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July 20, 2017

A Conversation With Vivan Sundaram On Amrita Sher-Gil’s Biography

The compilation offers a glimpse into the remarkable life of a painter whose legacy continues to endure….

The early 20th century produced luminaries like Amrita Sher-Gil who, with her audacious paintings of women and rural Indian life, became one of the pioneering female faces in modern Indian art. This archival work — split into two volumes — carefully pieces together Sher-Gil’s life via translated letters and writings, photographs from family albums and sketches of her early works.

Sifting through the pages, one comes across reviews of her works, reproductions of over a 100 of her paintings and excerpts from autobiographies that held a special place in her heart. Edited by Sher-Gil’s nephew and contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram, and with a foreword by eminent author Salman Rushdie, this compilation offers a glimpse into the remarkable life of a painter whose legacy continues to endure.

What prompted you to dedicate a book to Sher-Gil?
In the early ’80s, I did a large painting called The Sher-Gil Family. And subsequently, I did an exhibition called The Sher-Gil Archive, where again I delved into different aspects of her work. And then my interest in her sort of grew. I subsequently did a show called Re-take of ‘Amrita’, where I digitally manipulated her photographs. And then this one kind of followed.

It took many years and I had help from many people who have in-depth knowledge of Hungarian history and literature.

What’s unique about the book?
I had the letters on the right-hand side and on the left, I used the entire page for what would be called annotation or footnotes. But these were not traditional footnotes because the letters were not numbered one, two, three. I wanted the letters to flow and did not want the footnotes to be academic. So, if there was a reference to a painting or person, I researched thoroughly to understand the context.

Was there something new that you discovered about Sher-Gil in the process?
There was a discussion about whether I should edit Amrita’s letters. The publishers at Tulika Books and my sister both felt that I should not. If Amrita has written — and she writes quite vividly — about a recipe for a Hungarian cake or about a cat or about life…and she lived a short life…there is an equal interest in all of these. So, I included everything. The majority of her letters were written to her mother in Hungarian. How she talks to her mother in a very adult manner was a discovery. Her mother was upset at moments and attempted suicide. So, Amrita took on a more mature role — from a daughter/child to almost being a companion of her mother’s while writing to her. And that relationship of mother and daughter was new to me too.

What’s in it for the readers?
When you read the book, you will see why the annotation and the footnotes are really important. So, if you see a photograph of Sarojini Naidu next to one of India’s most beautiful women Princess Niloufer, you will wonder about the juxtaposition and what the two are doing next to each other. Then when you read the letters, you understand. This is not a story or a novel. It is for those who are interested in Amrita and her work…because they will find information that hasn’t previously been made available. And of course, this is also the first time that a full catalogue of her paintings has been presented.

Your favourite painting by Sher-Gil?
Two Girls, 1939. In November of this year, it will be showcased at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in an international show that will be curated by Naman Ahuja.

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