Every artistic movement needs a Romantic hero—a precociously gifted individual who lives by different rules, paints or writes or sculpts outrageously well, and dies at a shockingly young age. Sher-Gil is modern Indian art's great Romantic. Part Indian and part Hungarian, beautiful and unconventional, she painted Brahmacharis in 1937, when she was 24. Just four years later she was dead, but she left behind a legend and a stunning body of work. After years of relative neglect, modern art is now going through an extraordinary boom in India. Entrepreneurs, engineers and stockpickers enriched by the nation's economic rise have discovered that abstract paintings can make for a good investment, and prices have soared for leading modernists like Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and M.F. Husain. Until recently, though, Sher-Gil had been somewhat forgotten amid the excitement. Because her paintings were declared "national treasures" in the 1970s and cannot be taken out of the country, overseas Indians, the most lavish patrons of art, have avoided buying her works. All that changed in March, when an Indian businessman bought Sher-Gil's Village Scene for $1.6 million, the most ever paid for a work of art in India. This massive sale is focusing attention on Sher-Gil, as is a new biography, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, by art historian Yashodhara Dalmia.
Born in Budapest to a Hungarian mother partly of Jewish extraction, and a Sikh father, Sher-Gil studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she absorbed influences from Gaugin to contemporary Hungarian art. At age 21, she settled in India, which had seen nothing like her. Most men who met her became infatuated; her numerous lovers included British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, and perhaps even Jawaharlal Nehru, India's future prime minister. Rumors grew furiously but Sher-Gil doesn't seem to have cared; her self-portraits, which, like her nude studies of women, are icons of Indian feminism, show a cheerful, exuberant woman, confident in her sexuality. Indian journalist Khushwant Singh, a fellow resident of Lahore in the 1940s, writes in his autobiography: "She was said to have given appointments to her lovers, three to four every day with intervals of a couple of hours in between." Perhaps none of this was true, but it added to her mystique, as did rumors of her bisexuality. Even her death had a whiff of scandal to it; Dalmia says it may have resulted from a botched abortion.
Cutting through the myths and gossip, Dalmia shows that Sher-Gil was a serious artist intent upon bridging the gulf between the Western-educated Indian élite to which she belonged, and the impoverished millions surrounding them. She wrote of traveling through India and finding it full "of dark-bodied, sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently looking almost like silhouettes." She decided her task would be "to interpret the life of Indians, particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those images of infinite submission and patience." This she did like no one before her, filling canvases with farm workers, storytellers, nurses, camel drivers and minstrels. Searching for a way to depict rural Indians that would avoid sentimentality, she hit upon a style—abstracted, rhythmic, vividly colorful—as inspired by European modernism as by India's ancient sculpture and art.
Sher-Gil was prolific in a short life, and some of her work seems hastily composed. But in her best paintings, brilliant details combine to create a timeless monumentality. In The Haldi Grinders, a group of women engaged in a mundane activity, crushing turmeric, are obscured by trees, their bodies distilled into a clutch of hands that grip the crushing wheel; we spy on them and their vivid hands as if trespassing on a religious mystery. The young Brahmins of Brahmacharis, with their distinctive faces, look like so many who still sit beside temples in South India, yet they could also be ancient hierophants sharing a hushed secret. In such works, writes Dalmia, "the contemporary [is] elevated to the level of the classical." In a tragically brief career, Sher-Gil did much to introduce her country to the idea of the free-spirited artist, and to show them that art could interpret Indian life for Indians. As Dalmia puts it: "She introduced the modern into India."