The Artistic Pursuit of Amrita Shergil

Today, after so many mediums and media are incorporated in making art, drawing can still be read as a foundation of any visual artistic practice. Ask anyone that went to an art school, the insistence on drawing and sketching, maintaining a sketchbook is a constant. The great masters of Renaissance like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo have left a number of drawings and preparatory sketches. 

Amrita Shergil, born to a Punjabi father and Hungarian mother, was one of the first women artists to be celebrated in India. She returned to India in 1934 after studying at the Ecole des Beaux Artes during 1930-34. Her drawings in the diary often carry private notes and dedications which give significant insight about her creative process. For instance, her sketches reflect her academic background in skill and preparatory compositions for larger paintings. Her persona that was bold, sometimes even arrogant, often spills into her choices as an artist. Her practice suppressed any domestic or feminine expectations.

Amrita’s self-portrait can be seen in her sketches in graphite from when she was as young as the age of 14. Her self-portraits are exercised out of introspection and self-consciousness, positioning herself as a modern woman. She worked mainly with oil paint but also used graphite and charcoal to render her sketches. She learnt through a series of portraits, the skills to transcribe moods and characters. Rakhee Balaram, an art historian, articulates that “the self-portraits display the artist moving from girl to woman to artist as she explored a sensuality that ranges from the heavy-handed to the subtle. Sher-Gil casts herself in a serious light in her Self-Portrait with Easel (1930), moving deliberately from the domestic and the intimate context of the nineteenth-century woman artist to the monumental and majestic poses recalling those of Rembrandt and later Van Gogh.”

Her questions towards aesthetics were important, where she strived to incorporate her European and Indian profiles. Her work transmuted to suit her Indian subjects. She travelled widely and represented Indian people with glimpses of their way of life. She met Karl Khandalavala, a connoisseur, in 1936 who encouraged her inclination towards Indian art. She was passionate in rediscovering Indian painting, resulting in an influence from Mughal and Pahari painting and the cave paintings in Ajanta. Rightly said by Geeta Kapur, “Thus her quasi-nationalist, quasi-realist sentiments towards rural folk are matched by an aesthete's preference for classical (Kushan and Ajanta) and medieval (Mughal and Rajput miniatures) references in Indian art.”

Her late sketches highlight the attention given to lines which is a significant element in Ajanta paintings as well as miniature painting traditions. A number of sketches done during her last years are of animals from various angles and postures. Fairly less attention is paid to her array of sketches, partly because of the accessibility, but that isn’t to say that they speak no less than her otherwise famous paintings. Amrita’s progressivism that emphasized on aligning the European and Indian sensibilities, as a product of her search for self-determination, is why she is referred to as an Indian modernist artist.


Kapur, G. (2020). When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. Tulika Books.

Karode, R. (n.d.). The self in making Part of Difficult Loves. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from

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