Review by Oiendrila Moitra
February 15, 2014


Amrita Sher-Gil

The Passionate Quest
Curated by Yasodhara Dalmia
January 31-March 2, 2014
NGMA, New Delhi
The name Amrita Sher Gill evokes a definitive amount of sensuality, power, determination, a search for self and above all a high degree of eclectic. Amrita’s retrospective in NGMA not only validate these points but also give birth to an astonishment that one feels seeing the magnificence of the huge body of hundred works
Amrita’s life story and her artistic career have been overfly discussed and talked about. Being of mixed origin, having a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father; and growing up in two distinctly different places, Europe and India, Austria have been suffering from a dilemma of accepting and acceptance, adopting and adopted. Her formalistic learning of painting in Ecolè-de-Beaux in Paris and then coming across the modern masters’ paintings of Europe gave her primary works a dialogue of Occidentalism, emerging both the technicalities and the casualness of pre- modern and modern European art. As K.G.Subramanyam had pointed out once’ “….still preponderantly academic they show a more definite effort on her part to strike Post-Impressionist affiliations.” But Amrita’s canvases had the bright colors of the Indian art rather than the grey studios of the west. Her quest for search for self-identity and to do something strikingly different made her to move to India, where she really belonged to. She came back to Hungary one more time after some practicing years in India. She had already absorbed the Indian flavor and come to Hungary and working there again was a tough job for her. As she apprehended, the European art scene during that time belonged primarily to Picasso’s and Braque’s where as in India she was one of the foremost artist. However, her works during this phase show again the academics of European art but was more contentive. Through normal depiction of the society and humanies, Amrita tried to express a dialogue, a social commentary, a trait she got while she was working in India. Also she grew as a painter herself and was moving onto the last and most distinctive phase of her career that she continued till her demise in India.
The learned and observative Amrita was for Western art rather than Indian. Coming to India she looked deep into the landscape, the people and more importantly the art of the subcontinent. She got confused. The dilemma aroused. The socio-cultural scenario of the colonial India was so much different than the west, that Amrita got stranded within the pictorial depiction of the two worlds. Her primary paintings after coming to India had more of an idealist point of view, that she learned studying Gauguin and Modigliani, through their techniques of representing the local or folk cultures. The worker of these times were some successful, some unsuccessful combos of aboriginal Western art of Gauguin, Ajanta’s representation and European realism.
Seeing more of Indian art, the miniatures mainly, Amrita herself came to a transitory phase, where, retaining her humanistic approach, she moved more towards representing the characters rather than the personas. The aura, characteristics and nature in which humanism have been depicted in Ajanta or the miniatures influenced Amrita considerably to create more naturalistic paintings of Indian sentiment. They were paintings much different from her contemporaries who, mostly with their nude imitation of the classical art, created an unsaid stories for the modern times. Amrita, if one can so, was mostly successful among her contemporaries in representing Indian modern art as a proper continuation of its pre-colonial phase.
Amrita’s final phase after coming back from Hungary was a more mature and successful one. Understanding the miniatures and frescoes, observing the people and the soil of the country, amrita began a new phase in her works. Figure merged into the whole picture, colors became solid and bright, and each having its own identity, activities became real and natural. Scenes from the outdoor became livelier, scenes from the indoor became more homely. It was as if Amrita had found herself as a part of the culture, identified her own stand within the historicity of nation. She knew what to show and what to hide. It was a style having all the traits of her past observations and learning, still that was distinctly different from anything in the tradition of Modern art till then. As she was painting her last painting that remained unfinished, one can definitely see, as a curator of the show Yasundhara Dalmia points out, a new and different phase of art that was distinctly different from anything she had drawn before. Space had the tendency to become abstract, colors creating natural spaces, the outlook towards the view of the world maturing and finally producing something of its own style. Amrita’s journey left unfinished, but her effect on modern Indian art as a revolutionary feminine personè remained unquestioned even after her centenary celebrations.
NGMA had done a great job of curating such a massive collection of Amrita Sher Gill’s work. The curator Yasundhara Dalmia has been par excellence. The two phases of Amrita’s career has been displayed on two different color backgrounds. Amrita’s whole journey as an artist can be viewed schematically through the organized display of her paintings. Putting up a huge retrospective of such an artist’s works is a Herculean task in itself and both the museum as well as the curator have fulfilled the need. It was the closing ceremony of one yearlong celebrations of Amrita’s birth centenary and the viewers feel contemplative after seeing a wonderful final note.