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The female redefined in Sher-Gil’s frames
Abhirup Dam  15th Feb 2014

(L) Young Girls (1932); and (R) An Ancient Storyteller (1940)

here are four distinct movements when it comes to the works of Amrita Sher-Gil currently on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Amrita Sher-Gil: The Passionate Quest, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, marks the closing of the birth centenary celebrations of the artist. The four movements — titled Threshold, Icon and Iconoclastic, Hungarian Manifestation and Indian Journey — constitute her earlier work, mostly self-portraits and nude studies during her tutorship at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, her treatment of women as active agential subjects, the strikingly European portraits from her times spent in Hungary, culminating in a remarkable change in aesthetic with the work she produced in and about India. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of introductory panels, a mini-tableau familiarising the viewer with her life, work and influences. Retake of Amrita by Vivan Sundaram not only recast his own family roles, but also introduced us, through a series of photomontages, to the enigma of Sher-Gil as an itinerant artist and individual. Sher-Gil's vignettes of unbound femininity are also exercises in self-reflection where the artist's ever-evolving, ever-contradicting persona finds expression in different forms and styles. The exhibition deftly captures this evolutionary history where changing idioms and styles narrate the story of the artist's encounter with the world around her, a critical awareness of her surroundings as a woman.

One cannot miss this insuppressibly vociferous femininity even in the male nudes she painted at Paris. An oil-on-canvas titled Young Man with Apples perhaps illustrates this best. The man, dressed in a white shirt, almost deep in reverie or overcome by some sense of somnolence, holds a few apples in his hands. The gaze of the subject is inadvertently directed downwards, imparting an almost coy nature, traditionally ascribed to the female gender. It is this remarkable blurring of gender lines through aspects as simple, yet complexly indiscernible, as expressions that mark Sher-Gil's early works. Her self-portraits from this time also resonate an idea of self-expression, bound in the superseded notion of being free. Interestingly, in contrast to the Young Man with Apples, a study in nude of a woman represents her as a robustly built figure, with emphasis on the muscular curvatures generally highlighted in male nude studies. The woman's breasts are rather prosaic than being luridly lyrical. Her work in Paris majorly revolves around a pronounced and distinct European aesthetic, somewhat reminiscent of Degas.

It can be safely remarked that Sher-Gil’s tryst with India represented the most prolific phase of her career as an artist. Not only did she come to understand the rooted diversity of experiences that the sub-continent offers, but also developed an outstandingly idiosyncratic style.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and diverse bodies of work that Sher-Gil produced was her work with women. Sher-Gil's women, even if they are shrouded in their domestic obscurities as in Group of Three Girls, are in complete control of their bodies and selves, seldom coming across as mute or passive subjects. Woman on Charpoy captures the subjects in a somewhat torpid, but evocatively resigned state. A remarkable change of style, form and use of colour mark her treatment of European and Indian women. Interestingly, at one point in her life, Sher-Gil denounced European clothing and chose only to be dressed in Indian wear. The tragic everyday of Indian women, marked by economic constraints and lack of abundance, forms the core of these sets of works. One can firmly claim that Sher-Gil's works were directly influenced by her surroundings, something that becomes evident if one compares her works from France, Hungary and India. The Hungarian paintings, which includes a portrait of her grandmother, carries forward the strong European influences that she picked up in Paris. Her grandmother's portrait is presented as an immensely personal impression, yet redolent with marks of a strong individuality.

It can be safely remarked that Sher-Gil's tryst with India represented the most prolific phase of her career as an artist. Not only did she come to understand the rooted diversity of experiences that the sub-continent offers, but also developed an outstandingly idiosyncratic style. Brahmacharis contains an almost incisive passivity, which moulds a very marked notion of the social. The almost blurry luminescence in Ancient Story Teller de-exoticises an undeniably exotic register. In a way, these portraits of everyday life and sights picked up from one's immediate surroundings have come to represent the almost languid, yet animated world of Sher-Gil's India.

Venue: NGMA

Date: Until 2 March

Timing:10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

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