Amrita Sher GillAmrita Sher Gill

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Born in 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, Amrita Sher Gill was the first important woman artist to emerge out of India in the 1930s. In her brief life span of 29 years, she led the modern Indian art movement, which was then taken ahead by the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. 

A child of a Punjabi landlord father Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia and a Hungarian musician mother, Antoinette, both loyalists to the British Raj, Amrita had to struggle with the biases that her mixed parentage, her middle class background and her gender raised throughout her brief artistic career. 

Sher Gill received her early art training in Florence. Expelled from the art school a year later for drawing women in the nude, she moved with her family to Paris, where she worked under Pierre Vaillant and then Professor Lucien Simon at Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts. She studied there for three years and her painting; 'Young Girls' was awarded the Picture of the Year, making her the youngest person ever to receive this honor. Sher Gill was also made Associate of the Grand Salon, the first Indian to achieve this distinction. Her earlier works are heavily influenced by the European style of painting, especially by the post-Impressionists. 

Yet by the 30s, Sher Gill was convinced of the need to come back to India to her roots. She returned home in 1934. She once said, "As soon as I put my foot on Indian soil my painting underwent a change not only in subject and spirit, but also in technical expression. It became more fundamentally Indian." In her search for the quintessential 'Indian' style of painting, she came across the Santiniketan School of painting, pioneered by Abanindranath Tagore. She however dismissed their work as being too 'effeminate and sentimental'. She developed her own style that was a mix of the western and oriental art styles, with the themes being predominantly women oriented and feminist. "I realized my artistic mission was not only to paint but to interpret the life of Indians and particularly that of the poor Indians, pictorially, to paint the silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict the angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness, to reproduce on canvas the impression their sad eyes created on me," she said. 

Sher Gill's women, often drawn in their own private spaces, were not necessarily beautiful ladies from affluent families. Rather, they came from rural communities and villages, from the middle, and lower middle class families. She is considered the single biggest role model for post-independence women artists, in search of their own roots and identity. 

'Landscape,' Sher Gill's first work after she returned to India, depicts a view of the fields from her ancestral home in Amritsar. Sold by Sotheby's a few years ago, it is a rare landscape by the artist who mostly worked with figurative images. Her chosen medium of painting was oil, and her style was reminiscent of the post-impressionists artists. She picked up structural elements from the miniature and mural traditions of Indian art. Sher Gill often painted rustic villagers, whom she first interacted with during her stay in Shimla. 

Her most prolific period happened to be between 1935 and 1939, when she made some of her famous paintings including 'Siesta', 'The Story Teller', 'Ganesh Puja', 'Hillside' and 'Hill Scene'. Her most celebrated paintings are those depicting women in their private worlds such as 1938 trilogy, 'The Bride's Toilet', 'Brahmacharis' and 'Villagers going to Market'. 

Referred to by author Salman Rushdie as the "greatest woman painter", her paintings are considered a national heritage. Tragically, her painting career only spans nine years. Amrita Sher Gill died in 1941 at the age of 29 in Lahore.

Artworks

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