Amrita Sher-Gil, was an eminent Indian painter, sometimes known as India's Frida Kahlo, and today considered an important woman painter of 20th century India, whose legacy stands at par with that of the Masters of Bengal Renaissance; she is also the 'most expensive' woman painter of India.
In 1934, while in Europe she "began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India,".. "feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter", as she later wrote about her return to India, in the same year. Soon she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death. She stayed at their family home at Summer Hill, Shimla, for a while, before leaving for travel, in 1936, at the behest of an art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala, who encouraged her to pursue her passion for discovering her Indian roots; subsequently she was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and cave paintings at Ajanta Caves.
Amrita Sher-Gil in her studio in Shimla, photographed by father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, 1937.
Later in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy paintings, Bride's Toilet', 'Brahmacharis' and 'The South Indian Villagers' that reveal her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair, by now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her 'artistic mission', to express the life of Indian people through her canvas, as she herself admitted.
This was distinct from European phase, in the interwar years, when her work showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya school of painting.
Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan in 1938, and moved with him to India, to stay at her paternal family's home in Saraya, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, thus began her second phase in painting, which equals in its impact on Indian Modern Art, with likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of Bengal school of art, as the 'Calcutta Group' of artists movement, which transformed it later, in a big way, was yet to start in 1943, and the 'Progressive Artist's Group', with Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Bakre, Gade, M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza among its founders, laid further ahead in 1948, Bombay.
In September 1941, the couple moved to Lahore, then in undivided India, and a major cultural and artistic centre. She lived and painted at 23 Ganga Ram Mansions, The Mall, Lahore, where her studio was reported to be on the top floor of the townhouse, she inhabited. She was also famous for her many affairs with both women and men.
In 1941, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, she became seriously ill and slipped into a coma, and later died around midnight on December 6, 1941, leaving behind a large volume of work, and a mystery behind the real reason for death has never been ascertained, something expected in view of the overly sensationalised accounts of Amrita's life in the words of her contemporaries. A failed abortion and subsequent peritonitis also have been suggested as the possible causes. She was cremated on December 7, 1941 at Lahore.
The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and a postage stamp depicting her painting 'Hill Women' was released in 1978 in India, and a road in Lutyens' Delhi, was named after her, Amrita Shergill Marg.
Besides remaining an inspiration to many a contemporary Indian artists, in 1993, she also became the inspiration behind, the famous Urdu play, by Javed Siddiqi, Tumhari Amrita, starring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh.