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regular-article-logo Monday, 24 June 2024

Portrait of an artist

Ashwini Bhatnagar attempts to undertake in his recently published biography of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), which is described on the back cover as the “story of a proscribed relationship between Amrita and her first cousin, Victor Egan

Chandrima Das Published 11.08.23, 12:54 PM
Amrita Sher-Gil and Victor Egan

Amrita Sher-Gil and Victor Egan

W.B. Yeats concluded his famous poem, “Among School Children”, with an oft-quoted rhetorical question — “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Keeping Yeats’ question in mind, we might observe that while writing the biography of an artist, it is almost next to impossible to unravel and separate the skeins of their artistic and personal lives. Yet, this is what Ashwini Bhatnagar attempts to undertake in his recently published biography of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), which is described on the back cover as the “story of a proscribed relationship between Amrita and her first cousin, Victor Egan.” While the primary focus of the book is the rather unconventional relationship and the eventual marriage between Amrita and Victor (1911-1997), it inevitably takes within its ambit the former’s artistic as well as her private life, often fraught with troubles and hostility towards both her art and the way she chose to lead her life.

Amrita & Victor does not read like a traditional biography. Instead, the events of the principal figures’ lives are often made to come alive through dialogue and action, the sources of which seem to be Amrita and her family’s copious correspondence, thereby almost justifying the use of the epithet, “story”, on the cover of the book. The essence of Amrita’s moral ambivalence and the scandal surrounding her multiple relationships are best expressed in her own words in a letter to Victor, which has been quoted by Bhatnagar— “Tell me; don’t you think sometimes that goodness has fetters — that we have to keep appearances even when one wants to hit at least with words?” Amrita’s desire to break free from these fetters — be they artistic, familial, or sexual — made her into such a fascinating character. Her desire to unshackle herself from societal norms was respected by her husband. This is what made their short-lived marriage a rather unconventional one.

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Bhatnagar’s portrayal of Victor is both nuanced and sympathetic. His support for Amrita throughout the various adventures — and misadventures — of her life and the hardships and hostility he faced after their marriage and after his relocation to India (especially from Amrita’s mother, Marie-Antoinette, whose nephew Victor was) paint the image of a man of understanding, patience, and sincere love for his wife. His acceptance of the fact that Amrita’s sexual needs often require multiple outlets was, once again, something extraordinary in the context of his time.

Not all biographies are meant for all kinds of readers. Amrita & Victor is definitely not meant to be the kind of biography that aims to cater to a primarily academic group of readers. Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography of Amrita, published in 2006 (some of the observation on Amrita’s art and artistic techniques in Bhatnagar’s work seems to be heavily indebted to this book), or the artist’s nephew — the celebrated photographer— Vivan Sundaram’s works on her life and art are more in the nature of traditional scholarly biographies. Amrita & Victor, on the other hand, is a fast-paced narrative written in lucid prose, punctuated by long quotations from letters, offering glimpses of an extraordinary relationship between two individuals. That is probably why Bhatnagar has completely done away with such academic paraphernalia of a traditional biography as annotations. There are no in-text citations, and even the Author’s Note at the end acknowledging the sources is extremely brief. One might wonder why Vivan Sundaram’s works on her aunt, one of which is a collection of her extant correspondence and writings, have not even been cited as a source.

Amrita & Victor, however, manages to capture the magnetic personality of its main subject and the unconventional life choices made by her and Victor. Unencumbered by the scholarly paraphernalia, it is bound to appeal to the curious reader willing to know more about the extraordinary lives of two extraordinary individuals, lived — paradoxically — both at the centre and the margin of society.

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