The life story of Amrita Sher-Gil, who we saw recently at the Tate Modern, is hypnotic. Most often compared to Frida Kahlo, both in her work and in her life, Amrita was born in Budapest in 1913, to a maverick Sikh aristocrat, yoga guru and Sanskrit scholar, and a Hungarian singer. The parents had met in Lahore, then in undivided India and, I hazard a guess, have fascinating life stories in their own rights . The family lived in Hungary for several years before moving back to India (Shimla) where they lived and entertained extravagantly. It makes me wonder the picture this family must have made in Budapest: the dapper and imposing Sikh with his enormous turban, the elegant Hungarian wife, and their two exquisitely beautiful daughters.
Amrita left India for Europe where she trained as a painter in Paris and was heavily influenced by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Amedeo Modigliani. She hung out in Paris' 1930s bohemian circles. But when she returned to India in 1934, she began a rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art, particularly the schools of Mughal miniatures and the Ajanta paintings. Her work also showed influences of Hungarian folk art. She began to tour South India, painting, with a passionate sense of colour, the lives of the villagers she met and produced paintings with titles such as "Brahmacharis", "South Indian Villagers Going to Market", "Banana Sellers" and "Brides' Toilette".
In 1938, she married her Hungarian first cousin, a doctor, and the couple settled in Lahore. Lahore was a major artistic centre then. Suffering from bouts of depression, coupled with her naturally fiery nature and the boredom she felt in her marriage, Amrita had many affairs with both women and men. She died alone in 1941, not yet 30 years old - perhaps of peritonitis or a failed abortion attempt. After her death, the Indian government declared her works as National Art Treasures.