I was in Lahore in 2007 for a conference and on the first evening Punjabi poet Zoya Sajid offered to take me for a drive through the city by night. There could not have been a better welcome gift. As Sajid, a couple from her neighbourhood and I sped through Lahore’s wide, well-lit roads, I wondered if I would ever form a connection with the city my parents had left behind in 1947. I grew up listening to their stories, but felt those memories, stories and scars had come from some imagined place. The only world I had known was Chandigarh, a city of East Punjab built to replace the lost capital of Lahore.
As we were each lost in a private reverie, Sajid asked her friend to stop by an imposing building with spectacular Mughal-Gothic architecture. “This is Lahore’s General Post Office,” she said. “Do you know this was where your Rajinder Singh Bedi sat stamping letters?”
We burst into laughter. Urdu writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, who penned the classic novella Ek Chadar Maili Si , the maker of the loved film Dastak, had begun his working life as a postal clerk. It seemed absurd. Suddenly I felt could connect to Lahore.
Another surprise awaited me just a little distance away on Lahore’s Mall Road. Sajid asked us to halt again, by a stucco building that seemed to belong to another era. “This is the home of Amrita Sher-gil, in the building called Ganga Ram Mansion.” (To be precise, Sher-Gil had lived in the house numbered 23, as the writer Yashodhara Dalmia later recorded in a biography of the artist.)
Amrita Sher-Gil was loved and revered in the world for her art, but she also held an eternal intrigue for us, because of the passionate way she lived her life and because of her early death, at the age of 28 on December 5, 1941. Seeing the home in which she had chosen to live and paint, deepened my connection to Lahore, and I found myself wishing the Partition away.
“This was the city Amrita had come to in September 1941, full of hope, planning an exhibition for December,” Dalmia writes in her book. “But before that could happen, she took ill and died suddenly. The exhibition was posthumously held. It was from her studio that she saw a milkman with his buffaloes and did her last unfinished painting. Slate black buffaloes squat on the ochre road, one with a crow perched on its snout.”
The painter left behind a legacy admired equally in Pakistan and India. Much of her work is housed in what is popularly known as the Sher-Gil Room at the Modern Art Gallery in New Delhi. Her painting The Veena Player hangs at the Lahore Museum. In both countries, debating the cause of her death became something of a national obsession: while Indian chroniclers believed it to be the result of a clumsy abortion by her doctor husband, Pakistanis still say it was a crime of passion. A blog from an art lover from Pakistan says: “She had an excessive sexual appetite and quenched it through affairs with many people. Her Hungarian husband Dr Victor Egan did not like that, although he loved her very much. A jealous husband with access to sophisticated poisons, he poisoned her to death.”
The interest in Sher-Gil’s persona persists, but what she is remembered for most is her work. Her first painting, Three Girls, made when she returned from Paris, was made at the Majithia House in Lahore and is an iconic work. Sher-Gil was the child of a Hungarian-Jewish mother, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann and a Punjabi-Sikh father, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia. Gottesman was an opera singer who came to India as the companion to Princess Bamba Sutherland, daughter of Maharaja Dalip Singh – when she met the bohemian aristocrat Umrao Singh.
The girls in Sher-Gil’s Three Girls were named Beant Kaur, Narwair Kaur and Gurbhajan Kaur. They were the daughters of the artist’s father’s brother – so were in fact Sher-Gil’s nieces, although they were about the same age. She painted them sitting on a roller in the lawn of her house.
Three Girls won the gold medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in 1937. Sher-Gil continued to paint evocative studies of the Indians at her parents house, known as The Holme, in Shimla. At the time, Shimla was part of united Punjab and the summer capital of the British Raj. It was at her hilly home that she made the celebrated painting The Hill Women, along with several other studies of mountain folk.
There are several accounts of how Sher-Gil shook the elites of Shimla with her outspoken persona. Khushwant Singh recalled one such time in his book My Unforgettable Women: at a party on his lawn in Shimla, she looked at Singh’s son, the journalist-writer Rahul Singh, who was then a toddler and exclaimed “What an ugly child!” This annoyed the senior Singh’s wife so much that she struck the artist off her list of invitees for the future. When the reason for her exclusion reached Sher-Gil she is believed to have retorted, “I will teach her a lesson by seducing her husband.”
Khushwant Singh expressed his dismay that she never actually did so.