‘I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India’, Sher-Gil wrote, ‘feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.’
In 1934 the family left Paris to move to Shimla, in the western Himalayas. Sher-Gil painted intensively and travelled widely, keen to observe and represent Indian villagers and their way of life.
With Three Girls 1935, she began to move away from the academic, realist style of painting in which she was schooled, and towards a flatter, more modern composition. It depicts three young women on the threshold of adulthood and marriage, their hapless expressions indicating the artist’s empathy for their predicament. In the same year she produced a pair of paintings entitled Hill Men and Hill Women showing groups of Indian villagers. The simplified and stylised handling of the figures with their sad expressions and the paintings’ elongated vertical compositions evoke a sense of dignity as well as pathos.
In 1936 she met Karl Khandalavala, a collector who encouraged her interest in Indian art, particularly Moghul miniature painting, and the cave paintings and temples carved out of living rock at Ajanta and Ellora. She was deeply influenced by her visits to these sites, describing the frescoes at Ajanta as ‘vital, vibrant, subtle and unutterably lovely’. Her paintings of the following few years reflect her growing ambition to create a modern style of painting which was at once quintessentially Indian yet entirely her own. South Indian Villagers Going to Market, which draws both upon the influence of Ajanta and her travels through southern India, is considered by many to be among her most significant works.
Works in focus
Her first major painting on returning to India, Three Girls shows Sher-Gil beginning to move away from the academic style of painting that she had studied in Paris Presenting the figures in close foreground, there is no attempt to establish their surroundings. Nonetheless, their resigned expressions and passive postures suggest the artist’s close understanding of their plight. As Sher-Gil wrote, ‘I am personally trying to be, through the medium of line, colour and design, an interpreter of the life of the people, particularly the life of the poor and sad.’
In her letters, Sher-Gil expressed her disdain for contemporary representations of India which depicted a beautiful landscape while acknowledging the suffering of the poor only as a sentimental picturesque detail. Tellingly, her own paintings focus on people rather than their surroundings. The critic Yashodhara Dalmia has praised the balance of form and content in this work: ‘the silhouette of women standing in a grave silence, reminiscent of tombstones, is in effect an elegy to the living’.
South Indian Villagers Going to Market
In 1936–7, Sher-Gil undertook a trip through southern India, and saw the 7th and 8th century cave paintings at Ajanta for the first time. The large fresco-like paintings that followed capture her impressions of the south, but also represent her direct response to Ajanta, which she admired as a supreme example of classical Indian art. Here she brings a new sense of movement and colour to her depiction of Indian life, compared to the more static scenes that she portrayed at Shimla.