A few years back I had the pleasure of wondering around and exploring the old city remnants of Lahore, accompanied by Najum Latif, a migrant of 1947 and resident of the Androon Shehr. We start off where he lives, Sir Ganga Ram Mansion located just behind The Mall and a hidden gem of the who’s who in the history of Lahore’s former life. In its heyday of the 1930s, Lahore was a cultural centre for North India and writers such as Khushwant Singh and the artist like Abdur Rahman Chughtai (and a friend of Amrita Sher-Gil’s father) lived nearby. Only a few doors away from Latif’s house was where Amrita Sher-Gil rented an apartment with her husband, Dr Victor Egan. When Latif was growing up he was a frequent visitor to No 23, at the time he was unaware that Sher-Gil, the great Punjabi-Hungarian painter once lived there.
Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest, her father was the aristocratic landlord Sardar Umrao Singh Majitha and her mother a Hungarian opera singer. Educated in Paris, she took to the bohemian lifestyle of the Parisian art scene that allowed her to express herself truly. European in style, yet her paintings also reflect the multiple layers and textures of her own life and identity. Influenced by the work of Paul Cezanne, Amedeo Modigliani and Paul Gaugain, she later looked to India for inspiration, trying to fuse these two together. After spending four years in Paris, Amrita decided to return to India. She noted that, “My professor had often said that, judging by the richness of my colouring, I was not really in my element in the grey studios of the West, that my artistic personality would find its true atmosphere in the colour and light of the East” (Rizvi). During her time in India, she painted scenes from India, learning new techniques and getting inspiration from the breath of the sub-continent. Today she is considered one of the most important Indian painters of the 20th Century and certainly one of the most expensive female painters in India.
She was only 28 when died at 23 Sir Ganga Ram Mansion apartments, where she spent the last few months of her life. Her husband had a clinic on the ground floor and she painted upstairs, where they also lived. She first came to Lahore in 1937 from Paris when her work was exhibited at the famous Faletti’s Hotel. It was a resounding success and challenged the status quo of the art world. In September 1941 she came to Lahore so that she could plan for her solo exhibition in December; this never happened as she was suddenly taken ill and died in a matter of days. The planned discussion between Abdur Rahman Chugtai and Amrita Sher-Gil never happened and instead the exhibition opened but posthumously. Most of these works are now located in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
Amrita Sher-Gil still remains an enigma in death, as she was in life. The young artist was never to see the great legacy that she would leave behind and sadly few Lahoris would be aware that she once lived and worked in the great historic city. Her painting, Vina Player, still finds space in Lahore Museum but otherwise sadly her association with Lahore has all but evaporated. She was cremated on banks of the Ravi in Lahore on December 7, 1941, a river that now forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan.
Other articles to read more about Amrita Sher-Gil:
Yours, Amrita by Dua Abbas Rizvi. http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20130726&page=16
Amritsar sisters posed for painter Amrita’s ‘Three Girls’ by Nirupana Dutt. http://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/amritsar-sisters-posed-for-painter-amrita-s-three-girls/story-WsZhRAtCcX5BTMxicxcdBO.html
Chughtai’s Art Blog, http://blog.chughtaimuseum.com/?p=978
Finding Amrita in Lahore by Dalmia. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/finding-amrita-in-lahore/
Great success in a short life. http://budapesttimes.hu/2016/01/23/great-success-in-a-short-life/