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.

10 comments:

  1. Gerard K Jenkins.17 March 2017 at 09:39

    A well researched and detailed account of some ones life. A pleasure to read. Awaiting the following chapter.

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    1. Thanks very much, Mr Jenkins. I believe Bollywood is out to make a movie about Amrita now! Its quite a story, I assure you.

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  2. Sadly, they dont make people like her, any more.

    Btw, a great write-up. Please keep it coming, Tahir mian.

    Regards

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    1. Maj dear, thanks for dropping by yet again. The series of articles on Iqbal (with links to Amrita and others) are EXTREMELY important pages of a common history-book. One can never stop discovering amazing people on both sides.

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  3. Amrita Sher-Gil… an enjoyable read!
    It is fascinating to find out about this most captivating, curious and alluring modern female Indian artist of her time. You have done in-depth research about her, truly inspiring …She was indeed a one of a kind woman.
    It is always a different experience to read about someone's life. It is like you are transported to that era and imagine yourself literally walking along the character.
    Looking forward for part-2…

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  4. Interesting read and thoroughly gripping! I enjoyed every detail especially one particular line where you mention how affluent families sided with the British at the cost of their own people. Something we see today in my country Pakistan as well. The rich trying to be something they are not just to impress the controllers of society.

    -sgh

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  5. Great article with well-connected facts and narratives. Didn't know much about Amrita's life before I read this!

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  6. Anonymous ones, thanks for reading.

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  7. An enthralling one indeed. Great research done in revealing connections with different characters and places that are nostalgic to me in Lahore like Dyal Singh and Ganga Ram mansion. Almost felt like being swept into the heydays of art and literature and watching the protagonist closeby as if in a movie.
    Its inspiring to read how adamant Amrita was in her choice of pursuing one art form, knowing that she was a genius at it, despite her mother's attempts to influence her in learning music. Looking forward to the next part.

    NQ

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    Replies
    1. Jenkins and NQ, thanks for dropping by. I hope you understood the deep roles played by the cast of 'different characters'?
      We can see bits of ourselves in art and artists.

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