A Self in Making : AMRITA SHER-GILL

The recent offering by the well-known Kiran Nadar Museum Of Art, is a three-part show curated by Roobina Karode titled “Difficult Loves”. It comprises of never-seen before self portraits of Amrita Shergill to mark her birth centenary year, titled “A Self in Making”; a mega retrospective of Nasreen Mohammedi called “ A view to Infinity”, and installations by seven acclaimed Contemporary Indian women artists, including the likes of Anita Dube, Shebba Chachi and Bharti Kher.

Influenced by Italo Calvino’s famous book “Difficult Loves”, the show attempts to bring three generations of women artists under one platform, dealing with myriad issues – from spiritual to political, from figurative to abstractions, and from errors to perfections.

The section dealing with Amrtia Shergill’s self portraits was a feast to the eyes.

The collection consisted of a decade of works ranging from 1927 to 1937, also including some photomontages by Vivan Sundaram from his series “Re-take of Amrita” (2011-12).

As one goes through the displayed works, covering an array of her entire life, one notices the growth of the artist – as an artist as well as a woman. One notices the range of contradictory feelings that erupt in acting as both the muse and the maker, the creator and the created. Of course, this process created the fears of uncertainty, arrogance and even narcissism. Hints of all three are clearly evident in the entire range of the works.

There is a strong hint of self speculation in sketches made as early as at the age of 14 ( c. 1927). These multiple pencil drawings highlight a kind of angry energy and aloofness, evident in the harsh strokes and bold lines. Although she experimented with many postures, the facial expression remained almost constant – slightly knit-eyebrows and the absence of a smile on those full lips.

The later works portray a similar expression and aloofness, but the growth is evident in treatment and style. Amrita turns to more a subtle and introspective style, choosing to work only in oils. This phase coincides with the artist’s experiences in India leading her to shift to a drastically different style. Her later portraits from 1937 are examples of such a shift exemplified by works like “Self Potrait in a Blue Saree”.

Amrita was also fully aware of the risk involved in portraying herself as an Indian woman artist out of the domestic realm. But she decides to take that risk, and perhaps enjoys it, as is evident in the celebrated work titled “Self portrait with easel”. Here, with hints of a drapery in the background, the position of her hand and the easel in the foreground corner, she places herself in a context akin to the European Masters ( Van Gogh’s self portrait for example).

It is obvious that the show directs one’s attention to the curios, ambitious and ever-growing mind of this alluring artist. This retrospective is a tribute to that zeal and genius. Untimely death might have cut short her life, but it was unboundedly a life lived to the fullest.

Shubhasree Purkayastha
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India