Amrita Shergil

Amrita Shergil [ 30 January 1913- 5 December 1941] was a Hungarian born painter considered to be ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’ and a pioneer in Modern Indian Art. She was one of the most famous female artists to have lived in India.

She was a woman who clearly lived by her rules and followed her passion throughout her life. A peek into her life reveals that she was a free-spirited woman who was far ahead of the times she lived in. Though she did not live for too long, she left a legacy that will keep her alive forever.  

Born in Hungary to an Indian father and a Hungarian -Jewish mother, Amrita was the elder daughter of her parents. She spent most of her early childhood in Budapest but had to move with her family to Simla in 1921 because of certain financial issues. It was in Simla that her artistic talent was discovered by her uncle Ervin Baktay on one of his visits and he encouraged her to pursue art. Though she started painting at the age of five, formally she started learning painting at the age of eight. As a young girl, she would paint the servants in her house by getting them to model for her. The memory of these models was to stay with her for a long time and would make her come to India later in life. 

From a young age, it was evident that this girl was going to be unconventional in many ways. The first sign came when she was expelled from her convent school in Simla for having declared herself as an atheist.

When Amrita was about eleven, her mother decided to move to Italy and decided to take Amrita with her and got her enrolled in an art school in Florence. Though it was a short stay, it exposed the young girl to the works of several Italian Masters. Then when she was 16, she went with her mother to train as a painter in Paris. While there she got inspired by several well -known painters and spent a lot of time with her artist friends which included lovers like Boris Tazilitsky. Even as a 16-year-old, she is believed to have painted with a conviction and maturity rarely seen in someone that age. At the age of 19, she gained recognition for her oil painting titled ‘Young Girls’. ‘Young Girls’ won her many accolades including a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. She was the youngest member ever and was the only Asian to have received this recognition.

Young Girls, 1932, oil on canvas, 133×164 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Her works during this time included a number of self-portraits, nude studies, portraits of friends and fellow students and also some of her life in Paris. By 1933 she was filled with an intense longing to go back to India. One of her professors remarked that she was not in her element in the West and her artistic personality needed the atmosphere of the East to emerge to its full extent.

She came back to India in 1934 and in 1935 met the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge who was working with The Calcutta Statesman at that time and had a brief affair with him. Once he left, she went on a quest to discover her Indian roots which led her to discover the traditions of Indian art. She made a conscious attempt to return to Classical Indian Art. This continued till her death. She was greatly influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta. She also travelled to the South of India during this time, which led to her producing her South Indian trilogy of paintings.

Amrita was an unconventional woman who did not like following stereotypes. The bindings or restrictions of society were not for her. She followed her heart and did things that she wanted to. She painted because she wanted to and she did it where she wanted to. In her personal life as well, she did the same thing. She had her share of affairs and alliances while in Europe and then later on in India as well. Though she was living in times where these kind of things were unheard of and totally unacceptable, she didn’t let that bother her. She defied all societal rules and norms. She is known for her affairs with both men and women. In 1931 while she was briefly engaged to one Yusuf Ali Khan, it was rumoured that she was having an affair with her first cousin Victor Egan who was later to become her husband. Some of her letters also reveal same-sex affairs. She had a mind of her own. Though she belonged to a family which was pro- British she was a sympathizer of the Congress.

She eventually got married to Victor Egan when she was 25. He was a doctor by profession and had helped her with two abortion before they got married. After living in India for a few years in 1941, the couple moved to Lahore, where she continued to follow her passion.

Amrita had a fantastic sense of colour and was passionate about her Indian subjects.

It took her a while to discover her artistic mission, but once she found it, she followed it relentlessly. According to her, her mission was to express the life of Indian people through her canvas as she felt that India belonged to her. 

Her journey as a painter had two distinct phases the European phase and the Indian phase. But it was the Indian phase with which she identified and related to, and it was able to bring out the best in her. In terms of its impact on the Indian Art, Amrita’s work is comparable to that of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy. Her art was greatly influenced by the works of the two Tagores, Rabindranath and Abindranath, the pioneers of the Bengal School of Painting. Some of her works include ‘Village Scene’, ‘In the Ladies Enclosure’, ‘Tahitian’, ‘Red Brick house’, ‘Hill Scene’ and the South Indian Trilogy, ‘Bride’s Toilet’, Brahmacharis’ and ‘South Indian Villagers Going to Market’.

Other than being a gifted painter, Amrita was also an avid reader and a pianist. Her last work on which she was working before her death in 1941 was left unfinished by her. In fact, she fell ill just days before the opening of her major solo show in Lahore. She was only 28 when she died. Even in her death, she kept the enigma around her alive. The reason for her death could never be found. Her mother accused victor her doctor husband of having murdered her. A failed abortion has also been suggested as a possible cause for her death.

Her paintings are among the most expensive by Indian women painters though not many people acknowledged her work when she was alive. Her art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh. Her depiction of the plight of Indian women has made her art a beacon for women both in India and abroad. Her works have been declared as National Art Treasures by the Government of India.

The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi has many of the self-portraits. Some of her paintings can also be found at the Lahore Museum.

A postage stamp with her painting ‘hill women was released India post in 1978, and Amrita Shergil Marg is a road in Lutyens Delhi. Even the Indian cultural centre in Budapest is named after her.

She is an inspiration to many contemporary Indian artists, and in 1993 she also became an inspiration behind the Urdu play ‘Tumhari Amrita.’

UNESCO announced 2013 the 100th anniversary of her birth to be the international year of Amrita Shergil. In 2016 Google celebrated her birthday with a Google doodle. In 2018 the New York Times published a belated obituary for her. The same year one of her paintings’ the little girl in blue’ was auctioned for a whopping 18.69 crores at a Sotheby’s auction in Mumbai.

Amrita Shergil, a woman with a mind of her own who has inspired several female artists all over the world.

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1 Comment
  • Preeti Singh
    September 29, 2020

    I followed Amrita Shergil’s style of painting. They were always straight lines and dull colours. I found her painting sad faces too. She had such a colourful life but according to me, it was not depicted in her paintings.
    I stayed in the house where she stayed in Simla. It was turned into a guest house. I haven’t been to Simla in the last 6 years so do not know in what state it is now. There were many of her paintings on the walls.