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Celebrating A Life

Laila Tyabji

By Vivan Sundaram
2010, pp. 900, Rs 5750.00


Anything anticipated too long often ends in anti-climax. Not this outstanding and enthralling two volume memorial to Amrita Sher-Gil, India’s most iconic painter—almost twenty years in the making. Dying tragically young at the age of 28, Amrita left behind not only an incomparable body of work, but a cache of 260 letters and writings that illuminate her life, art and times. Even were she not a major part of India’s artistic history, one would read the volumes for he sheer pleasure of what Salman Rushdie describes in his Foreword as ‘her impassioned, opinionated voice’, and the glimpses of her wit and devastating insights into the state of Indian art, Indian society and her own mind. Often egotistical, she is never self-deceptive—and always arresting. Viz., her first experience of Kathakali dancing—‘grotesque and subtle at the same time—an unusual combination’. Vivan Sundaram, Amrita’s nephew, himself a multifaceted artist, has talked about a definitive portrait of Amrita for decades. In the early 90’s it was to be a book of Amrita’s letters brought out by Kali for Women. Then a feature film by Kumar Shahani. Neither fructified. In the interim, Vivan worked with the letters and Amrita’s Umrao Singh photographs. The immediate result was a series of exhibitions of imaginatively juxtaposed photographic collages and audio visuals, gaining him an ease and familiarity with the material that would serve him in good stead when he finally began work on this magnum opus. Amrita Sher-Gil: a Self-portrait in letters & writings, (in 2 volumes) introduced, annotated and edited by Vivan, and beautifully published by Tulika Books, is masterly—the structure, presentation and design, and the rigorously researched, authoritative editorial text, match the quality of the subject and subject matter. Amrita Sher-Gil died six years before I was born but she was always a part of my life. Her painting, The Story Teller, which my father bought from her first exhibition at Falettis in Lahore, effortlessly dominated the drawing-rooms of 14 different homes around the world as I grew up. Its dark, glowing colours and serene imagery, counterpoised by the luminous whites of the village wall backdrop, were a magical world into which one could disappear. Sadly, incredibly, it was one of the few paintings she sold in her lifetime—apart from the commissioned portraits she despised, and a painting of bullocks and carts which a kind cousin suggested she paint as ...

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