Amrita Sher-Gil's modernity

Magyar connection

Print edition : May 31, 2013

The cover of Jor Mokai's novel "Poor Rich".

Amrita Sher-Gil with a book of poetry by Endre Ady. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Amrita Sher-Gil’s modernity was shaped not only by her engagement with the Indian reality, but also by her early exposure to Hungarian literature and music.

THE recent exhibition “Amrita Sher-Gil, The Magyar Connection, an Exhibition of Photographs by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil on her years in Hungary between 1913 and 1939”, curated by Navina Sundaram at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre, and Vivan Sundaram’s earlier publication Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-portrait in Letters & Writings (2010) are occasions to explore Amrita Sher-Gil’s connection with Hungarian modernity.

The diaries, essays and correspondence of Amrita Sher-Gil form the “primary narrative” of what is aptly called “a self-portrait in letters and writing”. They include two childhood diaries. As was the custom in those days, Amrita received one diary from her uncle Ervin Baktay (1890–1963), the famous Hungarian Indologist, in 1920, and her mother, Marie-Antoinette, gifted the second in 1924. Amrita wrote her diary entries exclusively in Hungarian between 1920 and 1924 and in Hungarian and English between 1924 and 1929. These diaries are textual-pictorial commentaries on her childhood interests. One of the important aspects of the diaries is the evidence of the dual cultural world she inhabited as a Hungarian and as an Indian at the same time. The text, drawings and paintings and Indian and Hungarian tales and characters complement each other and show the Magyar-Indian relationship in Amrita Sher-Gil’s work. She profited from what was, and, to some extent, still is, common in the historical, artistic and domestic situations of India and Hungary compared with the West. In her case, the West was France, Italy and Britain. Her ideas of Indian modernity and her way of becoming a modern Indian painter were shaped by modern Hungarian literature and music.

The other aspect is that the diaries and letters, addressed to various persons, form a “true” biography of her, with a tapestry of events, locations and characters. Her prose is inconsistent without being discordant, the kind she highlights in her letter to Nehru, after he sent her his autobiography. “As a rule, I dislike biographies and autobiographies. I am always attracted to people who are integral enough to be inconsistent without discordancy—and who don’t trail viscous threads of regret behind them.”

Amrita received the second diary, from her mother, in Florence in 1924 with the dedication, “To my beautiful little Amrita as a birthday gift for her diary notes with love from her up to the grave faithful, adoring, loving anyuska”. This sweet, sugary style is imitated by Amrita in her early stages of writing. She paints Marie-Antoinette and gives the picture the title, “The dear angel Mucika in her comfortable armchair”. The tone of her letters, however, soon changes. She now dares to be inconsistent. At the time of her suitor Yusuf’s visit to Budapest, in 1931, she firmly tells her mother: “After all I am going to decide whether I want to marry him or not, and it is I who will have the final say by October.” Confidence in her own work is apparent in the letter she wrote to her mother from Paris in 1932: “To my greatest astonishment and to everybody’s surprise I did not win the Prize, which this year was awarded ‘to the most modern’. ...But I am not at all depressed because I know that I have produced excellent pieces.”

She is just 19 in 1932 when she comes up with a perceptive criticism of her mother’s personality: “You always ruin your nerves with brooding.” She tells her mother she did not like her “verbal brutality” with servants. In 1938, she warns her mother not to be eaten up by an obsession with people, and that consuming herself can become a “pernicious” habit.



Gift for languages



In the early childhood notes in Hungarian (1920-24) we can see an energy and an openness coupled with intelligence and that “ferocity of the mind” and “unashamed openness” that Salman Rushdie refers to in his foreword to A Self-portrait in Letters & Writings. Amrita had a gift for languages like her father Umrao Singh, who was a scholar of several languages even though he never learned Hungarian. Amrita acquired the ability to express herself creatively in Hungarian, English and French at an early age. She was born in Hungary and her first school-going years were spent in Hungary where she received a good grounding in the language. Her first diary was written exclusively in Hungarian. Amrita structured her sentences on the basis of her knowledge of Hungarian: of all the specific features of Hungarian, flexible word order and large compound sentences are characteristic of her writing. Here is a sentence in which she puts forward her ideas about beauty and her art in English in a letter to R.C. Tandan, the art critic, in 1935: “It may be that the sadness; the queer ugliness of the types I choose as my models (which to me is beauty that renders insipid all that which according to the standards of the world goes under the category of the word ‘Beautiful’) corresponds something in me, some inner trail in my nature which responds to things that are sad, rather than to manifestations of life which are exuberantly happy or placidly contented.” Amrita also readily availed herself of the specific metaphoric use of adjectives, a characteristic of Hungarian that adds to the vivacity of her language. The cumulation of clauses, which characterises Hungarian, is a further example as in the following: “At present I am writing on the shore of the Danube sunning myself the while, i.e., killing two birds with one stone, with old Aaron bácsi (Baba’s father-in-law), who is the dearest, sweetest, darlingest old gentleman who ever lived, the more to his credit as he is a priest, by my side.”

Hungarian punctures her language. In her letters written in English, she switches to Hungarian in cultural or existential contexts. For the names of institutions, fines or the list of permissions and taxes in Hungary she uses Hungarian. These Hungarian sentences and expressions widen the range of themes and introduce wider emotional pitches.

Marie-Antoinette was an amateur singer and both Amrita and her sister Indira (Indu) played the piano. Music had a profound influence on Amrita’s childhood, personality and life and the diaries and the correspondence reflect this important interest in her life. Amrita gave up playing the piano only when she decided that she could not pursue it along with painting. She got acquainted with Chopin, Debussy, Palmgren, Puccini and others in her childhood. While her mother liked the traditional music of Puccini and Tchaikovsky, Amrita listened to modern composers like Bartók. She writes about her experiences to her parents: “Yesterday we went to a very lovely concert with Ernõ Kiss. Bartók and Waldbauer played a piano and violin sonata. Bartók has an amazingly interesting presence, and plays wonderfully.” The role of music on her art has not been explored, but the new rhythmic patterns and the way Bartók explored unusual instrumental colours must have stimulated Amrita the modernist. It probably fostered her understanding of her task as an artist to seek line, form and colour. Amrita rejected the “cheap, emotional appeal” of Indian films, and dismissed the “sentimental mysticism” of the paintings of the Hungarian expatriate Elizabeth Sass-Brunner. While she rejected many painters of the Bengal school, she thought Tagore’s art was specially good. In art, she valued most what was connected with the soil. As she described it to R.C. Tandan in 1936: “Flat grey lands, bullock carts, the villages in yellow mud,” expressed the life of the Indian poor beyond a plane of “sentimental interest”.

The childhood diaries show Amrita’s earliest engagement with Hungarian literature, first with fairy tales and later with the ballads of József Kiss and János Arany. The Hungarian “ballada” is different from the English ballad in form, drama and intensity, more akin to the German “ballade”, such as Schiller’s or Heine’s ballads. János Arany (1817-1882) raised the ballad to a high literary level, with intensity, dramatic tension, tragedy and many details left in the dark. József Kiss was a follower of Arany and wrote a number of ballads, many of them in folk style, on themes from Jewish village life. Amrita seems to have liked these ballads full of dramatic intensity and they gave her a grounding in Hungarian literature and also became subjects for her paintings. For instance, Rabasszony (The Slave Woman), who killed her husband for betraying her. Yet another of her paintings depicts Fatia Negra, a figure from Mór Jókai’s novel Szegény Gazdagok ( Poor Rich), who ensnares married women and hides his identity by wearing a black mask.

Amrita’s later engagement with literature led her to the poetry of Endre Ady (1877-1919). Ady’s poems are often discussed and quoted in her letters. Her love for Ady’s poetry was characteristic of her generation and the generation before her. For example, the members of the famous Sunday Circle in Budapest in the early 20th century, such as Béla Balázs, Georg Lukács, Arnold Hauser and Lajos Fülöp, claimed that they spoke Ady’s language. Ady created the notion of “Magyar Ugar”, the Hungarian Wasteland, which Ady despised and belonged to, depicting the deprivation of the Hungarian plains and its inhabitants with their special beauty. Amrita quotes Ady’s poems, which have a tragic or melancholic tone. Ady creates a subject whose primeval force pulls him at the same time towards creation and destruction. Like having Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus in one person. Amrita Sher-Gil’s creation of the modern subject is a step similar to Ady’s and this places her at the beginning of modern Indian painting.

Amrita’s enthusiasm for Ady was shared by Indu, to whom she quotes a poem by Ady on the occasion of her birthday: “ És úgy vagyok, hogy sehogyse vagyok” (I am in no shape at all). This is a poem about the passage of life, about Nothing and Death, and trivialities, which can fill up life and new beginnings. The poems she wrote in Hungarian in 1933-34 also recall some of Ady’s poetry.

In a letter from 1934, she writes to her mother about her meetings with Margit Gáspár, a contemporary writer who encouraged Amrita to write, and their discussions on the issue of mediocrity. Amrita was against “mediocre literature” and her two favourite writers, Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), whom she knew personally, and Dezsõ Szabó (1879-1945), cannot be called mediocre. The Sher-Gils had Karinthy’s books. Karinthy had an ironical, rational engagement with the world and took both man’s rational and irrational sides into account. Amrita also read the novel of Áron Tamási (1897-1966), Ábel, which narrates the education of a poor Transylvanian boy who wanted to study, but is employed as a guard in the forest. She had a kind of engagement with Hungarian literature that she did not have with French or English. Amrita’s interest in Verlaine, Baudelaire, Proust and Joyce indicate that she developed the high modernist tastes of the age, but this interest is not as immediate as her engagement with Ady or Karinthy. Her “greater reflection”, “more conscious painting”, more observation and more stylisation in the “sense of nature” that she writes concerning her transition as an artist to Karl Khandalavala are a reflection of her interest in the later Ady’s poetry and Karinthy’s fine, detached prose. Her modernity is based on her material engagement and the situation in India, and Ady, Karinthy, Tamási and Hungarian music and literature presented her with templates to create her kind of modernity.

(This is an abridged version of a talk delivered at the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre at a seminar on “Amrita Sher-Gil: The Magyar Connection” on the occasion of Amrita Sher-Gil’s hundredth birth anniversary.)

Margit Köves teaches Hungarian at Delhi University.

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