She rebelled with her paintbrush

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Shekhar Naik has directed a Marathi play titled Tuzi Aamri — Chitrakar Amrita Sher-Gil. He tells us why it’s important for artists to speak fearlessly

The timing seems right for us to sit up and take note (again) of Amrita Sher-Gil. She died at the age of 28 in 1941, but in her short lifespan, she  produced prodigious works that defined Indian art (The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures). In her personal life, she made choices that many of us in 2020 would find it very difficult to admit and accept. 

The syllabi in art colleges has only a paragraph or two dedicated to the enormous work and precocious talent of Amrita, who was a trail-blazer in more ways than one. The loss is ours, especially those art students who are more familiar with the works of Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, but not the stalwart of Indian art world.

Up close with the artist
As a course correction, filmmaker Shekhar Naik opened the first show of Tuzi Aamri — Chitrakar Amrita Sher-Gil for the students of JJ School of Art. 

“I am a Diploma in Fine Arts from Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalay. I have worked on a few films like Urus, Jay Shankar (on Shankar Maharaj) and Pu La Deshpande’s Mhais. In the midst of all this, I had been wanting to work on Amrita Sher-Gil. When we were studying in college, we didn’t know much about Amrita’s contribution. I happened to read some of her letters in the book, Amrita Sher-Gil — A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings which was translated into Marathi by Rameshchandra Patkar. Amrita’s nephew, Vivan Sundaram, a contemporary artist, had brought out the book, which contained many letters written by the artist to her family and friends. I read the book two years ago and it was only six months ago that I decided to work on the play,” says Naik. 

The filmmaker had the option to work on a documentary, to make use of the correspondence. Next, he thought of conducting dramatised readings of letters. “Eventually, I thought of directing a bio-drama making use of the letters, clips of paintings and a short 10-second video of Amrita. I thought all these elements would add an element of drama,” he adds. Tuzi Aamri has been produced by Maharashtra Cultural Centre. 

“The students of JJ School were curious and excited. They had a broad idea of Amrita Sher-Gil, the painter and a few examples of her Indian art. But in the play, we show clips of about 170 paintings done by Amrita. Her old photographs, the paintings that she did when she was abroad, the change in her style when she returned to India... all this was quite new for the students,” he adds. 

The team has had a similar response from the students and faculty of various fine art colleges where they have staged the play. They have a show for students of Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalay on January 3 and an open show (for layman) on January 5.  

Discovering the artist
Amrita was born on January 30, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary, to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and a photographer. Her mother was Marie Antoniette Gottesmann, a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer. Amrita’s art springs perhaps from her parents, but her world view was her own. 

Naik says, “It is important to shape the students’ vision about art and artists and also to introduce them to how an artist works and his statement of expression – on politics, society. That’s my intention in directing Tuzi Aamri. Amrita was free spirited, she didn’t have any fear of repercussions about the life she led, the choices she made. She worked during Hitler’s regime and is known to have said, ‘If Hitler had ruled India, he would have thrown me into the jail’. She wrote articles in magazines, newspapers and spoke her mind. How many artists can do that today? Very few Indian artists have followed in her footsteps. I would want to distill in the minds of the students and budding artists to express themselves on a variety of subjects.”

The cast 
Amruta Patwardhan is playing the role of Indira, Amrita’s younger sister, while Rucha Apte is enacting the artist. When asked about the casting, the director says, “As a painter/portraitist directing a bio-drama, it was imperative for me to choose actors who have a resemblance to the real life. Amruta’s face resembled that of Indu’s, whereas I found similarities between Rucha and Amrita — the way she carries herself, the ease with which she owns the stage, her attitude and body language. With make-up and hair style, Rucha looks like Amrita.”

When asked about this, Rucha says, “I didn’t know much about Amrita Sher-Gil before doing this play. Shekhar sir briefed me about many of her qualities. He told me that Amrita was very confident, she didn’t really bother about what other people thought of her. I liked this quality of hers and this is something I am trying to develop in myself. That’s where I got the drive to play Amrita. I am also a tomboy and I think Amrita too was something similar. I got a shot of confidence after making this co-relation.”

However, the actor says that she is still discovering and exploring the maverick painter. “I think as an actor, I am yet to do full justice to Amrita Sher-Gil. I read Yashodhara Dalmia’s book titled Amrita Sher-Gil – The Life after I was selected for her role. What I gathered from the book was that Amrita was very whimsical. She was very sudden and abrupt. I couldn’t make that connection through the letters which we are presenting in the play. The book helped me do that. As far as her personality is concerned, I think she said and did what she had to do. But she also kept a few aspects of her personality hidden from the people she was close to, especially her mother. Amrita had a bi-sexual orientation; it is widely known now. But she didn’t let her mother know about this. She also cared for her sister, Indira. These facets of her personality helped me as an actor to establish a connection with the artist. She was whimsical, but she was sensitive too,” says Rucha. 

Widening reach 
Naik believes that having the material on art and artists in local languages helps in reaching out to more people and also acquaints us with our homegrown artists of the past.  “What I have learnt is that if the text/s are available in your mother tongue, local language, it helps the students with their extracurricular reading. We have heard stories about van Gogh’s life, his struggles and tribulations. 

Unfortunately, the lives of Indian artists are not widely known in the public domain. We just have had one film on Raja Ravi Varma. There are many artists about whom we know very less. So we worked on the play in Marathi. And, now we are working on Hindi adaptation. It’s important that Amrita’s legacy reaches out to people, not just in Maharashtra, but the entire country. We intend to start with Hindi rehearsals from this month,” he adds. 

ST Reader Service 
Watch Tuzi Aamri on January 5, at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha, 11 am

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