ARTICLE: Travelling with Amrita

2nd February 2010

Vivan Sundaram takes us on an engaging journey through his archive and summons up Amrita Sher-Gil's presence in complex and compelling ways, claims Abhay Sardesai.

THE TWO VOLUMES OF AMRITA SHER-GIL: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, introduced, annotated and edited by Vivan Sundaram, attempt to re-create the story of the artist through her utterances, jottings, epistles, sketches, photographs and paintings. As a way of tracing and composing an artist’s life, the
books offer an exciting new model to mesh the biography and the autobiography as literary forms. Can you call it an autobiography when Sundaram’s editorial shadow falls squarely across the pages in the systematic way in which the messy details of Amrita’s life are chronologically re-oriented, steered and presented? And can you call it a biography when most of the communication that seems to be happening is between Amrita and the reader with Sundaram strategically erasing himself after creating a frame for the tete-a-tete? As a project curated by Sundaram, it is the logical conclusion of the consuming interest he has had in the Sher-Gil family (he is, after all, Amrita’s nephew). Following the painting The Sher-Gil Family (1984-85), Sundaram came up with the installation The Sher-Gil Archive (1995), where he induced memorabilia items to enter and inflect each other’s spaces and Re-take of Amrita (2001), where he re-enacted possible versions of several pasts by puncturing the flow of history – reordering events digitally helped create an alternate world, a new landscape of memory and desire.
The books under review are composed using a careful binary logic: the right-hand pages carry letters and other text-extracts whereas the left-hand pages carry the reproductions of paintings and photographs, annotations, references and explanations. As a way of erecting a museum or shrine to Amrita between the 800-odd pages spread across two volumes, this intervention improves on the ‘image and caption’ arrangement that allows for a swift accessing of information and visual stimuli in an art gallery. However, as readers (and not viewers), the relentless back-and-forthing or to-and-froing or left-and-righting makes the act of processing the books a little tedious. Overelaboration can sometimes kill the thrill you get in the pursuit of trivia and too many details can create a kaleidoscope that can overwhelm.
“As a rule I dislike biographies and autobiographies. They ring false. Pomposity or exhibitionism. But I think I will like yours. You are able to discard your halo occasionally…” maintained Amrita in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937. To Sundaram’s credit, the volumes manage to bring Amrita alive in a variety of enabling ways – by cutting through the thick mass of murky mythology and dull stereotype that have made her inaccessible or marked her as a unidimensional figure, Sundaram establishes her presence as a sensitive, passionate and mesmeric figure.

In his foreword, Salman Rushdie speaks of Amrita being the inspiration behind the enigmatic Aurora Zogoiby in his The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Both Amrita and Aurora are colourful and charismatic women but, as two people with flamboyant lives and calamitous relationships, there are probably more differences than similarities between them. Sundaram places before us events

from Amrita’s life in a skeletal chronology, which gathers meat as you cut deeper into the books. Using family trees and genealogical histories in his Prologue, Sundaram delves into Amrita’s multi-cultural past and limns a fascinating Hungaro-Indian landscape peopled with migrating families, inter-continental romances and revolutionary heroes. Clearly, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita’s father, comes across as an important figure – as an obsessive photographer of his children, a courageous anti-colonialist, an assiduous student of Sanskrit, Persian, Yoga and Indian systems of thought, and as a fanatic vegetarian, he becomes a figure whose presence looms large in Amrita’s life. Comparatively, her cousin/husband Victor Egan’s presence remains a tad under-explored.

What is the picture of Amrita (1913-41) that emerges as we shuttle between the two volumes? And what are its striking features? Her letters to her mother Marie Antoinette, her father Umrao Singh, her sister Indira and her friend Karl Khandalavala reveal the contrary forces that seem to be buffeting her life. She grows into a woman with sparkling views about Indian art and artists: in a letter to Karl Khandalavala in 1937, she insists, “…Tagore’s work doesn’t equal a good Soutine though it is certainly as good as a bad one. One is apt to be carried away by one’s adjectives when the insipid futilities of the Bengal School rise before one’s mind’s eye. It is the usual case of “his eminence being due to the surrounding flatness of the country”. As for Tagore’s piddling little poetry, I have as profound a contempt for it as I have for the mannerisms of the man himself. As a matter of fact the only thing that Tagore can do is paint.” In another letter to Khandalavala in 1940, she refers to the “aridity” of Nandalal Bose. “The more I see of his work, the more convinced I feel that his talent is merely an appearance – an illusion.” And in the same letter, she continues about the venerable Jamini Roy, “His line is dense – it is dead, if you know what I mean”. Khandalavala, collector and critic, comes across as a figure in charge of preserving her sanity. She writes to him often as a way of conversing with herself. In a letter written in 1939, she admits the importance of his therapeutic presence, “I have come to identify with you, or rather, my work with yours…it has been the thought of your comprehension & support that has sustained me!” But more than anything else, she comes across as someone vulnerable, as someone who is pained at being misunderstood. In a letter to her father in 1940, she writes about a letter her mother has written to her husband, “I cannot describe its contents…”, she states, “The filth of the allegations it contains is such as to render us speechless…she charges us indiscriminately with every vice, criminal ingratitude being the least of them, of filth, sloth & abnormal sexual manias (which she says is our sole & main concern in life to satisfy)…” In a letter written to Indira in 1940, an year before her death, she honestly confesses, “I and Victor are tremendously fond of each other & yet we seem to have nothing, absolutely nothing to say to each other. When we are alone together we sit by the hour in silence & we weigh intolerably on each other…”

- ABHAY DESAI Read more

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