Important works by a number of well-known Indian artists are set to be auctioned as part of the Indian Modern and Contemporary Art sale at Christie’s in London.
The sale features works by some of the best-known Indian artists of the past century, including MF Hussain and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde.
The highlight of the auction however, is a work by not only one of the most extraordinary artists of Indian extraction but a quite remarkable woman – Amrita Shergill.
The painting up for auction is a self-portrait, completed when Shergill was just 18 and living in the cultural and artistic ferment of early 1930’s Paris.
According to Christie’s the work was discovered in Paris and is one of just eight Shergill paintings to be offered at auction globally.
Shergill’s works are today considered ‘National Art Treasures’ in India, meaning they cannot be taken out of the country, if sourced within its borders.
Widely considered India’s answer to Frieda Kahlo, Shergill’s fabulous talent was only matched by a personality that amazed and scandalized in equal measure.
Shergil was the daughter of Sardar Umrao Singh Shergil and Antoinette, a Hungarian lady endowed with considerable artistic talent.
Born in Budapest in 1913 Amrita spent the formative years of her life in Europe. She dabbled in painting from her early childhood. Her mother detected her precocious talent early on encouraging her and eventually transporting the family to Italy and then on to Paris – the hotbed of artistic activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Amrita had the good fortune of studying at the best art school at Paris, the Ecole des Beaux Arts and was exposed to the city’s myriad galleries, museums and salons.
When she set foot on Indian soil for the first time in November 1934, she was haunted by the faces of the unhappy and dejected, poor and starving Indians whom she saw first around Shimla, then in the South and finally in the Punjab, where she was to spend the last days of her life (She died in Lahore in 1942).
After settling down in Shimla in early 1935, she took an important decision of interpreting “the life of Indians, particularly the poor, pictorially.”
This, she said, she would do “with a new technique, my own technique” and “this technique though not technically Indian, in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.”
She eschewed traditional Indian techniques, finding a new way of showing the reality of the country that she loved.
Returning to India had revolutionized Amrita’s art while the country also reinvigorated her exploration of the human experience.
She had a voracious sexual appetite – journalist Kushwant Singh called her a “Man-Eater” – which often expressed itself through her relationships and her writing.
When aged just 25, Amrita declared she wanted to marry – Victor Egan was a cousin from the Hungarian side of her family who had shared a special bond with Amrita since childhood.
Some say, the marriage was the beginning of the end.
Despite being lauded far and wide for her extraordinary talent, her personal life became increasingly troubled.
In the closing days of 1941, Amrita suffered a haemorrhage and died with one biographer claiming that she had tried to carry out yet another abortion.
She was only 28.
Her bold and vibrant work changed the Indian artscape forever.
They portrayed India’s realities with great authenticity but was never patronizing or demeaning.
And they are all now considered classics – an artist of the world whose life was as compelling and unorthodox as her art.