Amrita Sher-Gil became a legend in her life-time., not only because of her exuberant lifestyle, but also because of her outstanding painting talents. She had remarkable control over the medium, of painting and allowed her brush to glide on the canvas with a languorous sensuousness. The movement of her brush was steeped in melancholy, reflecting her own angst buried deep in her persona. Nevertheless, she often endowed her subjects with glowing warmth, largely as a result of the vivid palette. She painted the ordinary people of Indian villages. By painting women engaged in their quotidian activities in the intimate environment of the women’s quarters, she created a genre in Indian painting. From themed-30s onwards, Sher-Gil’s palette and figuration changed dramatically. She was deeply inspired by the Mughal and Pahari miniatures, just as the Ajanta and other murals, excited her imagination.
Amrita Sher-Gil was gorn at Budapest in 1913 of an Indian father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh belonging to landholding gentry and Marie Antoinette, a Hungarian mother. From 1929, she studied art in Paris at the grand Chaumiere and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1934, she returned to India and it turned out to be a momentous homecoming. The country and its people made a strong impact on her. At the same time, she discovered with a sense of wonder and joy, the ancient and medieval artistic traditions of India. In 1936, she travelled widely through India.But even before that, she commented on the colours that she experienced in Indian, not the rich voluptuous colours of the travel posters, but the luminous yellow-grey land in the winter light and the "dark-bodied, sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women…." The relocation to India changed her style of expression totally. From the European naturalism seen in her paintings done in the 1920s, she evolved the eloquent stylization in her figuration and corporation and shifted to a vibrant palette of reds, greens, rich browns. Her tragic and untimely death in 1941 cut short a genius that was yet to teach its full potential.
Yashodhara Dalmia is an art historian and an independent curator based in New Delhi. Her book Amrita Sher-Gil – A Life [Penguin Viking, 2008], which is a comprehensive account of the life of one of India’s first modern artists, received widespread international acclaim. Widely acknowledged, her book The Making of Modern Indian Art, the Progressives [Oxford University Press, 2001], is regarded as the definitive account of a seminal phase of Indian art history. She is also the editor and the co-author along with Salima Hashmi of Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan [Oxford University Press, 2007], a path-breaking comparative study of the modern art movement in the two countries. Her book Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists published by the Oxford University Press was released in January 2011.
When the National Gallery of Modern Art opened in Mumbai in December 1996, Dalmia curated the inaugural exhibition titled The Moderns which featured 200 paintings, scriptures, prints and drawings by 12 greats of modern Indian Art, including Francis Newton Souza, M F Husain and Tyeb Mehta. She has also curated the exhibition Souza in London at the British Council in New Delhi in 2004. Among several others, Dalmia curated a large show with over 200 works, Volte-Face, Souza’s Iconoclastic Vision in New Delhi in early 2010. Dalmia curated a large show of contemporary Indian artists titled Indian [Sub] Way at the Grosvenor Vadehra Gallery in London in September 2010. In January 2011, she curated the show Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision in Delhi, which consisted of unseen paintings by the masterly artist, the late Tyeb Mehta, including his magnificent last work. At present, she is involved with a project on South Asian modern and contemporary art.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) emerged as an outstanding artist in her short, experientially rich life.
The remarkable variety of subjects and styles in her work indicate the diversity and range of her
interests that touch with empathy on all aspects of human experience. Her images explore the
aesthetics of modernism even as she passionately engages with the Indian reality of her times.
Amrita Sher-Gil left behind a substancial body of work done during her short, but productive
career as an artist. The National Gallery of Modern Art has in its collection a significant part of her
oeuvre. And now, NGMA, New Delhi is happy to mount a definitive exposition, Amrita Sher-GiI:
The Passionate Quest, on the occasion of the closing of the birth centenary celebrations of this
This exhibition, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia who has written a fine biography of the artist, is
the most extensive show of Amrita Sher-Gil's works as it comprises the NGMA Collection, almost
in its entirety. The richness of her visual language and her dramatic experiments with form and
composition have been sensitively analysed by the curator. Yashodhara Dalmia has approached
the oeuvre from four different perspectives. These are described as Threshold, The Icon and
Iconolastic, Hungarian Manifestation and Indian Journey.
The complexity of Amrita Sher-Gil's personality and the brilliant versatility of her work invite
varied reactions. Viewers remark on the sensuousness of her representations, her sensitivity, her
melancholy faces and her intimate projections of a female identity. And indeed all these readings
are inescapably true.
I am confident that this exhibition will recontextualise Amrita Sher-Gil and her work in our
I wish to thank the curator Yashodhara Dalmia for her perceptive approach to Amrita Sher-GiI's art.
My thanks go to Ms. Manju Singh, Chairperson and members of the NGMA Advisory Committee
for their unstinted support. I also acknowledge the sincere efforts of the NGMA Curatorial team and
Publication team towards the successful execution of this project.
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