Sometimes I wonder as to what attracted me to her paintings. Perhaps it was my long engagement with Sylvia Plath at that time. As a young medical student in Pondicherry, on one of my visits to the local bookshop, I chanced upon the Bell Jar. It had a huge impact on me and I started reading her poetry and translated some of them in Tamil for a little magazine. Her poems still resonate deeply within me.
It was Frieda Kahlo much later. When the Annual Conference of the Indian Psychiatric Society, South Zone took place in Bangalore a few years ago, the focus was on the interface between arts and human behaviour. The organizers invited me to give a plenary address; I chose to speak on the life and works of Frieda Kahlo. A year later, myself and Ahalya were able to have a glimpse of her paintings in a major show at the Museum of Modern Art at San Francisco on the opening night (thanks to our dear friend, Stu), it was a fulfillment of a long cherished dream
Just last week, at the National Gallery of Modern Art at Bangalore there was a major exhibition which show cased works of Amrita Sher Gil (often called India’s Frieda Kahlo) for the first time in the region. Like Frieda Kahlo, Sher Gil’s enormous talent, her short life and tragic early death at 29 — most likely the result of a botched up abortion at the hands of her doctor husband — has endowed her with the blood streaked halo that’s seems to be an unfortunate hallmark of female geniuses. From Sylvia Plath to Frieda Kahlo to Geeta Dutt and Meena Kumari we seem to like our women heroes damaged and torn, paying with their lives for being exceptional.
It’s difficult now to examine Sher-Gil’s work, her still life paintings, her spectacular nudes, her minimal renderings of the wintry European countryside and especially her arresting self-portraits with that endearing open-lipped smile, in a detached way. Indeed, once you know about the artist’s life, her yearnings and her painful end, it’s difficult to view these painting in isolation.
She had toured south India and did a series of paintings and I am fascinated with one of them, the Brahmacharis. It portrays a group of bare chested young Brahmins, with sacred threads across their chests, sitting cross legged. They are gazing at different directions but there is one staring straight at you. Perhaps he is looking at a space beyond you. It is a timeless depiction..these young Brahmins could be sitting in a neighborhood temple near you. Amrita died four years late when she was just 24.
Last year when I was at Pundareekapuram in rural Kerala, I was struck by the similarity between Amrita’s Brahmacharis and a particular mural that was painted on the outside of this quaint temple. Just look at them….