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An Art Appreciation Trip to NGMA by Suvajit Chakraborty (11M52)

18th September 2011 was not just another Sunday. I was excited by the feeling that we were going to visit the National Gallery for Modern Art. Situated at the end of Rajpath, facing the India Gate, the building was the former residential palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur, hence known as "Jaipur House". It was designed by Sir Arthur Bloomfield, after the construction of Lutyens' Delhi, in 1936.

A little bit of research threw up the following facts to me. Though the idea of the National Gallery was floated in 1949, it was formally inaugurated by Vice-president Dr S. Radhakrishnan in 1954, in the presence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Hermann Goetz (1898–1976), a noted German art historian became its first curator and in time, it added new facilities such as Art restoration services, an Art reference Library and a Documentation Centre. Then in 2009, a new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art was inaugurated adding almost six times the space to the existing gallery, plus it has a new auditorium, a preview theatre, conservation laboratory, library and academic section as well as a cafeteria and museum shop.

I witnessed artwork of various painters in the gallery. But the painting “Three Girls” made in 1935 by Amrita SherGill caught my attention. This is a painting which shows three girls on the frame. It has got touches of the Bohemian art movement in Paris and Post-Impressionistic feeling. It also has an example of chiaroscuro as it plays significantly with the lights and shadows. The expressions projected through the eyes shows that they are engrossed with deep thoughts. The work of art left me curious to know more about one of the pioneering woman of the Modern Art in India.

Amrita SherGill was an eminent Indian painter, sometimes known as India's Frida Kahlo, and today considered as an important woman painter of 20th century India, whose legacy stands at par with that of the Masters of Bengal Renaissance; she is also the 'most expensive' woman painter of India. Her early paintings display a significant influence of the Western modes of painting, especially as being practised in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. In 1932, she made her first important work, Young Girls, which led to her election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, making her the youngest ever and the only Asian to have received this recognition hence.

The majority of works by Amrita SherGill in the public domain are with the NGMA, which houses over 100 paintings by this meteoric artist. Born of a Sikh father from an aristocratic, land owing family, and a Hungarian mother, Amrita SherGill’s life veered between Europe and India. She was blessed with beauty, breeding, charismatic personality and extra ordinary talent as a painter.

In 1929, she joined the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her painting skills were recognized and acclaimed; she loved the bohemian life of artists in Paris. SherGill’s painting style at this time reflected the European idiom with its naturalism and textured application of paint. Many of the paintings done in the early 1930s are in the European style, and include a number of self-portraits. There are also many paintings of life in Paris, nude studies, still life studied, as well as portraits of friends and fellow students. Of these, the self-portraits form a significant corpus. They captured the artist in her many moods- somber, pensive and joyous- while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.

Her style underwent a radical change by the mid- 30s. She yearned for India, and by 1934, the family returned. This time, she looked at India with the eyes of an artist. The colours, the textures, the vibrancy and the earthiness of the people had a deep impact on the young artist. In India, she appropriated the language of miniatures.

The complexities of her life- she was of mixed parentage and her art school background in Paris made her both, an insider and outsider, as did her ambivalent sexuality- promoted her to constantly reinvent her visual language. She sought to reconcile her modern sensibility with her enthusiastic response to traditional art-historical resources.

In 1934, while in Europe she "began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter", as she later wrote about her return to India, in the same year. The memories of the models would eventually lead to her return to India. She drew inspiration from European painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. Soon, she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death and pursued her passion for discovering her Indian roots; subsequently she was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and cave paintings at Ajanta Caves. Her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair, by now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her 'artistic mission', to express the life of Indian people through her canvas, as she herself admitted. This was distinct from European phase, in the interwar years, when her work showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya School of painting.

Citations:

All information given here are from the plaques placed in the National Gallery for Modern Arts about the artists and from websites like en.wikipedia.org and www.google.com.

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