Amrita Shergill was one of the most charismatic and promising Indian artists of the pre-colonial era. Born in Hungary in 1913, Amrita was the daughter of a Sikh father belonging to the landed gentry of Punjab and a Hungarian mother. Both her parents were artistically inclined. Father Umrao Singh Majitha was a Sanskrit scholar while the mother, Marie Antoinette, was a pianist. Amrita spent her early childhood (from 1913 to 1921) in the village of Dunaharasti in Hungry. In 1921 her family moved to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Her mixed parentage, middle-class status and her gender were some factors against which she had to struggle initially. This struggle resulted in an unprecedented assertion of an artistic self never before seen in Indian art. At this time lived and Italian sculptor in Shimla and Amrita'smother left with him and Amrita for Italy.
In Italy, Amrita enrolled at Santa Anunciata, a Roman Catholic institute where the strict discipline of the Catholic school was simply intolerable for her. The saving grace however was that she was exposed to the works of great Italian masters and this fanned her interest in painting. In 1927 she returned to Indian and began taking lessons in painting under Ervin Backlay. But Ervin'sinsistence that Amrita should copy real life models exactly as she saw them irked her and thus her painting stint under Ervin Backlay came to an end.
In 1929, at the age of 16, Amrita set sail for France to study art. She took a degree in fine arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris after having learnt painting under Prof. Lucien Simon. She also learnt to speak and write French. It was in France that she started painting seriously. ?The Torso?, one of her early paintings was a masterly study of a nude and this stood out for its cleverness of lines and bold modeling. While in Paris as a student, she wrote in a letter how she ?began to be haunted by an intense desire to return to India, feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter.? This was a remarkable statement for a 22-year old, howsoever Westernised, to make in 1933. At her age, most women would have been given to wedlock through the normal channel of an arranged marriage and many may have borne a couple of children.
Amrita completed her next painting, ?Young Girls?, and this so impressed critics and art enthusiasts alike that she was elected an associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. Amrita became the youngest ever and the only Asian to be honoured thus. A casual remark by one of her Beaux?arts tutors about her palette being more suitable for the colours and light of the east?as conveyed by her nephew?artist Vivan Sundaram?was all that it took to prompt this impressionable girl, barely out of her teens, to long to hasten ?home?.
At the end of 1934, Amrita Shergill returned to India; not yet 22, but already technically a sound painter, equipped with some of the most essential ingredients needed to make an artist. She lost no time in coming to grips with her ambition. In Paris she may have been 30 years behind the European art movement and contemporary trends, as hinted by artist-nephew Sundaram, she was certainly as many years ahead of her time in India in the mid-1930s. For it was only in the 1960s that Indian artists begin to display her kind of self-assurance and purpose.
It was certainly her firm conviction that her future artistic growth lay in her embracing the Indian scene, both its traditions of art and its everyday life that brought her to pre-Independence India. When she reached India, the dominant form of painting being practiced was the ?Indian style? as pioneered by Abanindranath Tagore and his contemporaries in Calcutta and Santiniketan. Shergill termed their works a being too ?effeminate and sentimental?. Her sense of self seemed to subvert all domestic and feminine expectations and in her taking up art as vocation she inevitable appropriated a male model of the artist?.
She began painting the poor hill people of Shimla, the fashionable summer capital of the Raj and who to her romantic and na?ve mind, embodied the spirit of India. She traveled widely in the west and south of India. The outcome was the famous trilogy of 1938??The Bride'sToilet?, ?Brahmacharis? and ?Villagers Going to the Market?. She evolved in her work a specific facial type and physiognomy. In her paintings, her female subjects took an inward and narcisstic turn and did not pander to the viewer'sgaze but remained passive towards it. She gave them large doleful eyes and vacant stares, exuding an expression of utter hopelessness. Her lanky and angular figures shrouded in homespun clothes like fragile and melancholic. ?The freshness and originality of Ajanta and Ellora, the sensuous murals of the Mattancheri Palace in Cochin and the strength of the Kushan sculpture which she saw at Mathura, began to characterise her work. She became acquainted with Indian miniatures and fell in love with the Basohli School. She even attempted to include certain elements of Rajput painting in her later works, doing so with feeling and flair. She became an outstanding artist who combined successfully her Western art education with her eastern sensibilities.
In 1938, Amrita went to Hungary and married her cousin Victor Egan to the opposition of her parents. She married purely for security reasons as she felt that she was essentially weak and needed to be looked after. But her health began to deteriorate when she returned to India in 1939. She had contracted tuberculosis. She died on December 6, 1941. Little did she know that time at her disposal was rather short and that she would not live long enough to strengthen and rejuvenate Indian art.