Yesterday’s Guardian carried a lengthy article by Salman Rushdie about Amrita Shergill. Below is an extract. Click here to read the full article.
In the mid-1990s, when I began to think about my novel The Moor's Last Sigh, I soon realised that it would contain an account of the character of an entirely imaginary 20th-century Indian woman painter. I thought about my friendships and acquaintanceships with a number of fine contemporary artists The work of all these painters helped me think about the pictures my fictional Aurora Zogoiby might create. But the figure that, so to speak, "gave me permission" to imagine her personality, to invent a woman painter at the very heart of modern art in India - to believe in the possibility of such a woman - was an artist I never met, who died tragically young. That artist was Amrita Sher-Gil.
I did not know much about her in those days. I knew she was half-Hungarian, and I had seen some of her paintings of scenes of village life - storytellers, young girls. I resisted knowing more. I conjured up an imaginary Amrita for myself - a woman much influenced by Gandhian ideas and decided that my Aurora would be in many ways her antithesis, an unrepentant urbanite and sophisticate. It was only after the book was done that I permitted myself to know the real Amrita a little better, and I discovered at once that she and my Aurora had much more in common than I suspected. Indeed, in some ways - her sexual proclivities, for example - Amrita Sher-Gil was a more bohemian, less inhibited figure than the flamboyant woman I had made up.
This ferocity of mind and sharpness of tongue, combined with an unashamed openness about her own behaviour, and an insistence on her right to behave as she chooses, is also present in her thoughts about her own family and friends. When her father ("Duci") hesitates about her proposed return to India from Europe, and accuses her of lacking interest in India, she delivers herself of an extraordinary text that is at once an artistic testament and an assault on her father's narrower mores of social and sexual conduct: "I wish to return primarily in interest of my artistic development ...... Our long stay in Europe has aided me to discover as it were, India. Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain that, had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realised that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musée Guimet is worth more than the whole Renaissance! In short, now I wish to go back to appreciate India and its worth ...
Amrita Sher-Gil's is an art which moves naturally towards the melancholy and tragic, while keeping its eye fixed firmly on high ideals of beauty. She was denied old age, bleak or otherwise, but neither her exuberant, magnificent self, nor the work it made, contained anything for which she needed to apologise. Time has passed, and her art endures. As Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby wrote of his mother Aurora: "Even now, in the memory, she dazzles, must be circled about and about. We may perceive her indirectly, in her effects on others ... Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them; the giant dead whom we cannot tie down, though we grasp at their hair, though we rope them while they sleep."
Amrita Sher-Gil (Sher-Gill or Shergill) is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from February 28 to April 22. Details: 020-7887 8888