, although few acknowledged her work when she was alive.
Early life and education
Amrita Sher-Gil was born on 30 January 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Jat aristocrat and a scholar in Sanskrit and Persian, and Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer who came from an affluent bourgeois family. Her parents first met in 1912, while Marie Antoinette was visiting Lahore. Her mother came to India as a companion of Princess Bamba Sutherland, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sher-Gil was the elder of two daughters; her younger sister was Indira Sundaram (née Sher-Gil; born in March 1914), mother of the contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram. She spent most of early childhood in Budapest. She was the niece of Indologist Ervin Baktay. Baktay noticed Sher-Gil’s artistic talents during his visit to Shimla in 1926 and was an advocate of Sher-Gil pursuing art. He guided her by critiquing her work and gave her an academic foundation to grow on. When she was a young girl she would paint the servants in her house, and get them to model for her. The memories of these models would eventually lead to her return to India.
Her family faced financial problems in Hungary. In 1921, her family moved to Summer Hill, Shimla, India, and Sher-Gil soon began learning piano and violin. By age nine she, along with her younger sister Indira, was giving concerts and acting in plays at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre at Mall Road, Shimla. Though she was already painting since the age of five, she formally started learning painting at age eight. Sher-Gil started getting formal lessons in the art by Major Whitmarsh, who was later replaced by Beven Pateman. In Shimla, Sher-Gil lived a relatively privileged lifestyle. As a child, she was expelled from her convent school for declaring herself an atheist.
In 1923, Marie came to know an Italian sculptor, who was living at Shimla at the time. In 1924, when he returned to Italy, she too moved there along with Amrita and got her enrolled at Santa Annunziata, an art school at Florence. Though Amrita didn’t stay at this school for long and returned to India in 1924, it was here that she was exposed to works of Italian masters.
At sixteen, Sher-Gil sailed to Europe with her mother to train as a painter at Paris, first at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière under Pierre Vaillent and Lucien Simon (where she met Boris Taslitzky) and later at the École des Beaux-Arts (1930–34). She drew inspiration from European painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, while working under the influence of her teacher Lucien Simon and the company of artist friends and lovers like Tazlitsky. While in Paris, she is said to have painted with a conviction and maturity rarely seen in a 16-year old.
In 1931, Sher-Gil was briefly engaged to Yusuf Ali Khan, but rumors spread that she was also having an affair with her first cousin and later husband Viktor Egan. Her letters reveal same-sex affairs.
Sher-Gil’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad. The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Some of her paintings also hang at the Lahore Museum. A postage stamp depicting her painting ‘Hill Women’ was released in 1978 by India Post, and the Amrita Shergil Marg is a road in Lutyens’ Delhi named after her. Sher-Gil was able to prove to western societies that Indians were able to make fine art. Her work is deemed to be so important to Indian culture that when it is sold in India, the Indian government has stipulated that the art must stay in the country – fewer than ten of her works have been sold globally. In 2006, her painting Village Scene sold for ₹6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi which was at the time the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India.
The Indian cultural center in Budapest is named the Amrita Sher-Gil Cultural Center. Contemporary artists in India have recreated and reinterpreted her works.
Besides remaining an inspiration to many a contemporary Indian artists, in 1993, she also became the inspiration behind the Urdu play Tumhari Amrita.
UNESCO announced 2013, the 100th anniversary of Sher-Gil’s birth, to be the international year of Amrita Sher-Gil.
Sher-Gil’s work is a key theme in the contemporary Indian novel Faking It by Amrita Chowdhury.
Aurora Zogoiby, a character in Salman Rushdie‘s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, was inspired by Sher-Gil.
Sher-Gil was sometimes known as India’s Frida Kahlo because of the “revolutionary” way she blended Western and traditional art forms.
In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary for her.
In 2018, at a Sotheby’s auction in Mumbai, Sher-Gil’s painting “The Little Girl in Blue” was auctioned for a record-breaking 18.69 crores. This painting is a portrait of Amrita’s cousin Babit, a resident of Shimla and was painted in 1934, when the subject was 8 years old.