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Flower Child of Indian Modernism: Amrita Sher-Gil

A canvas, some colors and unwavering confidence is what inspires this article.

All the way from the low-key blues and yellows which dominated oil painting in Paris to the dramatic reds and maroons which were the highlight of the Indian canvasses, one of our favorite artists, Amrita Sher-Gil is the epitome of strong women who took over the world.

self-portrait of amrita sher-gil on oil on canvas

Self-Portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, a Hungarian-Indian painter, born in Budapest was one of the most recognized and loved painters, right from the early age of 19. She was known not only for the maturity of her work but also for the element of youth she added to it. With her level of talent, she united the technique from her art school, École des Beaux-Arts in Paris with the powerful Indian ideals of women and society. Her avant-garde style is still one of the boldest and charismatic to ever exist. Her art school in Paris said that she was too young to be accepted but after having one look at her pieces, even the great École des Beaux-Arts couldn’t refuse to nurture a talent like Sher-Gil.

She has always been the queen of modern art and we couldn’t help but stumble upon her story filled with chapters of her dauntless nature, spontaneous attitude and brilliant mind.

girl in mauve by amrita sher-gil on oil on canvas

Girl in Mauve by Amrita Sher-Gil

Before moving to India, when she was learning to paint in Paris where her paintings were heavily influenced by European techniques, she attempted multiple portraits. One of her significant painting is “Girl in Mauve” which is an oil on canvas with a girl flaunting the signature Paris beret and a huge beady necklace. The entire painting has pale hues except for the red lipstick and blushing cheeks. Her expression is vacant but that is balanced out perfectly by the chaotic showdown of shades of mauve in the background. Amrita painted her women in a way nobody could ever. She replaced delicate with dynamic and wasn’t afraid to make a statement.

She was called the most expensive woman artist but that's the exact reason why she rejected the award she was to receive in Shimla because they called her the “woman” artist. An artist is an artist, why do we need to make it sound like it is uncommon for women to paint. Sher-Gil’s paintings have been way ahead of their time and cannot be bound to these categories. They give freedom and adventure a new definition.

She was a truly brilliant woman with the vision of a pure genius.

a group of three girls on oil on canvas by amrita sher-gil

A Group of Three Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil

After spending her time in Paris she took a huge step towards her art career. “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque. India belongs only to me.” A quote that still gives us goosebumps. She moved to Shimla and started her phenomenal journey to becoming a pioneer in modern art in India. As soon as she stepped foot on Indian soil, her painting underwent a change not only in subject but also technique. A classical example would be her 1935 piece, “Group of Three Girls” which screams Indian. Indian women, Indian shades, Indian technique and Indian spirit. It has all the color we never witnessed in her earlier work. The use of vivid reds and greens and the brown background made this painting worthy of a gold medal from the Bombay Art Society. Something so minimalist and yet so sophisticated about this painting that it instantly catches your eye.

Young Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil on Oil on Canvas

Young Girls by Amrita Sher-Gil

If you compare this to another painting she made when she was in the middle of her art education called “Young Girls” in 1932, it is equally magnificent looking but lacks the Indian-ness we crave. It features her sister Indira Sher-Gil who is formally dressed in a dark green shade. The entire painting has a brown background and the only light colored elements in this painting are the elegant dress the guest of Indira is wearing and her very long blonde hair. Sher-Gil’s Indian paintings have white only used for the Brahmachari's dhoti or the fine threads they wear around their body as in her 1940 piece titled “Brahmachari”. Her work is highly captivating and suave.

Koonchi salutes this bold personality who not only remembered her Indian roots but also paved a path for all the women who seek a career in art. Fierce and forthright, her art spoke more to the heart than to the mind. It struck a chord no other artist was capable of doing. She taught our generation to be ourselves which is extremely evident in her raw and rebellious style. She also taught us feminism even before feminism was a thing. She proved that feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.It takes dedication, patience and imagination to become one of the most celebrated artists in Modern Indian Art.


By Manasi Telang


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