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Book Review
‘Amrita Sher-Gil: A self-portrait in letters & writings’
One of India’s most significant artists, Amrita Sher-Gil’s extensive oeuvre is a unique blend of sharp commentary on the prevailing socio-cultural milieu and the philosophy of painting.

Mere 29 years of life and awe-inspiring artistic achievements therein still evoke immense curiosity among art connoisseurs. Ironically, she could enjoy limited success and recognition, as an artist in her lifetime. “The art of a country reflects the psychology of its people,” she had stated and rightly so!

‘Amrita Sher-Gil: A self-portrait in letters & writings’ (Publisher: Tulika Books) offers interesting insights into her extraordinary life in India, Italy, Hungary, France and the UK. The twin-set volumes that bring in public realm her correspondence, carrying notes and annotations by Vivan Sundaram, an established artist, curator, writer and art scholar.

An elaborate account of this mesmerizing personality laced with a touch of history, it comprises 260 letters she wrote to her close friends and family members. They are mostly personal in nature. Notably, there is hardly any social or political referencing in them, in spite of a period of political turmoil she survived. Sample her views in a letter she wrote to one of her art critic friends.

The artist notes: “Ironically enough, good Art never appeals at first sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that more often than not it repels. Bad Art, on the other hand, based as it is on cheap effect, appeals immediately to the artistically underdeveloped mind and therein lies its danger. Because though taste, of course, like every other faculty, can be developed, and when trained in the proper direction should qualify everyone to distinguish a bad work of art from a good one and enable people to develop a genuine preference for the latter, it is unfortunately very seldom that people attempt to develop this faculty even to a moderate degree.

“There are people who have the illusion that there are no absolute values in Art and believe, therefore, that personal taste is the only standard by which a work of Art can be judged, and consequently dub everything that repels them as bad with the certitude and intolerance that can only be the outcome of ignorance...”

Her early works reflected the academic style she was trained in. She simultaneously experimented to represent the non-western body in her paintings. Amrita Sher-Gil was an admirer of artist Paul Gauguin whose influence was palpable in some of her works. Reviewing the book and her artistic journey, critic Uma Nair notes: “These two volumes become a landmark biography of the artist, to show how her apparently patriotic tones are part of a long, complicated fight against a Western emotionalism, which existed in India. Obviously, she was passionate above all in her commitment to artistic ideals and absolute in terms of her quest for the Indian idiom.

“The paintings flow like the ebb and crest of a tide. They portray her urge to reflect a classical measure as well a raw emotional expressiveness not seen in Indian art: the robust colors; natural, rustic forms and the hamlet aesthetic are dissonant feminine answers to the more popular western forms.”

The comprehensive document offers an exhaustive record of this foremost Indian artist whose practice moved naturally towards the melancholy, even while eyes firmly fixed on the timelessness of a pretty object. Her rare photographs, reproductions of artworks that inspired her and those of her paintings complete the profile spread over 900 pages. The lavishly produced and richly illustrated two-volume account by Vivan Sundaram projects a self-portrait that seamlessly flows through her letters, writings and insightful essays.

It’s an engaging epic that will serve as a valuable art-historical resource as well as a perfect depiction of an important era.