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Who's Afraid of Amrita Sher-Gil?

The once controversial artist who brought discomfort to the sophisticated quarters of society and art in India—is she the ultimate millennial?
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
Who's Afraid of Amrita Sher-Gil?

If art is the reflection of society at large, then its use and consumption is symptomatic of individual indulgences. In the 21st century though, art is democratic, filtered, even altered to adjust reality. Social media is the chosen form of dissemination. So, what’s an artist like in 2018? As this month marks the 77th death anniversary of one of the most risque artists of the 20th century, Amrita Sher-Gil, this VICE writer reimagines the life of this personality—who died at the age of 28 in 1941—as a millennial in the times we live in.


Risque is probably too predictable a construct in 2018. It’s a trope, a tease that gives the whiff of the forbidden, but never the whole feast. For Amrita Sher-Gil, though—yes, that half-Hungarian, half-Sikh artist of the 20th century—risque was a predisposition. It was a subconscious responsibility towards what she considered art, and, above all, it was her rejection of what everybody considered art. In an essay that was published in 1937, the precocious 24-year-old Sher-Gil had noted: “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.”


Before we delve into our subject more, it would be fair to ask once again: Who exactly is Amrita Sher-Gil? Apart from the fact that her art was way ahead of her time; that she was fiercely sexual (a favourite narrative cherry-picked by most writers); and that she was “stunningly beautiful”? A “tempestuous” life that was snuffed out at the prime of her youth because of a botched abortion? And more importantly, being so evocative of the Indian female energy and sexuality that she inspired generations of artists to come? Well, yes. All that, and much more. Sher-Gil—whose short life is as much of a testament to breaking bad in the uppity quarters of the cultural high society, as her art—is, in many ways, even more relevant today. And as this writer draws up her relevance, it’s best done with a reimagined life: A millennial, a woman and, most of all, an artist.


First things first: Amrita Sher-Gil would not be “woke”. In fact, she detests that word (much like yours truly). Born to mixed parentage in Budapest and having blossomed as an artist and a Bohemian thinker in Paris, Sher-Gil would know better than to be boxed within a social construct—intersectionality finding a special place in her work. She would neither conform to trends and hashtags nor would she feign regard for the many trolls that would inevitably come her way. It’s not just her art that would shock the faint-hearted; it would also be her popularly brazen conduct (calling a fellow intellectual’s child “ugly” can still cost you some social currency in the 21st century). She, a believer in the artist’s “right to reject or accept public estimates of her work”, would breeze through the “un-informed and dull” hate, unrelenting and unremorseful till the end. Popularity was never her thing anyway.


Talking of popularity, open sexuality still doesn’t have an easy audience, even now. While the 20th century allowed fervent gossip-mongering, come 2018 and you’re already on the hit lists of several trolls on social media, susceptible to not just hate but also rape and death threats. Would that faze Sher-Gil? Of course, it would. But I imagine her response to be through her resilient creations: Of women, bodies, and sex. With every pinch of trolling, her colours would get bolder, and her strokes more solid. Her depiction of women from the rural pockets of India would fuel her inclusive “fundamentally Indian” narrative. “India,” she had famously said, “belongs to me.” And she will have it no other way.


Sex is not sacred, even private, for Sher-Gil. As a teenager, she had openly.%20So%20I%20thought%20I%20would%20start%20a%20relationship%20with%20a%20woman%20when%20the%20opportunity%20arises&f=false) told her mother her thoughts on the “disadvantages of relationships with men”. “Since I need to relieve my sexuality physically somehow (because I think it is impossible to spiritualize, idealize sexuality completely in art, and channelizing it through art for a lifetime is impossible, only a stupid superstition invented for the brainless). So I thought I would start a relationship with a woman when the opportunity arises…” Even today, she’d be fiercely sexual, and that would obviously shake up the rampant toxic masculinity; and a few men would even write her off in their premature memoirs. ‘She has a certain genius … but no values, she belongs to that dead world of moral disintegration, disorderly hands and tangled hair, swollen, seen often as picturesqueness, in which both my feet are planted, but that, with my head outside, I hate,’ wrote a spurned journalist, who at one point had graced her canvas.

It’s not hard to imagine how Sher-Gil’s feminism would provoke some—especially those who would hold her glamour and sexual adventures against her. But it would also inspire many. In the #MeToo arena, Sher-Gil would find empowerment by empowering others. This army of voices would gather momentum with a ferocity that is symbolic of her bold and tempestuous determination.


One of her biggest battles would be to reject the “cheap emotional appeal” of social media. And yet, social media would be the biggest benefactor of her cause. This “self consciously arty” activist would know where to place herself—working the brushstrokes in Kochi (the city had her rapt in her 20th century life with its erotic frescos), or waltzing around in the bustling art district of Kala Ghoda, Mumbai—looking resplendent in her classic bold lip shades and flowing cotton saris. In fact, she would allow her forceful, audacious personality to dictate her social media following. Her art, on the other hand, would still be reclusive: a work of such substance, after all, is too meaningful to be lapped up by the gluttonous double-taps.

So, what is it really to be an artist in the 21st century? Sher-Gil would never answer this question. And yet, as her short life bears a striking analogy to the temporariness of the digital life an artist lives in today, Amrita Sher-Gil would have probably emerged as yet another revolution.

On November 29, Amrita Sher-Gil's work, 'The Little Girl in Blue', sold for ₹18.69 crore at Sotheby's first auction in India, a record price for the artist in the country.

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