Amrita and Umrao Sher-Gil's portraits

Pioneer of the mise-en-scéne genre, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil lived a contemplative life, vigorously capturing his family with immaculate vision and retrospective imagination, writes Uma Nair.

The Amrita Sher-Gil Archives at Platform-India Art Fair 2018 provided a transnational experience, an articulation of cross-cultural visual and material language in the reality of a father's passion for photographing his family.

History says, the photographer Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, eldest son of Raja Surat Singh of Majithia, was born into the landed aristocracy of Punjab. While his younger brother, Sunder Singh, was an industrialist and politician, Umrao Singh opted for the more contemplative life of a scholar. He spent a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge; he was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar and was interested in the philosophy of religion. He had a long-standing friendship with the poet Mohammed Iqbal and greatly admired the Russian humanist Leo Tolstoy. He was also fascinated by astronomy, loved carpentry and calligraphy, practised yoga, and had an abiding passion for photography.
Umrao Singh's older daughter, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), was a pioneering artist and an emblematic figure in the history of pictorial modernism in India. Her talent, her beauty, her flamboyant personality, her cosmopolitan outlook and her sexual emancipation have made her something of a legend. Her presence was framed in a more literal sense by the photographic lens of her father. A serious amateur photographer, Umrao Singh focussed solely on his family and himself, unaware that he was pioneering the genre of the mise-en-scéne that would be renewed by Indian photographers half a century later.
The portraits of Amrita and her sister, as well as Umrao's stunning self-portraits, are a signature of cultural diversity, an insignia of cosmopolitanism which nephew Vivan Sundaram is well known for. The image of the two sisters is at once a candid moment that travels beyond geopolitical borders and time itself. Shimla 1928-Amrita and Indira in the garden amongst the trees is as charming as Paris 1932-Amrita and Indira in bed. Thus, Umrao the photographer was unconsciously tapping the dynamics of an international cosmo-political system which celebrated the idea of a global citizenship.
Of course, Victor Egan's 1933 image of Amrita on the sand, unveils appreciation and representation of a world culture. There is no denying that Amrita had an expressionism of exoticism that was enticing as well as deeply charismatic. The hair on her underarms is a symbol of an abandoned virtuosity of nonchalant realism. Indeed in the poise and gesture of naturality, it seems graceful and every bit a womanly attribute. Amrita at home in Paris, 1931 is yet another portrait of subtle exoticism.
Obviously, Amrita was a subject that possessed infinite possibilities and evocations in expression. Umrao found in his daughter an album of intensities and insights. And yet, Amrita at home 1930, Paris is an example of naivete. The flowers, the décor, her simply styled classic gown every bit a scene of grace and haute couture. Of course, the finest amongst the Amrita portraits is Amrita with her paintings, where we can see Umrao in the mirror. The beauty of this image is that it oscillates between the past and the present—the animation on Amrita's face as she stands with her paintings is an emblem of elegant eloquence, even as it brushes the pages of the history of an artist with her works. Umrao revelled in photographing his daughter Amrita, and she always met her father's aperture with a gaze that was full, frontal and forthright. An epicurean delight is Amrita at her easel in Shimla, 1937.
Surreal, stately and deeply pensive are Umrao's self-portraits. His attire is princely, his turban, his long coats and his draped long belted immaculately flowing robes are a statement in the flow of a man's wardrobe. His expression is sombre, at times sad, at times full of a depth in pathos but here are self-portraits that stand like silent sentinels in the testimony of time. Seated at a desk or an armchair, or even reading a book, or at his magnificent study table, each setting is a scene to behold. Perhaps most poignant are Umrao's images of before and after 15 days of fasting. His tall slender body, a telltale mascot for modern-day yoga buffs, even though we can glimpse a soft inherent melancholy in his predicament.
Umrao Singh's preoccupation with photography was an intense and private affair. He printed his negatives, experimenting with toning formulae that master printers would employ. Over 2,500 vintage prints along with glass plates and film negatives have since survived. In 2001, his grandson, the artist Vivan Sundaram, made digital photomontages using Umrao Singh's self-portraits and family portraits to create fictional narratives and presented them as Retake of Amrita. In 2007, the first retrospective exhibition of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's vintage and modern prints (from glass plates and film negatives) was held at the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in France and attracted critical attention from across the globe. In 2008, this retrospective was exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai, India, in conjunction with a published monograph.
A reclusive man, about whom little is still known, was finally acknowledged as a pioneering figure of the mise-en-scéne in Indian photography. This collection by Photoink and Gallery SKE was in many ways a statement to the importance and vitality of archival memories. The image of Umrao with his grandson on his lap holding his camera becomes a prologue for the life of the gifted artist Vivan Sundaram in the leaves of history that he would create for himself. In more ways than one, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil unravels as a photographer of a deep resilience, a resonant and ebullient individual who loved creating his album of archives through the days he lived—be it Shimla or Paris. Indeed, these images also give us an eye view of the beautiful palatial homes he inhabited, with interiors full of modern art nouveau furniture and mirrors and carpets galore. In terms of the many shades and shadows of history that it unveiled and captured, this set of archives was one that demanded attention and kept calling me back each of those four days at the India Art Fair this year. Kudos, then, to Photoink and Gallery SKE.

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