Friday, 31 March 2017

The Fantastic Growth Of Amrita Sher-Gil

We have already inspected 'Iqbal At Close Range' and witnessed 'The Artistic Youth Of Amrita Sher-Gil'; let us now find out why Amrita became more defiant as a person and more expressive as an artist.

A communist wolf in British clothing

"The best thing that happened to me in my Statesman days was meeting Amrita Sher-Gil." —Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge

In 1937, Amrita met a handsome British journalist, Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990). He was a communist sympathiser, a British soldier and a spy. As is usually the case with journalists and diplomats, Thomas worked undercover as an editor for the Statesman newspaper in Calcutta (the capital of the British East India Company until 1911, after which New Delhi became the new power-centre).

Thomas' father, H.T. Muggeridge, was an active member of the socialist Fabian Society. Notable members of the society were George Bernard Shaw, some British Prime Ministers and many Parliamentarians. Hence, seventeen wealthy financiers leftovers of the exploitive monopolistic British East India Company re-grouped to push their elitist agenda through the Fabian Society.

By 1946, the Fabian Society was 8,400 strong with 80 chapters. Among the members were Bertrand Russell, Pandit Motilal Nehru (father of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharial Nehru, and leader of the Independence movement who founded the Swaraj, or 'self-rule' Party), and Ramsey McDonald (Prime Minister of England in 1924, 1929-35). Nearly half of Labour Party representatives and its leaders in the House of Commons were Fabians. Their original coats of arms depicted a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.
Fabian Society's logo
Deceptive 'isms' and labels

The Fabian Society had another very important member: Annie Besant. In broad daylight socialists came from England to influence Raj-era Indians. Annie was an active recruiter for Russian satanist and theosophist Madame Blavatsky. The Madame was a student of Anton Mesmer (a Freemason) who taught her hypnotism. Gandhi, a Theosohist, promoted anti-British sentiments. Hitler was a Theosophist who dabbled in the occult to gain political and technological powers via the Thule Society and the Vril secret group of the top Nazis.

Annie was quick to wrap Muhammad Ali Jinnah and others around her finger and had them all join her Home Rule League. When they went about promoting nationalism and patriotism ("...the last refuge of the scoundrel"), the whole idea appeared not imported from England or Russia but rather home-cooked in India.
Theospohical Society logo

Briefly, conditions were created to promote hatred for the British so that breakup of the Empire could easily be achieved through international socialism (communism) and national socialism (Nazism). The world was being prepared by breaking up empires into more manageable groups for the secret elites to create a totally controlled environment.

With a fading monarchy at home, some Indians believed in distant democracy and capitalism, others looked up to nearby communism. Truly, England had bewitched India with her Houses of Commons and Lords that protected an unwritten constitution. All well-dressed Englishmen seemed blameless when they let poor Indians die for their unelected monarch's divine right of kingsThe blind remained oblivious of the divisive power of all 'isms' and labels, and the deaf sided with this or that party only to generate heated discussions.

Of love and lovers
“All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.” ― Mae West
Whether male or female, Amrita liked to paint her lovers. She did a portrait of Muggeridge and revealed the reason for not painting Nehru to Iqbal Singh (who wrote her biography 43 years after her death): "Because he is too good looking".

Thomas Muggeridge would later confide in novelist and journalist Khuswant Singh: "She had lots of lovers".


When Khuswant said, "I knew at least a dozen in Lahore who claimed to have bedded her", Thomas exclaimed, "For sure! She had quite an appetite for sex. I should know."

Sir Muhammad Iqbal did not possess the looks of a medieval knight covered in shining armour but mentally he was very well-endowed, hence, Amrita only photographed him in Paris in 1933.

The 'wet rag' story
"Simla is an authentic English production; designed by sahibs for sahibs—without any reference to any other consideration—not even Maharajas." —Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge
Muggeridge ran into Amrita somewhere in Calcutta or Delhi, where she was exhibiting her work. They would soon become entangled. Amrita invited Muggeridge over at her parents' home in Summer Hill (Simla) where he stayed for a week. To him Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia was an 'attractive father' and fiery Marie Antoinette a 'vulgar red-haired' Hungarian. The parents were acutely aware of the physical cravings of talented Amrita.


The British had already politically neutralised rebellious Umrao and Marie had twice had extra-marital fun; only one insult remained: defiling the daughter at home through an agent 'at Her Majesty's Secret Service'.
Malcolm Muggeridge, 1929

Spies are trained to extract information without arousing the suspicion of their targets. Amrita shot herself in the foot by blabbering to 
Muggeridge all about her affairs and abortions.

Although he was in the prime of his youth, he explained how it ended:
"I was no match for the Indo-Hungarian lass nearly ten years younger. At the end of the week, I was thoroughly exhausted, like a wet rag which has been put through a wringer. She came to see me off at the Summer Hill railway station. As she waved goodbye to me when my rail-car began to move, she had a triumphant smile on her face."
Vulnerable in many ways, Amrita later confessed to Indira how she compared his physical qualities with those of her French female lover Marie Louise Chasseny. Had Amrita been trained by Umrao, India might have conquered tiny 'Great' Britain through Muggeridge.

Malcolm Muggeridge left the moment he was offered a better job in England at the British intelligence (MI6). He reached the rank of a major during World War Two. Later in life he became a moral and religious campaigner. This again might have been a cover because his own niece, Sally Muggeridge, accused 'the pouncer' of being a 'serial groper'.

A kick in society's groin

In order to acquire a growing and lasting respect in society, it is a good thing, if you possess great talent, to give, early in your youth, a very hard kick to the right shin of the society that you love. After that, be a snob.

—Salvador Dali

Amrita returned a prize given her by the Simla Fine Art Society 
because she thought the Society 'rejected her best work and gave the award for an inferior painting'. This caused a commotion in the world of art.

Back to being herself, she experimented by displaying contradictory and embarrassing attitudes when in westernised Indian company. F
or the sake of progressing further she tolerated the elites whom she found 'too conservative and respectful towards the British colonialists'.

Day and 'knight'

Interestingly, Amrita noted that 'the Oxford and Cambridge types' who joined the civil service appeared 'dull, uninteresting and scandal-mongering'. Sensibly she surrounded herself with intelligent friends who understood art and literature.

Strangely she found Hindus too conservative and Muslims accepting of her licentious behaviour. Since Sir Muhammad Iqbal was a 'Cambridge-type' Muslim lawyer and a poet, one wonders what status he had in her universe.

In old English and German, knight means: 'boy, servant, bondsman and vassal'. The title of 'sir' means: 'service to the monarch or as a fighter for a lord, with payment in the form of land holdings'. If Umrao Singh knew the truth of the matter, did Amrita know it too? Did she address Iqbal as sir, mister or just Iqbal?

The Bengal School 

Amrita's high education in art made her contemptuous towards artists of the Bengal school, whom she compared to the ancient 'Ajanta cave-painters'.


Although she appreciated Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's painting style she unloaded a mouthful while describing him: "His eminence is due to the surrounding flatness of the country".

Was Amrita aware that the Tagore family were outcast Pirili Brahmins and Dwarkendranath Tagore (Rabindranath's grandfather) unloaded ships full of opium in China to help British 'traders' turn it into a nation of addicts?


Tagore versus Iqbal

When the Jallianawala Bagh Massacre of Amritsar happened in 1919, sensibly Sir Rabindranath Tagore atoned for his Bengali ancestors' sins by renouncing his knighthood through a letter written to Lord Chelmsford, the viceroy of India:
"The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings."
By sharp contrast Allama Iqbal, who lived close to Amritsar, retained his knighthood. Tagore was knighted in 1915, four years before the Amritsar massacre; Iqbal received his honour in 1923, four years after the event. How was self-taught Tagore able to soar like an eagle in far-off Bengal leaving Dr Iqbal to run with the Indian hares and hunt with the British lion?

A head-on collision with the Nizam
My nervous system is very much weakened – nothing but painting in oil can keep me going. —Paul Cezanne
When Amrita visited the Nizam of Hyderabad she noticed his admirers outdoing one another in heaping praises on his art collection and fine taste.

Briefly, the rich 223,000 Km² State of Hyderabad (one out of 566) was roughly the size of England. It was the sole global supplier of diamonds during the British colonial era and its ruler, the Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, was the richest Indian Prince. He held the titles of 'His Exalted Highness' and 'Faithful Ally of the British Crown' and received a 21-gun salute.

The Nizam paid for the airplanes used by the Royal Air Force #110 Squadron during World War One and possessed $34 billion of wealth that put him on Time magazine's cover for the February 22, 1937 issue. He used the 185-carat Jacob Diamond as a paperweight.

Unfazed by glitter, Amrita expressed horror at seeing the Nizam's multi-million Rupees worth of 'junk' collection. When asked what she thought of his art collection, she shocked everyone present by counter-questioning him:

"How on earth can anybody with any taste buy Leighton, Bouguereau and Watts when there were Cézannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins in the market?"

Appearing outwardly calm but inwardly outraged, the Nizam refused to buy Amrita's two cubist paintings and which made her more furious.

Was Amrita aware that the Nizam's ancestor, Nizam Ali (alias Fateh Jung), had conspired with the British to bring down Tipu Sultan? Tipu preferred French imperialism, looked up to Napoleon Bonaparte and the Ottomon Empire, and militarily opposed the British for thirty-three long years. When the British murdered this 'Lion of Mysore' and annexed his kingdom they shared it with the 'traitor' Nizam.

Umrao Singh's blood boiled living under British rule and it is fair to say it circulated with the same temperature within Amrita's body.

At loggerheads with Marie

When Marie showed signs of mental instability, mistreated servants and lied, Amrita scolded her. A ferocious mind, a sharp tongue, unashamed openness about her behaviour, and an insistence on her right to behave as she pleased, showed in Amrita's correspondence with her father:
"She charges us indiscriminately with every vice, criminal ingratitude being the least of them, of filth, sloth and abnormal sexual manias."
Caught between a passive conventional father and an increasingly deranged mother, Amrita embraced artistic outspokenness and adored what was beautiful around her. In a letter to her sister Indira, she mentioned the frescoes of Cochin influencing her 'as deeply as Breughel and Renoir did'.

A few months before her sudden death, Amrita wrote candidly to her sister mentioning she had 'passed through a nervous crisis, felt impotent, dissatisfied, and unable to weep because elemental forces in life were disrupting the equilibrium, and chaos, darkness, wars, earthquakes, floods, all were indefinably interconnected'.

Clearly, Amrita felt overwhelmed by life and the turbulent era she lived in. Even her sister's handwriting shocked her: "You must make an effort to render it legible".


Society and the 'white' press


"I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is." Jean-Michel Basquiat (Haitian/Puerto Rican American painter who died aged 27)

Amrita discovered her Indian spirit in the true colours of the land. By 1936 things began to change. The Indian press finally saw the genius in Amrita but not without feeling repulsed by her 'ugly subjects'. The 'white' press saw her darker subjects on canvas as unwashed and unattractive.


Amrita refused to surrender her strong brown mind to self-hating Indians. Through an article Amrita counter-attacked the 'cheap tricks' used by the critics to accuse her of showing only the 'sunny side' of Indian life.

The same year she held a successful exhibition at Bombay where the press thought she painted too brightly. Amrita disagreed because she felt she 'only painted that way if the subject demanded it'.

The accusation that her work was 'inspired by gloomy poor villagers' was countered with great truthfulness: "Because they have sincerity, nobility and dignity".

In 1937 she won a gold medal ('Best Work') for her 'Three Girls' painting at the Bombay art Society's art exhibition. More admirers saw the flame of genius in her. 
She explored southern India's Ajanta caves and also experiment more liberally after seeing the miniature Mughal, Pahari and Rajasthani medieval paintings. What she found impressive were 'the earth, rich vegetation, coconut trees, bananas, palm trees, tiny bamboo huts, red clay hamlets, and everyone wearing white'.

During the trip she was overjoyed 'not seeing a single European' or any 'trace of European civilisation'. To her the indigenous people were suddenly 'extra-ordinarily beautiful in their bodice and a dhoti, in the way they tied their hair and the all-white clothing'.

By 1937 Amrita's exhibition at Allahabad had brought greater fame but still no fortune. She declined an offer to write a book on modern Indian art as she correctly sensed: "If I did, the art critics would all set on me like a pack of hyenas and tear me to bits."
The Majithias (Marie, Amrita, Indira, Umrao)
Life in Lahore


On 21st November 1937, Amrita opened an exhibition in Lahore and received more raving reviews. The show was extended for a few days because people actually came to see the beautiful sharp-minded Hungarian-Indian painter in full glory. In the end, some commissioned work came by which she hated doing.

While in Lahore, Amrita learnt of having received a 'best work' award at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Exhibition held in Delhi. She disliked her new label, 'lady artist', as it smacked of 'concession due to the feebler sex.'


In 1938 Amrita left for Saraya where she spent the winter surrounded by those she had begun to love: the poor of the land.

Escape from India

"I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque; India belongs only to me". —Amrita Sher-Gil
Amrita's parents wished her to marry Karl Khandalavala. When she revealed Victor was the man for her they reacted with hostility. The mother wanted her to marry into moneyed high society and the father opposed Amrita because 'marrying a blood relation was not accepted in India'.

Amrita knew there were plenty of Indian men desirous of marrying her but was petrified of sacrificing art at the altar of being both a picture-perfect wife and a mother. Because her Hungarian fiancé seemed to respect and understand her views, she always dreamt of marrying the childhood love and first cousin. She also feared she was not cut out for marriage and lacked the quality of becoming an 'ideal wife'.

Victor was studying medicine 
in Hungary. Amrita made it clear to him that they would settle in India after marrying because she 'could not paint in Europe but only could in India'.

After visiting Simla and Bombay, determined Amrita set sail for Hungary on June 29th, 1938. Only twenty-five and wishing to be independent yet dependant on Victor's income, she married him against her parent's wishes. 
Her parents, wishing to get to the bottom of the matter, found in her room a collection of revealing correspondence. She wrote to them:

"I must admit that it was a bit of a shock to hear that all my letters are being perused and consigned to the flames! I merely hope that the letters of Marie Louise, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jawaharlal Nehru, Edith and Karl have been spared. I had left them behind not because I thought them dangerous witnesses of my evil past but because I didn't wish to increase my already heavy luggage. However, now I suppose I have to resign myself to a bleak old age unrelieved by the entertainment that the perusal of old love letters would have afforded it."

Third unwanted pregnancy
"I can resist everything except temptation." —Oscar Wilde
Two abortions should have been enough but Amrita remained incurable. While in Simla, she had an affair with a young and handsome Englishman, Walter Collins.

En route to Hungary she found she was pregnant and had the ship's doctor attempt an unsuccessful abortion. When they docked at Naples, Amrita found Victor waiting. They continued to Genoa by ship and onward to Budapest by train. Amrita kept her secret.

In July 1938, the couple stayed with Victor's mother. The few years they planned to spend in Hungary would allow Victor to finish his medical studies and on-the-job training.

There was political turmoil in Hungary and Czechoslovakia due to the Nazi presence at the borders. 
Then suddenly Victor, who was a member of the Army Reserves, was called to duty. Victor's uncle, a government official, warned the couple about the expected war and begged them to leave immediately for India.

By now Amrita was beginning to haemorrhage, a large bloody clot oozed out and which Victor sent to the laboratory for examination. Even after learning that it was an unborn foetus, his affection for Amrita did not diminish.


Marriage with Victor Egan
“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Back in Lahore, Amrita's family friend Dr Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal breathed his last on 21 April 1938.

Victor was able to leave his regiment, return to Budapest and marry Amrita in a simple civil ceremony on July 16th 1938. Amrita's will had prevailed in this battle with her parents; their blessings would come later.


The marriage required Amrita to surrender the British Indian Passport and acquire a Hungarian one. Victor's uncle, Nandor Menet, arranged for Victor to take a long leave without pay and made arrangements for the penniless couple to leave Hungary.

Back to the far pavilions
Allama Iqbal (c.1930s)
"God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them." Franz Kafka
Amrita being an unknown artist in Hungary failed to sell any paintings. Victor's pay was barely enough and they had no savings.

World War Two was just around the corner. In June 1938 Amrita and Victor escaped from Fascist dominated Hungary. To her, Fascism mocked at justice, suppressed individual freedom and dominated weak countries. She thought it dreadful to see Paris fall into Nazi hands and cared more about modern French art and younger artists than anything else.

After getting some family money from Germany, the couple left Budapest on June 19th, 1939. Two weeks later they were in Colombo with just four British Pounds in possession. More money came by and on July 5th and they boarded a train for Madurai where they stayed for two days to visit temples and carvings.

Once back in Saraya they settled within the ancestral Majithia household. Here Amrita learnt to make friends with female relatives and servants, an activity which made her acutely aware of women's traditional orientation and their social and psychological problems.

While they had long horse rides, indulged in organised tiger hunts on the backs of elephants, and enjoyed feudal extravagances, there was no stimulating company, no one with whom Amrita could hold an intelligent conversation, and no opportunity to expand ideas. She felt trapped, suffocated, an 'unutterable lassitude and vague chemeric fear' descended upon her as 1940 came to a close.


Victor and Amrita, Lake Balaton 1938-39
Riding an emotional roller-coaster

"Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious."
—Oscar Wilde

The young couple travelled to Madras to see Mahabalipuram which Amrita described as 'the most haunting place in all of South India'.

Soon they were in Simla where Victor planned to set up his medical practice and let Amrita paint but they again moved to Saraya and stopped over in Delhi.

In a letter to her friend Karl, Amrita admitted she was 'depressed and discouraged by the lack of appreciation'. After sending four paintings to the annual exhibition of the Bombay Fine Arts Society, she became even more depressed when some of her best ones were rejected. Someone even offered to buy one painting for a paltry sum.

Finding herself again in 'better spirits and happier' despite the uncertainties, she began to paint and sculpt on commission.


In an effort to gain recognition as a painter, Amrita sent four paintings to Delhi for an exhibition which had been arranged by her friend Barada Ukil. Unfortunately none of her paintings won a prize, not even a mention. Despite that Amrita continued to paint and during the first half of 1940 she produced smaller paintings.

By August of 1940, she had found peace within and contentment in Saraya with Victor. In a letter to her parents she wrote: "We are so pleased and happy. I am producing good things. Victor has got a job, and not such a bad one either, far better than we hoped for, in fact, we are quite satisfied with our lot."

Survival of the dirtiest

"To survive it is often necessary to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself." George Orwell
Life for Amrita and Victor was a struggle. Victor's monthly salary of Rupees 160 was barely enough for them to make ends meet. Amrita's mother was providing Rupees 100 a month but that boost was not enough for the 'good life' that they wanted, namely, their own place and a car. Frustrated, they felt trapped.

In December of 1940, Amrita began feeling very depressed and discouraged. In a letter to Indira she wrote:
Umrao Singh (oblivious)

"I dread the tomorrows that will come. Life has become grey, melancholy, empty and a complete vacuum. My relationship with Victor is drifting apart although we are tremendously found of each other, we are alone together, we sit for hours in silence. I am hardly the happy person with rich, full life, radiating joy as I go. I am fast losing my interest in people and the desire to approach them. I am becoming bleaker and bleaker, less and less interested."
Complications in Amrita and Victor's lives arose due to people's preoccupation with World War Two. With not much happening in the world of art, her work was not getting any exposure. She summed up her frustrations by wishing: "How we wish that this infernal war were over".

Victor had not heard from his mother in Hungary for months and feared that she was not receiving his letters.

Painting a funeral

In January of 1941, their frustrations were temporarily put aside by a visit from their old friend Karl who spent three days with Amrita. He watched her paint non-stop for hours without being distracted. He also saw her amazing sculptures, and performing domestic chores which he thought she could never do. Amrita was back to being cheerful.

When Karl left, a deep sense of gloom descended upon Amrita and she suffered what she described as a 'nervous crisis'. Karl would never see Amrita again.

In a March 14th, 1941, letter to Indira she wrote: "I passed through a nervous crisis and am still far from being over it. Feeling impotent, dissatisfied, irritable and not even able to weep."

Amrita did very few paintings in 1941 in the last year of her life. Concerned about Amrita's mental state, Indira came to Saraya to comfort her. Amrita told her that she wanted to start a new painting: one of a funeral procession. Of course it will be a gay picture if I ever do paint it".

Amrita and Indira (dated 9.5.1931)
Indira's visit did not do much good as she had problems of her own. After staying briefly she returned home. In her letter to Indira, Amrita told her: "I have not started the funeral painting but would one day. I have not done a thing since you left."

Amrita never got to paint it but she did draw a sketch of it. She was beginning to hate 'the atmosphere of gloom and distress' that cast its dark shadow on her work.

The final move to Lahore

"Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive." —Josephine Hart
Overwhelmed by frustration and gloom, Victor and Amrita decided that their life needed a change by moving to Lahore. Alone, Victor went there to explore things.

In the summer of 1941, they both returned to Lahore to weigh the pros and cons of a move that would enable Victor to set up his medical practice. After a brief survey, Victor learned that many of the doctors in Lahore had been called into military service and this shortage increased the chances of establishing a profitable medical practice.

Amrita 
was surprised to find that despite the war, a lot was happening in Lahore's art world. She saw students, writers and artists who held progressive views, intellectuals who sympathised with the nationalist struggle, and in a charged atmosphere magazines and journals were being published.

Convinced that Lahore was ideal, they decided to move in September. Amrita's mood quickly changed and she became her 'happy go lucky' self again. Victor returned to Saraya but Amrita remained in Lahore for a few days.

Around the third week in September of 1940, Amrita and Victor arrived together in Lahore to look for accommodation. They liked the fashionable area called The Mall and put their bags down in flat number 23 of Sir Ganga Ram Mansions (commonly known as the Exchange Mansions).

Amrita, outwardly calm
Immersed in good life

Tall ugly buildings did not exist in those days, and Amrita could have an unobstructed view of the Lahore High Court from her home. It was a two-story flat with a veranda overlooking the driveway and a small barsati (rooftop room). Victor's clinic was on the ground floor, the living rooms on the second floor, and the barsati became Amrita's studio. Their neighbourhood was composed of the elite and professionals.

The young couple decorated the place with articles gifted by Amrita's mother. They bought furniture, Amrita hung her paintings on the walls and Victor equipped his clinic with equipment that he had brought from Saraya.

The icing on the cake was their small Ford automobile. Life was finally beginning to make sense; it was starting to deliver.

* * * End of PART 2 * * *

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

Coming out soon: "The Artistic Death of Amrita"

Further reading

Allama Iqbal: A Letter to The Times
Iqbal At Close Range
The Artistic Youth Of Amrita Sher-Gil
The Dramatic Death Of Amrita Sher-Gil

DISCLAIMER
No one must misconstrue the information presented here about Amrita Sher-Gil and other persons mentioned as disinformation or insults. All the information was meticulously collected (after cross-checking) from numerous sources on the internet (without the use of proxy servers in Pakistan). If you feel something here needs to be amended, please email me the suggestions with believable references. Until then, whatever is written here shall be considered correct.


Acknowledgement

I visited hundreds of web sites while researching for material on Amrita Sher-Gil. The most important ones have been either listed here or have their web links included in the text. Just click on the words in blue colour and you will reach those other pages that contain either the text used (after laborious editing) or more information. Omissions, if any, were not made intentionally.

Photos DA1, D1 from personal folder

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Artistic Youth Of Amrita Sher-Gil

There are two methods by which one may understand poet Dr Sir Allama Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal: study what he wrote or dig deeper into the lives of those whom he knew. Emma Wegenast, Atiya Fyzee and Amrita Sher-Gil knew 'Iqbal At Close Range'.

The first two educated ladies turned around Iqbal's poetic head in Germany and England respectively. The third young lady, Amrita Sher-Gil, met Iqbal in Lahore and Paris. She might have taught him a thing or two about art; he in turn could have made her outlook towards art more philosophical.


Amrita's painful story cannot be condensed into a single article. Her pretty picture must be seen within the frame of her colourful family background.

Amrita's father and his first wife

Amrita's father, Umrao Singh Majithia (1870-1954), was the eldest son of Raja Surat Singh Majithia. The Majithia family originally belonged to Majitha village of Punjab. Surat Singh settled in Uttar Pradesh on lands and honorary titles of 'Sir' and 'Lady' given for 'services' rendered to the British.

While Umrao was young, his father died and the boy became ward of the British Court. He attended school at Amritsar and later joined the Aitchison CollegeLahore. The latter institution was created in 1886 by the British to 'educate' the children and relatives of Indian chiefs and was initially called Chief's College. Umrao went on to marry Narindar Kumari, the daughter of Captain Gulab Singh of Atari.

Umrao Singh, Budapest
Aristocratic Umrao was a Sanskrit scholar, amateur photographer, astronomer, carpenter, calligrapher, and yoga practitioner. With his wife Narindar first visited England in 1896, and then again in 1897 to attend the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. As head of the Majitha family, Umrao was privileged to attend the Coronation darbars in 1903 and 1910.

Umrao returned to India with the realisation that he belonged to a subjugated race. Despite having numerous English friends, he preferred seclusion to social glitter, and which resulted in him being mentioned in British secret official correspondence as 'disaffected.' To the British East India Company, Umrao was a person of interest.

After giving birth to four children: Balram, Satyavan, Vivek and Prakash, Narindar died in 1907 .

Umrao Singh's second wife

Maharaja Ranjit Singh once ruled over the Punjab and beyond. Then the British East India Company came along to annex it just as multi-national corporations do today under various pretexts to entire countries.

Ranjit's son, Maharaja Duleep Singh had a daughter named Princess Bamba Sofia Jindan Duleep Singh (1869–1957). When she decided to visit India, she brought along a travel companion named Marie Antoinette Gottesmann-Baktay (1882-1948).


Marie was a Jewess of Hungarian-French ancestry. Internationally connected, she belonged to Budapest's upper class, played the piano, sang well and regularly appeared at lavish parties.

It was Princess Sofia Duleep Singh that Umrao was interested in but upon meeting Marie at the Princess's residence in Lahore, he decided to add some Hungarian whitener to his dark Indian tea. Umrao married Marie in 1911.

In the autumn of 1912, the couple visited Budapest. As World War One broke out, Umrao found himself stranded in an 'enemy' country. Being a man of culture and intellect and married to a Hungarian, he was not interned.
Marie, Budapest 1913

For details about the Majithia family, click HERE

The spirit of a freedom-fighter

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he's not romantic, personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are. —H. L. Mencken (1919)

While condemning bribery today, people of the Indian sub-continent conveniently forget that it was the 'Company Bahadurthat practised classic divide-and-rule by purchasing loyalties of the local elites.

Babu Bandhu Singh was a freedom fighter whom the British East India Company arrested and hanged after the War of Independance of 1857. His lands known as Saraya or Sardarnagar were forfeited and handed over to Umrao Singh's father as reward for 'loyalty shown to the British'.

One could say that in Saraya, Umrao was possessed by the hanged freedom fighter's restless spirit. Freedom started to mean a great deal to Umrao, he sympathised with the India-Germany group and busied himself with conspiring against the British. While other notables of his clan bent over backwards to help the 'Company' prolong its hold over India, Umrao felt he was a nationalist opposed to unjust colonisation.

Leaving the 'Company' of the British

The Germans used the India-Germany group to raise troops to invade India through the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP). They chose Raja Mahendra Partap to head the movement. An expedition under Von Hentig was despatched; it carried letters from Kaiser William II to the King of Afghanistan and from the German Government to various ruling princes of India.

In 1915, Raja Mahendra Partap's group travelled to Kabul to win over Afghanistan and have a German-Afghan army take over India. Mahendra Partap was in touch with Umrao Singh who was related to him through the Atari family. From Baghdad, Mahendra Partap wrote a disheartening letter to Umrao Singh. Wishing to boost his friend's morale, Umrao sent Mahendra a long reply.

The Germans had a liaison office at Shiraz. In the winter of 1916-17, the German party had to escape leaving behind all their possessions. In the baggage, the British found the letter Umrao wrote to Mahendra. Hence, the British Intelligence discovered Umrao's links with the revolutionary pro-independence Ghaddar Party whose members were active in Berlin between 1914 and 1917.

The consequences of being anti-British

Umrao's thoughts led him to anti-British activities. This resulted in the British confiscating all his estates in India. He was allowed a relatively modest remittance and debarred from any active involvement in politics. The repercussions of Umrao's political sympathies caused him to become a greater recluse.

Umrao only returned to India in 1921 after the general amnesty had been granted by the King for political offences during World War One. Umrao survived because he was well born, displayed forbearance, was scholarly, and valued life.

Others like Umrao knew that it was not through honesty, diplomacy or Christian ethics that the British Empire amassed wealth. Colonial rule was perpetuated by annexing properties of those who resisted. What was snatched from Babu Bandhu Singh was gifted to Umrao Singh's father and what was taken away from Umrao was rewarded to some other British loyalist. This robing-Peter-to-pay-Paul remained the central pillar of British policy.

When we deeply investigate many affluent families of this region, a most disturbing pattern emerges: 
they sided with the British and enriched themselves at the peoples' expense.

A star is born
Young Amrita sketching a man

Umrao Singh and Marie Antoinette had two daughters, Amrita and Indira. Amrita Sher-Gil was born at noon on 30 January 1913 in Budapest. She was baptised Amrita Antonia, as a Roman Catholic.

The family lived in Hungry for some years until the horrors of World War One unfolded. By 1918, food rationing had started, and Amrita's failing health due to Spanish Flu ('1918 flu pandemic') became worrisome. The flu reportedly killed 100 million people worldwide.

Indira was born on March 28th, 1914. Amrita became very devoted to her new baby sister and gave her all sorts of pet names derived from the animal world. Later she would accuse her parents of giving preferential treatment to Indira:

"I know Indu is your favourite, you do not care for me because I am ugly and I squint". Later, through an operation, her squint was removed and which partly restored her confidence in herself.
Irrespective of initial sibling rivalry, the girls formed a strong bond that would last a life time.

A painter by birth

Amrita showed great talent in drawing and painting since she was five years old. She also began to withdraw into her own world, read books instead of playing with toys, shunned the company of children and preferred adults.


The British, keeping in mind Umrao's nationalistic revolutionary streak, blocked his return to India. He became desperate to move back to India as conditions in Hungary became harsh and uncertain. His brother, who was well-connected with the British, helped clear the path for the return.

World War One ended in 1919. In 1921, after living in Hungary for ten years, the family set sail for India and stopped for two weeks in Paris. Here Amrita was mesmerised by the Louvre Museum's art collection which included Leonard De Vinci's Mona Lisa. She was only eight years old then.

From Bombay, the first family visited Delhi for two weeks and then Lahore for two months where they stayed with Umrao's brother Sunder. After dividing the property amongst his children from the first marriage, Umrao bought a house in Summer Hill (Simla) which he called L'Holme.

The Italian chiseller


Amrita's mother wanted both her daughters to learn playing the violin and the piano. Unable to force Amrita to take up music, she hired Major Whitmarsh to teach her art. He was replaced by Hal Bevan Petman who was thoroughly impressed with Amrita's drawing skills and recommended higher education abroad.


While Umrao was happy to return to India, Marie felt she was far away from Hungary. In 1923, she befriended Giulio Cesare Pasquinelli, an Italian sculptor. Since she spoke fluent Italian, she went on to speak the language of love with the married artist. When Umrao got suspicious she claimed, "He's helping out Amrita with art".

Soon thereafter, the sculptor left for Italy and Marie followed him with the girls to Venice under the pretext that she 'wanted Amrita enrolled at Santa Annunziata' art school.
Amrita in autochrome (Umrao Singh)

While Amrita was exposed to the works of Italian masters, Marie bared herself to the Italian lover. Amrita, being a precocious child, realised the move to Italy was not about art, and vented out her anger at the school which she thought was 'enormous, elegant but hateful.'

After five months, the sculptor got bored with chiselling Marie. When Amrita began drawing nudes, the art school threatened to expel her. With Marie's love and Amrita's art endangered, the three (Indira included) returned to Simla.

Pent up emotions


This dark chapter in young Amrita's life effected her deeply. Instead of becoming a nun she vented it out on religion, especially Roman Catholicism's pompous church ceremonies. While studying at Convent of Jesus and Mary, Amrita wrote to her father an atheistic letter which the Mother Superior used as evidence for expulsion from the school.

From 1924 to 1929, the family visited Benaras, Calcutta, Lucknow and Darjeeling in order to get to know India better.

In 1927 Amrita's Hungarian painter uncle, Ervin Baktay, came to India in pursuit of eastern religions and art. He encouraged Amrita to draw using live models which she did diligently. Using his criticism in a positive way, she greatly improved her drawing skills.

Attending art school in Paris

"All art, not excluding religious art, has come into being because of sensuality: a sensuality so great that it overflows the boundaries of the mere physical". —Amrita Sher-Gil
For further studies in art, Ervin encouraged Marie to send Amrita to Paris ('the Mecca of the art world'). The idea appealed to Marie but Umrao, having tasted trouble in Europe, agreed most reluctantly. From 1929 to 1934, the family lived in Paris for the sake of educating Amrita and Indira.
Amrita: looking French in Paris 
By 1929 Amrita was sixteen years old. Within months she learnt to speak French. Her friends thought she had amazing intelligence and attractive eastern looks.

Paris being the hotbed of artistic activity encompassed every conceivable art-form and expression. Amrita familiarised herself with the works of European painters like Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. She started training and in 1934 obtained a degree in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The mother again encouraged Amrita to take up music lessons but the child insisted on becoming a painter. The family took up residence near Champs-Élysées where Marie hosted lavish parties that attracted the crème de la crème of Paris. Umrao remained a book-worm and passive; his seclusion would cost the family dearly.

Amrita got tired of the 
realism and precision required for painting nudes. After falling out with her professor she suffered an appendicitis attack, got hospitalised and returned to her studies at the strict Grande Chaumiere institute. From there she migrated to École Nationale des Beaux-Arts where she began to breathe artistically.

From charcoals she soon switched over to painting oils. Professor Lucien Simon, her teacher, thought she would make him proud one day which she did eventually. Each year Amrita won the first prize for portraiture and still-life; her work focused on reality but not Parisian glamour. She won the Gold Medal from the Grand Salon in 1933 and was honoured by being appointed an associate member of the Société Nationale.


Amrita was now accepted in the world of art, she loved the Parisian night-life but also sympathised with the poor who roamed its streets. Amrita's mind was by now fully occupied with Parisian liberalism which led to her body craving for 'forbidden love'. She kept her apartment very open to those she knew; this led to activities that her mother protested against. 


The pot calling the kettle black

"You will think I am self-opinionated but I will stick to my intolerant ideas and to my convictions."
—Amrita Sher-Gil (1934, at age 21)

Amrita attempted to fill her emotional vacuum by becoming reckless in relations with men and even having 'more pure' relationships with women. Women began to appear in her work; they all looked lonely and fearful.

She continued to search for satisfactory relationships with men. Her mother expressed horror reading Amrita's candid admissions about sexuality in a letter. Marie herself was not a paragon of fidelity; she had one more extra-marital affair behind Umrao's back.

Amrita found out and confided in her sister Indira: "Mother is trying to make a scapegoat of me now, as she had done with the Italian sculptor". Both the sisters were on the same page of the sorry subject.

In order to keep the girls busy, the domineering mother took them to theatre and concerts, and arranged gatherings of musicians and writers. Amrita abhorred such gatherings because she felt she was 'being displayed'. She reacted by visiting off-beat and avant-garde theatres with artist friends; this made Marie very unhappy.

Deep down Amrita felt the emerging trends in art, such as 
Dadaism and Surrealism, were dehumanising, mechanical and too technology-inspired. She constantly compared her personal experience in India with what she saw in Paris.

Umrao did not spend enough quality time with his daughters, and the promiscuous European mother's liberalism corrupted Amrita's essentially Indian roots. She felt split between two worlds.

Paris, a city of bi-sexual lovers

Amrita's mother, while being unfaithful to Umrao Singh on two occasions, disapproved of her daughter's Bohemian life style. This led to Amrita writing 
love-letters to cousin Victor Egan in Hungary and secretly getting engaged.
Painting Yusuf Ali Khan (1930)
Wishing for Amrita to marry a wealthy respectable man, Marie found a suitable Muslim music-loving nobleman from the Upper Provinces, Yusuf Ali Khan. She pushed Amrita into an engagement with Yusuf but it only lasted a few months.

On August 25, 1931, Amrita wrote to her mother:
"Yusuf is far from being faithful. He looks at every good looking woman on the street. I'm concerned about a Mohammedan marriage leading to I ending up being one of Yusuf's many wives with no recourse. I am going to decide whether I want to marry him or not and it is me who will say by October the final yes or no".
Only twenty, she failed to ask herself one question: if the act of men-ogling-at-other-women is considered obnoxious behaviour, what do we call women-noticing-men-ogling-at-other-women?

First aristocratic pregnancy

Then quite suddenly, Sikh-Christian-Jewish Amrita broke off from her Muslim fiancé. The overt excuse was they 'had nothing in common'; the covert reason was she was pregnant.

The aristocrat gave her another going away present: a contagious sexually transmitted disease. Victor Egan, with whom Amrita had broken off earlier, came to rescue by curing the disease and aborting the baby in Budapest.

The unwanted pregnancy and abortion made Amrita fearful of being disfigured permanently. As if to avenge what life had hurled at her, she became more wayward, would not commit to a single man, felt 'always in love', fell 'out of love', or 'in love with someone else' before things became serious. After having a series of meaningless affairs, Amrita returned to showing affection towards Victor.

We do not know exactly which demon of sex had taken over Amrita's soul. Was it the Jewish Succubus, the Hindu Yakshini, or was it the Arabic QarinahAlien abductions had not come into the picture in the 1930s.
Maybe the aliens did it to Amrita

Who introduced Iqbal to Amrita?

According to Arif Rahman Chughtai (son of artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai, 1894-1975), it was Umrao Singh who introduced Chughtai to Amrita and which led to her taking up art. Did Chughtai later feel any remorse?

Arif reveals: "Dr Allama Iqbal was also present there and was introduced to Amrita". This event took place in Lahore.

Iqbal was also friends with the founder of the Ahmaddiya sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, with whom he frequently visited Mohkum-ud-Din's bakery on The Mall (Lahore) where they discussed politics and religion with the owner.

Arif mentions: "Amrita used to meet [Jawaharlal Nehru] at Faletti’s Hotel Lahore", and "everybody in Lahore knew of her exploits". Before Victor died, he "broke down and actually confessed to the crime [of poisoning Amrita]. More proof than that is not possible. But in any case the "father [Umrao Singh] did not want to pursue the same to police and court."
Umrao Singh with Iqbal (Paris, 1933)
Vivan Sundaram, Amrita’s nephew penned a book, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings. He recalls: “When she met Nehru, she wrote to a friend about instant mutual attraction between the two."

The Faletti's Hotel still stands at Lahore. Perhaps the authorities need to identify that special room and affix a plaque which reads: "Amrita Sher-Gil and Indian Prime Minister Nehru slept here".

Iqbal's friendship with Umrao Singh

When British-educated and knighted nationalists were let loose on a confused Indian population, Iqbal grew disillusioned with the state of affairs. His earlier praise in pro-British poems, veiled love for Marxism and romantic poetry changed its tune in later works. Knowing that death was around the corner, he became exceedingly spiritual.

The British intelligence could not have disregarded Iqbal's thoughts and meetings with 'disaffected' Umrao Singh.

Iqbal's acquaintance with Amrita
Jawaharlal Nehru (1947)

In 1933, Allama Muhammad Iqbal met with Umrao Singh and his family in Paris and was photographed by Amrita. He was older to Amrita by 36 years, old enough to be her grandfather. Iqbal also met the family at Lahore. We do not know how comfortable Iqbal was with the 'common knowledge' about Amrita's exploits and sad reputation.

Today's bearded men and hijab-clad women of al-Bakistan ignore some facts: people during the pre-partition era mixed much more freely, respected each other's religions and festivals, and even intermarried. If Islam was not in danger then, how is it in danger now?
Amrita and Indira, 1931-32

Interestingly, Amrita's nephew, Vivan Sundaram defends her thus:

"She was unabashed about the uselessness of giving too much importance to bodily desires. She was eager to know other people’s minds, even if it meant reaching there through their bodies.”

Amrita's Indian soul felt trapped in a European body. She did not learn any Indian language and refused to show any sentiments of anti-colonial nationalism in her work despite knowing Iqbal and Nehru (who wanted socialism at home and capitalism abroad).

While Iqbal's philosophical poetry was becoming too revolutionary, Amrita's life was revolving too fast. She may have become attached to the poet's mind.

Second unwanted pregnancy

By 1934, Amrita was homesick and felt destiny awaiting her in India. She went to see Victor in Hungary but was devastated to find him with another woman. Betrayed and rejected, she indulged in indiscriminate sexual relations and again ended up being pregnant. There was a new twist this time: she did not know who the father was.


Victor again helped her abort the baby which required hospitalisation. Her condition worsened because of internal damage and she felt 'like an apple, all red from the outside but rotten inside'.

Back in India
"I don't in the least consider myself an immoral person. I am not immoral." —Amrita Sher-Gil (in a letter to her father)
Umrao ('Duci') Singh finally returned to India in 1934 to his estate in Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh). At his house in Summer Hill (Simla) he spent most of his time surrounded by books and engrossed in hobbies.
Unwanted

Unhappy with Amrita's decision to return to India, he feared she would tarnish the family's name with her bluntness and shameful exploits. In return, Amrita expressed dismay at her father whom she suspected of unnecessarily 'dramatizing the situation'. She felt India was her 'artistic destiny' and that there was 'so little time' left. Amrita knew her life would be short.

By the end of 1934 Amrita was back not with her parents in Simla but at her ancestral home in Amritsar. She renounced dresses worn by 'those people' (European) and started to wear saris. As if rejecting her European heritage, she even wrote to her mother about her new found love for the sari.

Immersing herself in all things Indian she found amazing subjects wherever she went. She discovered newer techniques while painting the dark, thin and silent Indian subjects.

From Simla, she wrote to Victor:

"In Europe I felt that I have to go away from this kind of greyness and from this strange light in order to be able to breathe. Here everything is natural. There I was not natural and honest because I was born with a certain thirst for colour and in Europe the colours are pale - everything is pale. The colour of the white man is different from the colour of the Hindu and the sunshine changes the light. The white man's shadow is bluish-purple while the Hindu has golden-green shadow. Mine is yellow. Van Gogh was told that yellow is the favourite colour of the gods and that is right."
Iqbal in Paris, 1933 (by Amrita Sher-Gil)
Although the Simla Fine Arts Society Exhibition was her first major show in India, Amrita was unhappy with the judges' choices and the brutality of the art critics. When she refused to accept an award and a cheque, the press clobbered her for arrogance and veiled insult of Indian artistic tastes.
"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic." —Oscar Wilde

Genius is sorrow's child
“The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.” —Oscar Wilde
After experiencing Parisian liberalism, was Amrita bowled over by the explicit ancient reliefs at Khajuraho? Did all that bare art in Indian temples light up the wrong fires in her?

In the follow-up articles we shall attempt to see how Amrita Sher-Gil, until her last day, kept releasing inner tensions through art and with eccentric behaviour.


* * *  End of PART 1  * * *

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

Coming out soon: "The Fantastic Growth of Amrita"

Further reading

Allama Iqbal: A Letter to The Times
Iqbal At Close Range
The Fantastic Growth Of Amrita

The Dramatic Death Of Amrita Sher-Gil

Some of Amrita's paintings can be seen HERE , HERE, anHERE (in pdf format)

DISCLAIMER
No one must misconstrue the information presented here about Amrita Sher-Gil and other persons mentioned as disinformation or insults. All the information was meticulously collected and laboriously edited (after cross-checking) from numerous sources on the internet (without the use of proxy servers in Pakistan). If you feel something here needs to be amended, please email me the suggestions with credible references. Until then, whatever is written here shall be considered correct.


Acknowledgement
I visited hundreds of web sites while researching for material on Amrita Sher-Gil. While the text includes the 
most important web links (in blue colour), others have been listed below. Omissions, if any, were not made intentionally.