How have they turned figures, plots, narratives, lyrical and fictional projects set up for different purposes to their use?
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With what cunning did they press into service objects coded into cultural significations indifferent or hostile to them? How did they tread their oblique paths across competing ideological grids, or obdurately hang on to illegitimate pleasure? What forms did their dreams of integrity or selfhood take? They were British loyalists.
The father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil was, lone among his family, a nationalist.
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An enlightened dilettante, he engaged himself with scholarly pursuits and photography of remarkable merit. The mother Marie Antoinette belonged to an artistically inclined Hungarian middle-class family with orientalist interests. The elder daughter of the Sher-Gils, 3 Amrita, lived barely twenty-nine years but she had already made some remarkable paintings, raised key questions for Indian art and developed a compelling persona lllus. It is significant that another woman artist of fabled charisma, Frida Kahlo of Mexico, is a virtual contemporary of Sher-Gil.
Like her, she is marked by tragic destiny. There is therefore some purpose in setting up a relationship between them to signify Body as Gesture 5 nationalist considerations about the native woman of genius in her excessively embodied, inevitably idealized form. Sher-Gil made an irreversible social space for the woman artist within Indian art and she did this on an expressly romantic brief: a libertarian brief learned in bohemian Paris while she was at the Ecole des Beaux Artes during Illus. As a logical counterpoint, she held fast to a severity in the code of art practice that suppressed all domestic and feminine expectations.
Even more than her paintings, her letters are a testimony of this conscious self-representation which is ironically, but not unexpectedly, based on a male model of the modern artist. Selfportra11 as Tahitian, What this means is to elicit from the very dismantling of the self a more precise contour for subjectivity. The Sher-Gil persona was built on a valorized self that presumed to have the license of acting out the excess of libidinous energy, of arrogating to itself an absolute initiative of creative being.
On the other hand contemporary women artists, because of the very disjuncture that feminism introduces, open out the self as monad and engage with subjectivity-in-process. Thus even when beginning from the same vexed prerogative that Sher-Gil exercised, which is to represent women in and through their experience of otherness, contemporary women artists take up a more reflexive subject-position.
Sher-Gil, for example, was deeply protective of her women subjects and allowed them their seclusion; functioning without the feminist discourse, she dramatized her own self instead.
Today's women artists, including Nalini Malani and Arpita Singh, stretch the sexuality of the female body to collide against the male gaze with some unpredictable consequences. But while the imagery may be exposed and violent their own status is maintained at a more everyday, ironical level. Split Allegiance Amrita Sher-Gil appeared on the Indian art scene in the mids when a handful of distinguished artists were making certain basic choices pertaining to sovereignty in modern Indian culture.
The artists in Santiniketan Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramkinkar Baij and Benodebehari Mukherjee were pitching the values of inspired vocation and cultural pedagogy.
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Jamini Roy in Calcutta was exploring the market. At this complex juncture, the aesthetic questions Sher-Gil raised become particularly engaging. In her personal striving for a historically aligned aesthetic-an aesthetic calibrated to register her European and Indian profiles -she set up the initial terms for an existentially defined progressivism. F Husain acknowledges only one Indian precedent, Amrita Sher-Gil, for the emancipatory agenda of his generation.
Sher-Gil's own progressivism was a rdlection oi the circumstance of her hirth hut coming when it did, in the s, the terms of nationalist sovcreignty were inevitably inscribed within it. Her biography took on the aspect of a cultural encounter where she presented, within a civilizarional context, a struggle for self-determination.
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This double-take identity featured in all. In the wake of this an alternative form of cultural modernity took shape in postcolonial contexts. The Mexican mural movement of the s had already established a monumental precedent for the conversion of a civilizational into a nationalirevolutionary project. This later developed into an allegorical style for third-world art. Sher-C;il's aesthetic derived from her split allegiance. If she identified with the kind of pictorial ensemble the postimpressionists developed in their figural and plein air tableaux it was because she found there a plenitude of representational means.
But she seemed to respond equally to the quasi-classical resurgence of realism in the period between the wars. The legacy of postimpressionism was close at hand in Paris where she went to art school. It sought to eschew the contemporary phase of disjunction manifest in cubism, dadaism, surrealism and other avantgarde movements. Sher-Gil saw this form of realism as a bridge for her projected Indian experience.
The cycle of European influences was turned all the way round by SherGil in what one may call a hermeneutic retake on modernism. She brought herself into an equation with the crossed romantic-realist leanings of early modernism and adopted the modernist universalism of aesthetic affinities to embrace oriental painting.
Lovely those Basohli-things--especially the Radha Krishna one-exquisitely painted. The yellow background, the white cloud bank merging into the deep blue sky. As well painted as Matisse and that is saying a great deal. Reminiscent of Gauguin too. There is also another of his [Gauguin's that is very Basohli in background treatment How significant of the fellowship of all great art that a mind of such completely different origin as Gauguin should have a common atavism with the Basohli miniatures. But he also provided a 'realist' footing to romantic indigenism.
He could be used to peg the orientalist inclination of essentializing the 'other', but once the oriental's more developed act of self-representation came into place the ambiguity could be resolved in favour of the universal human: Inspire the fact that till now my special favourite has been Gauguin, I sometimes feel that Van Gogh was the greater of the two.
The Elemental versus Sophistication no matter how sublime is apt to make the latter look flat by comparison. This vexed solution to the problem of identity must be inscribed into her stylistics. She articulated a woman's prerogative to deal with a sexually immanent self equally through her persona as through her art. This is her unique role, to bring to bear what I call the feminization of modern Indian art. We must remember that there were several simultaneous efforts to establish an alternative, historically valid modernism in India.
Sher-Gil's trajectory began with translating European academicism and the whole history of oil and easel painting it frozenly preserves, transforming it to suit the needs of her Indian subject-matter. It would be true to say that Sher-Gil brought to Indian painting a different tradition of materiality by introducing, through her painterly technique, the depth of irradiating hue and moulded form that is the peculiar prerogatiYe of the medium of oils.
In this context we must acknowledge the earlier contribution of Ravi Varma, to ask what happens to Indian representational Body as Gesture 9 ethics from the nineteenth century when an intense attachment to oil and easel painting takes hold in several regions of the country. Although Sher-Gil, with characteristic arrogance, dismissed Ravi Varma, the juxtaposition is very instructive.
We have a male and a female painter, both possessing an aristocratic view, both devising the indigenous body from oil paint and, further, both wanting to materialize and thus naturalize the selfconscious presence of oriental women within a reconstructed local context. Indeed Ravi Varma's and Amrita Sher-Gil's paintings taken as paradigmatic pose a series of rhetorical questions. What happens, among other things, is that a new history of the corporeal image develops.
It substantiates itself through the indigenous body, through a kind of ethnographic allegory. At a specific level what happens with Ravi Varma is that you get an oddly embarrassed but dynamic exchange of pose, glance and gesture, as in his A Galaxy uf Musicians ca.
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With Sher-Gil female subjectivity takes a narcissistic turn. In her Woman Resting on Charpoy , ]flus. If you map a Sher-Gil on to a Ravi Varma image the first feature that appears is the degree of condensation in the Sher-Gil image. With all her realist leanings Sher-Gil composes with a mannerist stress characteristic of the modern.
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From her exploratory bid on modernism she gleans this one important characteristic, of composing with metaphorical brevity. She is perspicacious enough to resituate this within the lyrical ambience of Indian art. She thereby attempts the kind of symbolic gestalt that would place her, belongingly, within the oriental aesthetic. Thus her quasinationalist, quasi-realist sentiments towards rural folk are matched by an aesthete's preference for classical Kushan and Ajanta and medieval Mughal and rajput miniatures references in Indian art.
In September , just before returning to India, she writes to her parents from Budapest: Modern art has led me to the comprehension and apprehension of Indian painting and sculpture It seems paradoxical, but I know of certain, that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realized that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet is worth more than the whole Renaissance.
Brides Toiler. In fact she suggested a way to translate the miniatures into a form of genre painting in oils, a genre that is able to record within the terms of a modernizing consciousness an ambiguous balance in the feudaUfeminine world. She was struggling with a form for her chosen subject-matter-Indian women in their secluded settings. She was trying to both mimic and question the hold of eternity on their bodies.
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