Friday, 28 April 2017

The Dramatic Death of Amrita Sher-Gil

Recalling the separate economic conditions of the Hindus and the Muslims during the 1947 partition of India, my mother describes it all with a Punjabi saying which translates to:
"The [affluent] Hindus left behind palaces [in what became Pakistan [and the [poor] Muslims abandoned hookahs and broken earthenware utensils [when they left India]."
Throughout my wonder years I heard tall tales of vast 'poodinay kay bagh' (gardens of mint) and tall 'mahallaat' (palaces) that some Muslim immigrants claimed they 'left behind in India'. Years later when I took up street-photography, I noticed that most of the British Raj-era buildings in Lahore were named after Hindus, Sikhs and the English.

Amrita, our old neighbour 

We occupied one flat in a group of flats that stood on Temple Road. They were owned by rich Hindu landlords who fled to India during the bloody partition. There were numerous residential buildings littered about the ancient city, one was Ganga Ram Mansions on the Mall and this is where Amrita lived and died.

Amrita Sher-Gil lived less than a kilometre away from where I spent my childhood and youth. I recall visiting a friend of mine who lived in flat number 20 of the Ganga Ram Mansions; twenty-five years earlier Amrita lived in flat 23. The layout of all the flats was the same: two rooms on the ground floor, a wooden staircase at the entrance that led straight up to two more rooms on the first floor, and an attic (baraasti).
Attic studio in Lahore

Star-studded Lahore

Let us return to Amrita's story. Once done with decorating her flat at the Ganga Ram Mansions, Amrita turned it into a meeting place for a select group of people. She wholeheartedly participated in the cultural life of Lahore, gave talks on the radio (Lahore radio station was functional in 1937) and met as many interesting people as she could.

Amrita chose Lahore to give her art a chance to survive. The famed short story writer Rajinder Singh Bedi was born in Lahore and started his career as Mohsin Lahori but finally migrated to India after partition. Amrita Pritam Kaur spent her formative years in Lahore. Professor Ahmed Shah 'Patras' Bokhari, Kartar Singh Duggal, G.D Khosla and Mangat Rai (brother of Miss Mangat Rai the principal of Kinnaird College), artists Abdur Rehman Chughtai, Satish Gujral (eminent painter and brother of former Indian premier I. K. Gujral), and Roop Krishna, all lived here.

Amrita became friends with Nawab Muzaffar Ali Qizalbash, Jamil Asghar (later a High Court judge), Rashid Ahmed (married Zeenat Rashid and whose daughter married Senator Javed 'JJ' Jabbar) and Professor U. Karamet (the Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University would signed papers with 'OK–UK').

Lahore had become a melting pot of ideas and attracted poets and writers like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Intizar Hussain, Sir Muhammad Iqbal and the rebel Saadat Hasan Manto. Many of them would assemble at India Tea House (renamed Pak Tea House after the partition of 1947). Lahore finally became a centre for Pakistan’s left-wing Progressive Writers Movement.

Nehru's biography

Jawaharlal Nehru allegedly had meetings of a very private nature with Amrita Sher-Gil at Lahore's Faletti's Hotel. He later sent her 
a copy of his autobiography. She thanked him with a candid note:

"As a rule I dislike biographies and autobiographies. They ring false. Pomposity and exhibitionism. But I think I will like yours. You are able to discard your halo occasionally. You are capable of saying, 'When I saw the sea for the first time,' when others would say, 'When the sea saw me for the first time.'
"I should have liked to know you better. I am always attracted to people who are integral enough to be inconsistent without discordance and who don’t trail viscous threads of regret behind them. I don't think that it is on the threshold of life that one feels chaotic, it is when one has crossed the threshold that one discovers that things which looked simple and feelings that felt simple are infinitely more tortuous and complex.
"That it is only in inconsistency that there is any consistency. But of course you have got an orderly mind. I don't think you were interested in my paintings really. You looked at my pictures without seeing them. You are not hard. You have got a mellow face. I like your face, it is sensitive, sensual and detached at the same time."
Testing the art scene

Amrita became an avid member of the city’s pre-partition cultural scene whose select members gathered 
fortnightly at Khushwant Singh’s home. He started his law practise in 1938 (the same year Allama Iqbal died in Lahore), joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1947 and went on to become a famed novelist and a journalist.

In late October 1937, Amrita decided to once again 'test the waters' of the Lahore art world by holding an exhibition of her works. On Sunday, 30th November, Amrita and Victor went to the site to make the final arrangements for the second week of December in the hall of the Punjab Literary League, above a fashionable café facing The Mall.

Excitedly Amrita commenced work on new paintings that would be displayed as the latest work. From her house, she could see some mud houses and a man with four buffaloes. This was her last painting; it showed her love for all things Indian.

The way Amrita worked
"If there were no poor and destitute people in India, I would have nothing to paint". —Amrita Sher-Gil (on her patient, submissive, fatalistic and silent subjects)
India's poverty, with its barely surviving people in primitive and inhuman conditions, seemed photogenic to Amrita. She was no revolutionary, only a keen observer who painted what she noticed minutely. All true artists possess this amazing quality.
Amrita in her very tastefully decorated flat

Amrita painted during the day and used no artificial light. She wore a large painting coat and tightly tied her hair at the back. By the evening she would dress finely and become a glamorous socialite. Such was her energy that upon returning from her engagements, she would return to painting. Her output was twelve to fifteen paintings a year.

A sudden end

On Wednesday, 3rd December 1941, Amrita became very ill with what she, and her doctor husband thought, was dysentery. Dysentery in India being quite common, neither of them suspected a fatal illness. 

She lay in bed, looking very pale with a greenish tinge to her, with Victor frantically attempting to make her feel well again. When all efforts failed, Amrita slipped into a coma, but not before mumbling something about colours.

Two other doctors examined her; they felt it was 'too late'. Severe dehydration and peritonitis had already perforated her intestines, and nothing else could be done.

Just after 11 p.m., as a last desperate effort, Victor ran to fetch another well-known physician; by the time they returned, Amrita was already dead. He told Victor, "Had you called me just a day earlier we could have saved her". These words would haunt Victor forever.

The last rites

Amrita planned to hold her first major solo exhibition at Faletti's Hotel in late December of 1941 but she died on 6th December, aged only 28.

The next day was a cold Sunday. Amrita's parents wanted a Sikh style funeral. Her body was carried to the burning ghat on the banks of the river Ravi. The ceremony was attended by her parents, sister Indira and her husband Kalyan Sundarm. Also included in the forty friends was Khuswant Singh.

Amrita's body was laid on a pile of chopped wood and some sandal wood sticks and ghee (clarified butter) were added. Victor lit up the fire. The last rites were performed by a devastated Umrao Singh who had nurtured her as a child, read her fiery mind and was now watching the funeral pyre with the following parting words on his lips:
"She had entered the prenatal world at Lahore and death seemed to have conspired with life to release her spirit from its physical chrysalis in the same city."
Amrita was a shooting star, misunderstood as she blazed across the horizon of art and scattered after death. Her ashes were collected and cast into river Ravi.

The usual suspects

Amrita had been at Sir and Lady Abdul Qadir’s home for tea; some speculated that the pakoras caused food poisoningYashodhara Dalmia writes:
"Helen Chaman Lal found Amrita dying. Two doctors, Dr Sikri and Dr Kalisch, a German, were brought in and found that peritonitis had set in and her intestines had perforated. Around midnight on December 5, 1941 Amrita Sher-Gil passed away".
Indira (sister) in autochrome
A comment made on Arif Rahman Chughtai's article shows that "Amrita died in the first floor room. The top of the house had a barsaati on the roof that was her studio. She made her last painting sitting there. The ground floor was the dispensary and the consultation room of her doctor husband."

Being of mix parentage, Amrita felt she owned both the worlds of art and sexuality. The Bohemian life of artistic Paris fuelled Amrita's sexual urges in the wrong directions, leading her to be called in hushed tones, a 'nymphomaniac'. The citizens of Lahore suspected Victor of 'poisoning her to death' because he was 'unable to satisfy her sexually'.

Khuswant Singh on Amrita Sher-Gil
“If you don’t smoke, drink and womanise, you are a dangerous man”. —Khuswant Singh
Just as Amrita declined a prize in Simla, Khushwant Singh when decorated with the Padma Bhushan in 1974, returned the award in 1984 to protest against Operation Blue Star in which the Indian Army raided Amritsar's Golden Temple (Sikh Holy site). In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India.

A prominent Indian novelist and journalist, Khuswant Singh (1915-2014) penned the famous column 'With malice towards one and all' and wrote the nostalgic novel 'Train to Pakistan'. In his autobiography, '
Truth, Love and a Little Malice', he recalled very unusual things about Amrita on pages 96 through 99. A synopsis is as follows:
"Her fame preceded her...she very beautiful and very promiscuous...Pandit Nehru succumbed to her charms...stories of her sexual appetite were narrated...she gave appointments to three or four lovers every day...
When I came home for lunch, I found Amrita in my apartment...helping herself to the beer from the fridge...wanted advice about carpenters, plumbers, tailors...
I couldn't look her in the face too long because she had that bold, brazen kind of look which makes timid men like me turn their gaze downwards...she was short and sallow complexioned (being half-Sikh, half-Hungarian)...had a bulbous nose with black heads showing...thick lips with a faint shadow of a moustache...
Politeness was not one of her virtues; she believed in speaking her mind, however rude or unkind it be...she called my son "an ugly little boy" wife described her as a bloody bitch...Amrita retorted, "I will teach that woman a lesson. I'll seduce her husband" wife declared our home out of bounds for Amrita...
Amrita's mother got the details of her daughter's illness and death and held her nephew and son-in-law responsible. She bombarded ministers, officials, and friends (including myself) with letters accusing him of murder.
Dr Raghubir Singh, then a leading physician of Lahore, was summoned to Amrita's bedside at midnight when she was beyond hope of recovery...she had become pregnant and been aborted by her husband. The operation had gone wrong. She had bled profusely and developed peritonitis. Her husband wanted Dr Raghubir Singh to give her a transfusion and offered his own blood for it. Dr Raghubir Singh refused to do so without finding out their blood groupings. While the two doctors were arguing with each other, Amrita slipped out of life.
Badruddin Tyebji has given a vivid account of how he was seduced by her ("she simply took off her clothes and lay herself naked on the carpet by the fire place"). Vivan admits to her having many lovers. According to him her real passion in life was another woman."
L'Holme - The Majithia residence in Simla
The survivors

The case did not close with Amrita's death. To Marie Antoinette, victor was the murderer who also covered the cause of death. In a strange twist of fate, the day after Amrita's death, Britain declared war on Hungary and Victor was jailed as a 'national enemy'. He died an old man in 1997.

Marie Antoinette was devastated by young Amrita's sudden and mysterious death. After several failed attempts of suicide, on July 31st, 1948, she took the gun from Umrao Singh's study and shot herself. Her tragic fate reminds one of the allegedly promiscuous Marie Antoinette who faced the guillotine for high treason during the French Revolution.

After the sad death of Amrita and the unfortunate suicide of Marie, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia gradually lost his memory. He lived out his last few years with his second daughter, Indira, in Simla and Delhi. He died in Delhi in 1954 at the age of 84. His papers in Hungary once stated: 'no faith' and 'living in Majithia as a British citizen'. The truth is he died as a free Indian citizen.

Dead artists are rich artists

Amrita is the paternal great-aunt of Indian actor and painter, Jimmy Sher-GilRecently Amrita's 1933 self-portrait sold for a record Rs 18.2 crores ($2.9 million) in India, the third most expensive work of Indian art to be sold at an auction. 
India declared Amrita a national treasure artist in 1976, which means that her work cannot leave the country. She did not, like most artists, live to enjoy the fruits of her efforts.

Works by Amrita are very hard to come by since most are in possession of her descendants and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. The only painting by Amrita Sher-Gil that hangs in Lahore Museum is the Veena Player.
Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia taking a walk

Pakistan need not go to war with India to recover Amrita's art; we still have Kashmir to fight over. One hopes that the Sikh pilgrims who regulary visit Pakistan will petition our government to recognise Amrita as a national treasure. This being an 'Islamic Republic' will never have Amrita's statue placed on The Mall of Lahore, however, affixing a Heritage Plaque at her house to read "Residence of Amrita Sher-Gil" is the cheapest risk-free option.

What has Amrita taught us?
Amrita, as most artists do, showed us that creating art is a lonely and serious process that requires shedding of sweat and tears if one desires to occupy a high place in the art world. As a gifted but vulnerable artist she took huge chances with her body and soul but ended up being utterly misunderstood. Amrita's sensitive soul often guided her to a dark and destructive path that challenged the accepted standards of society.

Literature and the arts soften the blows of time, for some religion does it best. Just as children play and enjoy themselves after school and studies at home, grownups too, after having done their duties to God and fellow human beings, are allowed to channel energies into wholesome efforts. All work and no play, makes Jack dull; we can see dull Jacks (and Jills) all over this 'land of the pure'.

Artists and writers live and die by their brush-strokes and pens. Amrita Sher-Gil was neither a bureaucrat nor a politician but rather a creator in a world full of empty-headed onlookers.
Amrita Sher-Gil

Daggers drawn, but why?

Religious or political ideologies need not close our minds to the beauty that is in everyone and everything, beauty created by the Exalted Creator and Bestower of forms (al-'Alī, Khāliq, Musawwir). Only those misunderstand art whose eyes cannot fathom abstraction, symbolism, geometry and other disciplines. What is not understood is always feared in repressed societies.

More damage is being done today to mankind through bad policies of governance than vulgar art. The inartistic, unintelligent and ugly pictures painted by some insecure ones in Pakistan and India continue to divide the people through a severe deadlock in all avenues of trade and arts. Fear of the 'other side' is destroying appreciation and lack of healthy artistic expression is stunting the growth of entire cross-sections of societies. Without art and artists, what is any country if not an ugly factory for slaves? The war being waged on art and artists is not expected to end any time soon.

Lahore, the last stop

Amrita's broad forehead indicates she was generous and intelligent, her lips show she was full of life and love. As for her flirtatious nature, this was due to the example set by her mother, the neglect of her apparently religious and philosophical father, the overly liberal education, the upheavals of time, and the wounds inflicted by society.

One could say that some are born crooked but it is clear from Amrita's story that society's crooked factory does produce many faulty products. One might be born a saint but it is certainly the upbringing and the company that turn one into a devil.

If one were to speak to the elected custodians of our State, they will cringe at Hindu or Sikh names being remembered or celebrated. Amrita came to Lahore not to be physically loved to death but rather for acceptance and artistic immortality. Amrita did not die on Champs-Élysées having soufflé; she lived on art's two-edged sword and died in Lahore. She loved this ancient city in so many ways. The city, as of this writing, is unable to pay her back with love.

-- concluded --
©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

Further reading

Iqbal In Love With Emma Wegenast
The Artistic Youth Of Amrita Sher-Gil
The Fantastic Growth Of Amrita

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.

If I were to list all the references the old-fashioned away right here, this article would be twice its current size. The web links (URLs) have been 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. I visited hundreds of web sites while researching for material on Amrita Sher-Gil. Omissions, if any, were unintentional. I thank those from whom obtaining permission to use some images was either impossible or who did not respond to my requests.

See paintings by Amrita HERE
Photos B1A, F in my folder