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Melancholic beauty, pensive grace

When Amrita Sher-Gil suddenly died onDecember 5, 1941, in Lahore, British India, she was only 28. Often referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo, she is remembered as one of the most important painters of the post-independent era. Born in Budapest to a Hungarian-Jewish opera-singing mother and a Sikh father who was a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, she went on to successfully and aesthetically bring together traditional Indian and Western art forms.

‘Amrita is still the legend she was,’ wrote eminent art critic Richard Bartholomew, way back in 1972. ‘She died young. No woman painter since her time was as beautiful as she was or has created such handsome work … She is a legend because, in a physical and spiritual way, she was a woman of a world bridging the East and the West … There was no modern painter of her calibre before her. There has been no Indian painter after her who has surpassed her achievement in what she set out to do, that is, to make contemporary Indian painting appear modern and yet spring from and reflect Indian antecedents.’

Amrita worked in oils and left close to 200 works. Notwithstanding her short artistic career, her influence on many artists of her and subsequent generations was deep. One such artist who was influenced by the life and work of Sher-Gil was B Prabha (1933-2001).

Soulful protagonists

Like in Amrita’s works, Prabha’s images too were dominated by women. A prolific artist, she created a plethora of gracefully elongated figures of pensive rural women in an instantly recognisable style. With hope-filled eyes, upright bodies, graceful postures, and gentle gestures, the soulful protagonists attracted the viewer’s attention due to the simple straightforward compositions and attractive colour formations.

“Featured singly or in groups of two or three, [these women] were seen either against flat, undistinguished backgrounds or in their surroundings,” observes historian and gallerist Kishore Singh. “The artist chronicles the lives of women from different rural and tribal communities with attentive details of their skin colour, traditional attire and jewellery but keener still to projecting an individual’s inner being or the dynamics between women. The seeming simplicity of the compositions belied the concern for women’s welfare and the need to document their unsung lives that drove the artist, herself practising at a time when women had few opportunities.”Prabha, who was just eight when Amrita died, openly acknowledged her impact. “There were not too many women painters in India at that time. There was only Amrita Sher-Gil. So I set out to create another Amrita. I respected her a lot. I also wanted my paintings to reach all parts of the world. It was my ambition to be a renowned painter based in Paris.”

As for choosing woman as her principal subject, and projecting her in a particularly sober manner, she would say: “I have seen many women and even studied them closely. And I am yet to see one happy woman.”

Bela to Bombay

Prabha, who grew up in the small village of Bela, near Nagpur, actually dreamt of being a singer. “I had a good voice. I was also good at painting.” Opting for arts, she first studied art at Nagpur School of Art before proceeding to Mumbai to enrol at the JJ School of Art in the 1950s. She would fondly reminisce about the family-like atmosphere at JJ those days; and how camaraderie and friendship enlivened the scene.Prabha’s first show of 100 paintings happened when she was still a student. Her first customer was none other than the renowned nuclear physicistHomiJehangirBhabha, (1909-1966) who bought three paintings. After graduating, Prabha’s marriage in 1956 to sculptor B Vithal (also an alumnus of the JJ School) was followed by years of hardship.

“Struggle has taught me a lot. I came to Mumbai with only Rs 2 and 11 paise. I had to sell my only piece of jewellery and a ring gifted by my grandmother to go to Kashmir on our honeymoon. I remember we had taken along with us a stove and few utensils to cook in Kashmir.”

Nothing, however, came in the way of the persevering and dedicated artist in charting a course that left an indelible mark on the Indian art scene. Prabha believed that to be a successful artist one had to be a good human being, and one needed to develop a sensitivity and ability to see the beauty around.“It is my aim to paint the trauma and tragedy of women,” she would say. By the time of her death, her work had featured in over 50 exhibitions.

An incident, which has almost become folklore in Indian art, relates to Prabha. It occurred in the year 1956. Then a young graduate of JJ School, Prabha is said to have walked into the Air India office with a series of small-sized watercolours portraying Indian women; and asked the company to buy them. The airline responded and bought six paintings for Rs 87 and 8 annas. That small purchase had a longstanding impact. It laid the foundation for Air India to take up collecting art seriously. In the following decades, the company became a solid supporter of both established and emerging artists.

(Published 01 October 2023, 00:49 IST)

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