Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paint Brush
Interview with author Anita Vachharajani whose book Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paint Brush is the winner of the Bal Sahitya Puruskar, 2021.
I interviewed Anita Vachharajani in 2018 when her wonderful picture book Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel With A Paintbrush was first published. It feels like such a triumph when an excellent book is feted and awarded.
Amrita Sher-Gil is introduced to young readers and re-introduced to older ones in the book Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel With a Paintbrush by Anita Vachharajani.
Vachharajani draws out what really mattered to Amrita, right from when she could hold a pencil - her art. The one steady flame that burned bright and made Amrita travel extensively, think and deliver was her art. Through the many vicissitudes in her life, Amrita’s dedication to her art is clear to see in the picture biography on Amrita penned by Anita with pictures by Kalyani Ganapathy.
Anita took the time out to answer the questions that were running amok in our heads after reading her glorious book.
Caption: Panel By Kalyani Ganapathy from Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel With a Paintbrush
What about Amrita Sher-Gil drew you to write a book about her?
I have often felt that we do artists very little justice in India. We make them into either gods or demons. They are either ‘so great’ or ‘absolutely useless’. I wanted to talk about the ‘greatness’ of an artist not as a monolith, but as a structure that is made up of many tiny, interesting parts. I’m curious about the things they saw, read, heard and liked – all of it determines why an artist thinks or works in a certain way. In India, we rarely write about art for readers who are really young, or who know nothing about it. Knowing about art really can change your worldview. So why shouldn’t our writing on art – especially for the young – be more accessible and fun?
If artists in general are given scant attention, then women artists get a small fraction of that. Amrita had always struck me as a strong individual, and I thought one of her paintings – Group of Three Girls, 1935 – was remarkable. I kind of plunged in, knowing that writing a Young Adults book on art and a woman artist was something I really wanted to do! Having said that, I knew little about art, and almost nothing about Amrita when I began – and it’s really been a long and wonderful education for me!
Caption: The How To Read The Book section from Amrita Sher-gil: Rebel With A Paintbrush
The book has a 'How To Read The Book' section. Was this how you planned and did the writing as well?
The artist; her family; the life and times she lived in. As I started writing Amrita’s story I realized that there were so many details around her life which made her story richer. Instead of cluttering up the main narrative, I thought why not provide another layer to it? And then, I thought, why not photographs, and instead of telling readers about her art, why not show them as many of her paintings as possible, so they can see how her work changed over time? As the layers grew, I sensed that we would need a sort of ‘map’ to the book. And that’s why we thought of the ‘How-to-Read-This-Book’ page, just so that no one’s confused about the different aspects of the information. At the very basic level, it was a great way to separate Amrita’s paintings from Kalyani’s engaging and evocative illustrations. (Kalyani Ganapathy is the designer and illustrator of the book.)
The book is a fine reduction of what clearly is a vast amount of reading and research on your part. Could you share your thoughts on this?
I feel now that it wasn’t vast enough – that if I had had more time and resources, I’d have tried to absorb even more about her and her life. But given the limitations, I think the book is richer for the way it grew organically, slowly. I cannot appreciate enough the many sources I used, including the books by N Iqbal Singh, Vivan Sundaram and Yashodhara Dalmia and the many essays there are out there on Amrita. I wanted my narrative of Amrita to have everything in it: the child, the emerging artist, the youth, her joys, her world – and the people, the sounds, the movements that populated it. I have no training in art, and I came to this book rather wide-eyed and awe-struck. I greedily wanted to put in every little detail because it all excited me. Later, I edited a lot out, rather ruthlessly! I have to thank my publisher, Harper Collins, and my commissioning editor, Tina Narang, for backing me up on this one. They really spared no effort to make this book happen in the best possible way, and never asked me to compromise my vision even slightly. And then they went a step further and backed it up with excellent quality production.
Amrita drew from her Hungarian and Indian roots and Parisian training. She was truly a citizen of the world. Was she indeed a rebel or simply weaving all her influences into her paintings?
Amrita was on her artistic journey; she was exploring and looking, she was assimilating influences, letting art and the world sort of ‘brew’ in her mind. And she was also living a full life, managing money, forming deep friendships, having lovers and working hard to create her unique voice and vision. She was on a personal artistic quest, I think, the way all of us are. Remember she died at 28 (in 1941), at an age when most of us are just beginning to find our artistic or vocational paths. She was rebellious in her interpersonal exchanges and that often made things awkward. But she was also generous and loving. She was very serious and critical about art in general and of her own work as well. Raised to be forthright, and trained in France where absolute honesty (bordering on rudeness) was acceptable in discussions on your preferences in art, I guess she seemed even more disruptive in India!
In continuation of the previous question what does the rebel in rebel with a paintbrush point to? Amrita was a ‘rebel’ in that she lived her life entirely on her own terms and was honest to herself in terms of her ideas of fairness and her desires. That is, indeed, a brave and rebellious thing to do if you’re a human being living in human society at any point in history! The fact that she was young in the 1930s in a world that was still largely conservative, made many of her ideas and lifestyle choices seem even more rebellious than they might have really been. She was an incredibly determined and brave person.
Caption: Amrita Sher-gil’s painting Girl In Blue (1934)
The book dispels the view of Amrita being some sort of free spirit. She comes across as an artist who is very serious about her creative output and is constantly refining it. She is the very epitome of Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' monologue. She felt that art must be 'connected to the soil'. How important is this for aspiring artists (artist, writers) to follow?
I’m always intrigued by the term ‘free spirit’ – because it assumes that this person is not at all of this earth. In reality, all free spirits have to have a part of their beings firmly moored to the earth simply in order to live to create the art they want to! Everyone attempting to be an artist of any sort will eventually seek out a way to be authentic to their experiences. That’s what Amrita was trying to do too. To put it very simplistically, I suspect that trying to paint gorgeous sunsets to portray Indian life while ignoring the biting poverty was, to Amrita, a sort of artistic hypocrisy. But I would see her term more broadly as meaning that if you’re not true to your own experiences and to the world you inhabit, you may not seem comfortable in your work, and your audience will sense that. I think it’s important to make work that is strongly connected to who you are and what you believe in – whatever that is. Unfortunately this internal journey is exhausting for most of us because it involves mis-steps and accidents. But it’s part of the growth process and brings forth great things. We need to give ourselves the compassion, space and quiet we need to hear and heed our inner voices.
Amrita travelled extensively all over India, taking in murals, temples, people and paintings. What was she trying to achieve?
Amrita was always going where the art was! She was determined to see for herself. And this was at a time when books with reproductions of the murals of Ajanta, for instance, were accessible. But she wanted to see the real thing. And as it turned out, the weak reproductions were nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the actual sight of the murals in their stunning environs. She went across the country, all the way to the South, and saw the murals of Kochi. She went to Mahabalipuram, to the living temples of Madurai. She went and saw and took in as much as she could. She took ships and rode ‘ekkas’ or one-horse carts, drove to archaeological digs, went to museums and cave temples. There was a strong desire to self-educate, to rigorously seek inspiration and stimulation.
What would you like young readers to take away from this book?
A sense of wonder! Firstly at how incredibly magical, messy and complex life is. And secondly, I want them to feel a sense of how seriously this woman took her art and her personal growth. How much effort she put in, and how she let her work grow and change. I’d like young people to register that Amrita lived in a world where journeys took so much time and needed so much effort. The reason why this book has so much trivia and so many art history snippets in it is that I wanted to give young readers a sense of the interconnectedness around us. Because we live in a world where we seem to have forgotten that basic bond that humanity shares.
Caption: A panel by Kalyani Ganapathy from Amrita Sher-Gil:Rebel With a Paintbrush
Could you share with us your plans for future books?
For the moment, I have none! And I can’t tell you how gloriously happy that makes me – for the moment! Honestly though, there is something at the back of my mind, it’s my husband’s idea actually, and let’s just say that for the moment, it’s still cooking. Will let you know when it’s done!
You can buy your copy by clicking on the link: Amrita Sher-Gil:Rebel With A Paintbrush.