With the advent of British on the Indian soil, many changes took place in our socio-cultural milieu and economic set-up. Painters, not only of Punjab, but also from all over India wallowed in a state of utter hopelessness for lack of guidance. At this transitory stage, an emerging woman painter, Amrita Shergil, came forward to show the path to the painters lost in the dried out world of art.
Amrita Shergil had an extraordinary blending of Indian and Hungarian culture in her. She was born to Sardar Umrao Singh Shergil and Lady Antoinette, a Hungarian endowed with significant artistic talent, in Budapest, in 1913.
Spending her seminal years in Europe, Amrita dabbled in paint. Her mother would tell the children Hungarian fairy-tales, which Amrita would illustrate. Lady Antoinette noticed her daughter’sembryonic talent and encouraged her to paint.
Early in 1921, the Shergil family sailed for India, to settle down in Shimla in a large house at Summer Hill. By the age of eight, Amrita had become a serious and withdrawn child, who preferred books to toys and the company of adults to that of children. Soon, she and her sister started giving concerts and acting in plays at the Gaiety Theatre, Shimla’ssnobbish cultural centre.
The drawings Amrita did between the ages of 11 and 14 are related to a growing awareness of herself. In 1929, Lady Antoinette decided to give Amrita professional training and took her to France to study art in Paris, when she was only sixteen-years old. She learnt at the best schools at Paris Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Lucien Simon taught her.
Besides, living in Paris, Amrita had the added advantage of visiting art galleries, museums and salons and to study the works of contemporary and ancient master painters in the original. The dark corners and smoky cafes of Bohemian Paris opened up their secrets to a new and thrilled Amrita, who entered them with great interest. In 1933, while still a student in Paris, Amrita wrote in a letter how she ?began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter.? This was a remarkable statement to be made by a 20-year old half-Indian woman.
Amrita Shergil’sgenius bloomed only after her return to her fatherland, India. She came here not as a foreigner. Although she was trained in Western art, she was completely aware of and had deep respect for India’sartistic traditions. Amrita came back to India in November 1934, feeling like a true Indian and with a mind to make this land her home.
In Shimla, the faces of the unhappy and poor hill people haunted her and she began painting them, as to her romantic and na?ve mind they embodied the spirit of India.
In September 1934, Amrita observed her new orientation when she wrote: ?Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realised that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet is worth more than a whole Renaissance.?
Meanwhile, Amrita went to Paris but soon returned to India at the end of the year because her excitement of being in a metropolis had died and the experience was painful. A few years later she asserted, ?Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others; India belongs only to me.?
After settling down in Shimla in early 1935, she took an important decision of interpreting ?the life of Indians, particularly the poor, pictorially.? This, she said, she would do ?with a new technique, my own technique? and ?this technique, though not technically Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit?. These words suggest that she had a clear idea of what she was to accomplish in the near future.
Her crucial years, from 1936 to 1940 were chiefly devoted to painting. She toured all over India and got acquainted with Indian art scattered all around. After her return to Shimla, she painted what has often been called her South Indian trilogy: ?The Bride’sToilet?, ?The Brahmacharis? and ?South Indian Villagers going to Market?.
In June 1938, much against her parent’swishes, Amrita left for Hungary to marry her cousin Dr Victor Egan. Amrita lived in Hungary for a year and got engrossed in painting. In an article, ?Amrita Shergil?Life and Work?, Vivan Sundaram writes, ?Amrita was a woman who knew about women and who, in herself, embodied the conflict between the two cultures?East and West.?
In June 1938, Amrita and her husband fled from Fascist-dominated Hungary and the looming threat of war, and reached Shimla. Amrita did very few paintings in 1941, in the last year of her life. Four of her most important works were in fact, were done in the first half of 1940??The Ancient Story-Teller?, ?The Swing?, ?The Bride and Woman Resting on Charpoy?. All three paintings are about women.
Amrita began to live at Saraya with her husband. Soon, in September 1941, the couple shifted to Lahore and amidst the excitement of a new environ-ment, Amrita started her work.
Here, Amrita got even more involved in putting down her love for India in a direct and simple form. But her mission with her paintings remained unaccom-plished as she died suddenly on December 5, 1941, at the young age of twenty-nine.