Herstories and How-to’s: Amarita Sher-Gil

Happy New Year!

For me, (and many others) the New Year is a time of reflection and planning. While this process starts by reflecting over the past, ultimately the fun part is looking forward and asking myself the important question- How can I better kick this year’s ass?  And if you’re looking for inspiration, the annals of Herstory have plenty of examples of people who basically won at life. For those times when I need a real kick in the pants, I look at those ladies who crammed as much life into the short time they had- ladies like the artist Amrita Sher-Gil.

Amrita Sher-Gil, looking slightly pissed that you interrupted her brief but influential career to take a photo of her. (via)

Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913, in Budapest, Hungary to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and scholar, and Marie Antoinette Gottesman. Almost from the very beginning, Amrita’s life seems full of interesting portmanteaus and romantic touches fit for a Wes Anderson movie. Not only were her parents from two different worlds, but both seemed to delight in art and experimentation of all kinds. Their house was filled with diplomats and music, and her father, Umrao, was fascinated by photography. In addition to their own artistic pursuits, Amrita’s parents were also supportive of her growing interest in art. She began painting informally at age 5, and at age 8, when the family moved from Budapest to Summer Hill Shimla in India, she began formal training.

Amrita (right) with her sister Indira, as photographed by their father Umrao. (via)

At age sixteen, she and her mother moved briefly to Italy so that she could study at an art school in Florence (pause to appreciate the likely badass that was her mother Marie.). Although the move lasted less than a year, it was Amrita’s first exposure to European-style painting. Her interest in this style continued through her early teens. At age 16, she left home to train as a painter in Paris. After three years of study, she painted Young Girls, considered by many to be her first “important work.” (Note: how the powers that be (read: dudes) determine the importance of a work is a discussion for another day…) The painting earned her an election as an Associate of the Grande Salon in Paris in 1933, simultaneously making her the youngest, and only person from Asia, to receive the award.

Young Girls, by Amrita Sher-Gil. What were you doing when you were 19? If you’re anything like me, it probably involved the Internet and thinking about how to get free food. (via)

But, and here’s why Amrita is awesome- Just as she was poised to become the darling of the Western Art world, she “…began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India,” which she did in 1934. When she returned, she began a quest to rediscover for herself the traditions of Indian art. Her aims were lofty- she didn’t want to just become a part of the establishment there either, but instead sought to create “a new technique, my own technique…this technique though not technically Indian, in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.” Let’s pause to appreciate this moment, the chutzpah required to walk away from being good at something to invent something that feels more true to you. This, more than the accolades, is why Amrita wins at all the things.

Not just two girls now, but Three Girls, painted in 1935. These colors kill me. (via)

For nearly four years, Amrita toured Southern India, studying not only the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting, but also the poverty and the people she saw. Her subjects began to shift to depict the daily lives and struggles she saw. While a woman of some means and familial ties to the British Raj, she was a vocal Congress sympathizer. In other words, she was a painter of and for the people. She charmed the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru and was said to be attracted to Gandhi’s lifestyle. But lest you start to build an image of a saintly, humble artist, in her own words, she said “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque.. India belongs only to me.” Not only does this declaration carry some pretty strong “MINE!”ness, it also speaks of an interest in comparing herself with the big greats in the Western world she left behind. Like our friend Walt, or the inscrutable bride in her 1937 painting, Amrita contained multitudes.

The Bride’s Toilet, 1937. (via)

In 1938, Amrita married her Hungarian cousin and childhood friend, Victor Egan. In 1941, the two moved to a house in Lahore. Days before opening her first solo show in Lahore, she became suddenly ill, slipping first into a coma and then into death. To this day, the cause is unknown (though hemorrhage as a result of a failed abortion has been suggested). At the time of her death, she was 28.

Hill Women. Again, I love how each woman seems a universe to herself, full of thoughts, ideas and absolutely uninterested in being an object for your gaze. (via)

Although her public career barely filled a decade, within that time, Amrita managed to become a master of the current styles, invent her own style and cast ripples of influence that continue to affect not just the world of art, but also literature. (Contemporary novelist, Salman Rushdie based the character, Aurora Zogoiby, off of Amrita in his book The Moor’s Last Sigh). Her approach to not just how she painted but also who inspired social justice for women in India and abroad for years after her death. Like my absolute home-girl Frida, Amrita was a fully-human with contradictions, and while people with all kinds of agendas have tried to claim her or define her, she continues to elude them. You go Amrita.

Get it. (via)

Okay, so changing the world by 28 might be a bit ambitious. Still, it’s never too late to start making a better use of one’s time. While there are as many different ways to organize and keep track of the things you need to get done, today I want to introduce you to my personal favorite method: the bullet journal. Bullet Journaling was invented by genius, Ryder Carroll. It’s totally analog, completely customizable to your needs AND you don’t have to buy anything to get started.*

How to Start Bullet Journaling to Get More S*** Done And Feel Like a Boss for Almost Zero Dollars

  1. Find a notebook you already have/like. Find a writing instrument.
  2. Watch the original video here to get the gist.
  3. Set aside an evening or afternoon to search #bulletjournal and #bulletjournalhacks on tumblr, pinterest or google. Know that at this stage of the journey, you will fall down the rabbithole of the internet and actually lose time, briefly. This is part of the process. Trust it.
  4. Get started! See what works for you and what doesn’t. Just like yoga, ‘keep that which you need, let go of what no longer serves you’. I, for example, have found the daily log to be a temptation to cram more things into a day than is actually possible and have switched to a weekly planning log:
    (Each day has a square, weekends have smaller rectangles and the big spaces at the top are for tasks/things to know about the week which don't have a specific daily deadline.)
    (Each day has a square, weekends have smaller rectangles and the big spaces at the top are for tasks/things to know about the week which don’t have a specific daily deadline.)
  5. Periodically check back in with the internet and fellow bullet journalists to see if there’s anything interesting or useful you might adopt in this week’s/month’s journal. The beauty of this method is you’re literally making it as you go. You are the master of your own destiny!!

* I am not sponsored by Bullet Journal, I am just a believer. HAIL BULLET JOURNAL!


  • sihk-heritage.co.uk
  • telegraph.co.uk
  • wikipedia.com
  • ngmaindia.gov.in
  • bulletjournal.com

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