Notice: Undefined index: page in /var/www/html/wp-content/plugins/advanced-category-excluder/advanced-category-excluder.php on line 15

Notice: Undefined index: widgets in /var/www/html/wp-content/plugins/cforms/cforms.php on line 1456

Notice: Use of undefined constant REQUEST_URI - assumed 'REQUEST_URI' in /var/www/html/wp-content/themes/Avenue/functions.php on line 73
The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Humari Amrita

Humari Amrita

Omair Ahmad 2

Omair Ahmad goes looking for Amrita Sher-Gil in his hometown Gorakhpur

Image courtesy: Yashodhara Dalmia

Image courtesy: Yashodhara Dalmia

I first ran across Amrita Sher-Gil’s name while visiting a school friend in the early 1990s in Delhi. The friend lived on Amrita Sher-Gil Marg, that posh little area just behind Khan Market in the heart of the city’s elite quarter. I had no reason to associate the name of the street with Gorakhpur, my father’s home town in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh. Truth be told, I knew nothing of Sher-Gil’s work, and was ignorant of the fact that she was one of India’s foremost painters. I did find it intriguing, though, that in a part of Delhi where the streets memorialise emperors and other failed potentates, a woman’s name was given great prominence. The name stayed with me, even if I knew nothing of its provenance.

Over time I did learn who she was and saw some of her works. But her image was also inextricably linked with Delhi, with the small circle of celebrities and the elite who could afford and understand art. I had only heard her name mentioned among them. Provincials, like those of us from the Poorvanchal belt of UP, had no claims on such people. Our stories had much more to do with dacoity and caste armies, with the railway contract mafia; in short, a narrative of an area that steadfastly refused to modernise, which jarred against the larger picture of a “modern India”. How could a place like this—infamous for the massacre of Chauri Chaura, which led to Mahatma Gandhi calling off the non-cooperation movement—have any connection to high art and a glamorous international celebrity? Little did I realise that the great movements of history which made Gorakhpur what it was, were the same ones that had shaped Amrita Sher-Gil into the woman, and the painter, she became.

It took a conversation with my uncle—my father’s elder brother—to make me search out and open up areas of debate, and realise how much official history darkens the areas beyond the imperial cities of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, even now that these cities have been so thoroughly indigenised, names and all. I was in Gorakhpur and chatting with Bade Abba. He was telling me about his uncle, my grandfather’s elder brother, who was a lawyer, a judge and finally the Pakistani High Commissioner to India. My uncle, a lawyer himself and a great teller of tales, mentioned a dinner that my great-uncle had hosted where the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was also a guest. I believe this might have been during the negotiations over the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, which helped to bring under control, and later end, the post-partition violence.

As a token of where my great-uncle was from, he had had dessert flown in from Gorakhpur. A dish particular to our region, rasawal is made just after the sugarcane is cut. Allowing for the particulars of individual recipes, including dried fruits and specific herbs, the preparation is essentially rice (chawal) cooked in cane juice (ras); thus its name. It is very sweet and is usually served with either cream or milk to cut the sweetness. When Nehru raised the cover from the dish before him, the scent brought back memories, and he exclaimed, “Ismail sahib, kya yaadein taazi kar deen!”

I was puzzled by the anecdote. I knew—vaguely—that my great-uncle, Mohammed Ismail, and Nehru knew each other fairly well, but that hardly seemed to justify such an outburst. My uncle chuckled and answered my question with one name: “Amrita Sher-Gil.” Seeing my bafflement, he said, “Didn’t you know she was from the Majithia family, and that she lived here for a time? Nehru was a great fan of hers.” He did not clarify whether he meant Sher-Gil the painter or Sher-Gil the beautiful woman, but I presume he meant both; certainly the twinkle in his eye said so. It is hard to separate an artist from her work. In the case of Amrita Sher-Gil, whose short life is often discussed more for its scandals than her path-breaking work as a practitioner of modern art in this country, it is impossible.

The anecdote, and the explanation, made me reassess Gorakhpur and its position in India. I had of course known that the Majithias were among the great landed families there, but I had not thought to connect them to the wider world. Their fiefdom is called Sardar Nagar, but I had assumed that Sikhs had always lived in Gorakhpur. But “always” is a matter of perspective. No one has “always” lived anywhere, and the Majithias were relative newcomers, only settling in Gorakhpur post 1857. In fact, the Majithias are a Punjabi family. They were among the most prominent families under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and Amrita Sher-Gil’s grandfather, Surat Singh, was one of the generals in Ranjit Singh’s court. How they came to have lands in Gorakhpur is a story in itself.

"Red Verandah", 1958

“Red Verandah”, 1958

After Ranjit Singh’s death, the Sikhs were defeated by the British in a series of wars (1845–49). General Surat Singh, and others like him who had opposed the British to the last, were among those dispossessed by the British. However, the British were soon faced with the 1857 Uprising, primarily in the regions that had been the base of their power: Bengal, Awadh and parts of the Maratha empire. Gorakhpur, which had only been acquired by the British from Awadh in 1801, managed to throw off the foreign yoke and functioned as a liberated zone for almost a year. The British finally sent armies led by the Sikhs, the Gurkhas and other allies from Nepal, Lucknow and Benares to crush the rebellion. In fact, the Gurkhas and Sikhs were now fighting the very men—the Purabia soldiery who constituted the heart of the East India Company’s army—the British had previously used to subjugate them in the Anglo-Gurkha and Anglo-Sikh wars that preceded the 1857 Uprising. The fighting was thus vicious, a matter of vengeance as well as combat.

One of the people who lost their lives and lands was Bandhu Singh, a local satrap of Raja Sattasi (so called because he ruled over 87 areas). His lands, as well as those of other rebels, were wrested from them. The British rewarded their allies with these estates. The Majithia family stood with the British in the fighting in 1857.This was how Sardar Nagar was founded and the Majithias rehabilitated into the British imperial system. One of the sons of the former Sikh general Surat Singh, Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia, would go on to become one of the most important political leaders in the Punjab. He was a leader of the Sikh revivalist movement, and was subsequently awarded a knighthood. His brother was Sardar Umrao Singh, a photographer and aesthete, a dashing Sikh aristocrat who courted and married the Hungarian pianist Marie Antoinette Gottesmann. Amrita Sher-Gil, their daughter, was born in Budapest in 1913.

Though born of this confusion of blood and conflict, Sher-Gil’s early life was that of the elite—and the elite belong to no country except that of the rich. Her early years were spent in Europe. Even when she did visit India, her haunts were Shimla and other playgrounds of imperial society. She went to Paris to learn more about painting. Barely out of her teens, she was elected an Associate of the Grand Salon in 1933; apparently, she was the youngest associate they had. Yet Gorakhpur would exercise its claim on her. Upon her return to India, she visited her parental estates in Gorakhpur, known as Saraya, in 1934. Some of her best-known works—“View from Majithia House”, “Mother India” and “The Little Untouchable”—date from the visits she made to Gorakhpur, even though she didn’t stay there. Instead she continued her itinerant lifestyle, earning fame in India and abroad through her works such as “Bride’s Toilet” and “Brahmacharis”. These, painted during her trip through south India, showcased how vividly the deft strokes of modern art could illuminate Indians.

She finally moved to Gorakhpur in 1938, having married her cousin, Dr Victor Egan. It may not have been out of choice: Europe’s anti-Semitism may have forced her—the daughter of a Jewish mother—to find safe harbour in her family estates. Nevertheless, her spirit wasn’t in retreat. It was a period of great flowering as she, an established artist who had found what she wanted to paint—India, and quite often the women in India—concentrated on her work.

Her work from that time is focussed on people, the people as they are found in Gorakhpur and this region. One painting stands out in my mind: “Woman on Charpai”, which depicts a women in a cot with a pallu, the only way of keeping some semblance of dignity in her abode of poverty. It is a scene that is ubiquitous in this area, but Sher-Gil’s vibrant colours and broad strokes bring it to life, achingly real despite the fact that her style was emphatically not classical portraiture. Maybe the reason she could do this so well was because she was both from the land and not from it, and was afforded a strange intimacy.

Like her own family, the places and people she painted were the outcomes of the many forces of colonial history. Her family, with its Rolls Royce, its personal aeroplanes and even a locomotive for the sugarcane factories, had been displaced from the Punjab during the Anglo-Sikh wars, and then had displaced others as a consequence of the 1857 Uprising. She, too, had been displaced by the suspicion that the British still harboured against her family, and then later from Europe because of her Jewish ancestry. Many of the poor she painted, the figures that populate artworks such as “Woman on Charpai” were the product of the plunder and mismanagement that the colonial empire left in its wake.

In fact, the Indian National Congress once thought of using her works to showcase the cause of the Indian rural poor, so in line were they with the charges of mismanagement and economic devastation the Congress laid against the British empire. Nehru was only one of the admirers that Sher-Gil had, and it is not hard to understand his fascination when he came to visit her in 1940. Amrita was a glamorous artist at the peak of her career, but she was in so many ways much more. In her art the graces of the world were used to depict the sadness, intimacy and vitality of an India that few knew or cared to know. These last works would also mark the end of her life, as she moved to Lahore not long after, in September 1941. She would die of a mysterious illness a few months later at the age of 28.

"Haldi Grinders", 1940

“Haldi Grinders”, 1940

It is hard to say how much of a Purabia, a Gorakhpuri, Amrita Sher-Gil was. I am sure she never thought of herself as such, but the forces that made her into the person she was and created the conditions and people she depicted in her paintings are peculiar to the place I call home. I would claim her as one of ours, if for no other reason than the love with which  she captured my land and my people, and made them art. And thus turned a stranger into one of our own.

Omair Ahmad has worked as an analyst, reporter and political advisor in New Delhi, London and Washington. His published work includes the novels Encounters, The Storyteller’s Tale and Jimmy the Terrorist. 


  1. Adam Malik January 31, 2018 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    Excellent profile of legendary artist in social, political and historic context. Very informative

  2. Niloufer Guptath July 15, 2021 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    thank you Omair Ahmed,the claim that you have made-my knowledge of the work by Amrita Sher Gill has been enriched by the last paragraph of your essay.
    the Haldi Grinders are indeed the epitome of the dignity of my gender,even now-july 21.

Leave A Response