Painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s depictions of Indian women and their daily lives have led her to be dubbed “the Indian Frida Kahlo” by members of the art world. Now, thanks to a new project, she finally has an obituary in The New York Times.
“She painted women going to the market, women at a wedding, women at home. Sometimes she showed women bonding with other women,” wrote reporter Tariro Mzezewa. “At times the works seemed to convey a sense of silent resolve. It was a rendering rarely seen in depictions of Indian women at the time, when portrayals tended to cast them as happy and obedient.”
Sher-Gil’s obituary is the latest in the paper’s “Overlooked” series, which it first unveiled on International Women’s Day in March. The series honors the women in history who “left indelible marks but were nonetheless overlooked,” its editors wrote in an introductory post. The Bollywood legend Madhubala was among the first to be recognized in the series.
Born on January 30, 1913 in Budapest, Sher-Gil was born to the Hungarian-Jewish opera singer Marie Antoinette Gottesmann and the Sikh scholar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia. Her father specialized in Persian and Sanskrit and the family would live in Budapest until they moved to the Indian city of Shimla when she was eight. It was there that the young Amrita began taking art lessons for the first time. Her talent became apparent early on and at 16 she would return to Europe to study art at both the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and later on at the École des Beaux-Arts.
But while her art garnered praise at the highest levels — her painting “Young Girls” would win a gold medal at the Paris Salon — her personal life was a troubled one, as she struggled with depression and her attempts to define her sexuality in a conservative culture and her sometimes stormy relationship with her parents. As the Times noted, her work “often reflected an introverted and troubled woman caught between her Hungarian and Indian existences.”
Sher-Gil would go on to have a deep emotional relationship with fellow artist Marie Louise Chassany and many scholars as well as members of Sher-Gil’s family would wonder if they were a romantic couple (Sher-Gil would deny the romantic aspects of the relationship when asked directly by her mother in a letter.)
The painter would later marry a cousin, Victor Egan. But Sher-Gil would struggle with loneliness, depression and the complications of two abortions for the rest of her life. Shortly before her first major art show in Lahore, where she and Egan eventually moved, she died from complications of an unknown illness in 1941, when she was just 28 years old.
In her short life, Sher-Gil produced a vast number of paintings that reflected a side of Indian life that was rarely portrayed in modern art. Many of her most significant works are housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
Among the painter’s modern-day fans is the bestselling Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, who expressed her admiration of Sher-Gil to the CBC last year. “I have always been a fan of Salvador Dali, but Amrita Sher-Gil, who was an Indian-Hungarian painter, is another favorite,” said Kaur. “She was painting Indian women, and, growing up here, I’d never seen anyone paint Indian women, so that was really incredible to see a painting of someone who looks like you. I think that has a lot of impact on you.”
While Sher-Gil struggled throughout her short life over questions about whether she defined herself as Hungarian, Indian or something in between, she did come to realize how central her Indian identity was to her work and worldview.
“I am an individualist, evolving a new technique, which, though not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit,” one biographer quotes her as saying. “With the eternal significance of form and color, I interpret India and, principally, the life of the Indian poor on the plane that transcends the plane of mere sentimental interest.”