Monday, April 26, 2010


Budapest is one of the many beautiful cities in Europe. Spread out on the banks of the Danube with Buda on the hilly west and Pest on the flat east bank, the two portions are connected by eight impressive bridges. After a guided tour of the imposing buildings like Parliament House, Opera House and the numerous Roman Catholic churches in Baroque or Gothic styles, it is nice to enter a local tavern for a plate of gulyas (meat and vegetable stew) and a glass of wine. My other place of interest was Dunaharasti by the Danube, where Amrita Shergill of mixed descent was born on January 30th, 1913.

Only a few years ago, an Indian HRD Minister had unveiled a plaque on the wall of this house. Ironically, the present occupant a tailor was unaware of its historic importance. I had seen Shergill’s paintings at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and was fascinated by her life and times.

Amrita’s father was a Sikh aristocrat and also a Sanskrit scholar. Her mother was an upper class Hungarian pianist. Her parents were not the best of role models. While her father was grim and orthodox, her mother was a social butterfly with several peccadilloes under her belt. But she was the driving force behind Amrita’s achievements and encouraged her to work hard at her paintings.

Amrita was head strong, opinionated and independent. She came down heavily on her critics though she herself was critical of the work of others. She believed she was a natural painter with ‘a peculiarity that resented outside interference.’ She was drawn towards colour and form just as she was to landscapes and nature.
“I cannot contain my appetite for colour. I wonder if I ever will,” she said.

At the age of eight, she moved with her family from Hungary to Simla, a hill resort in India. But a year later, she and her mother went to Italy, in pursuit of an Italian sculptor with whom her mother had fallen in love.

Though Amrita was exposed to Italian masters of painting while schooling at Santa Anunciata, the regime of the convent was restrictive and she returned to India. Some say she was dismissed for proclaiming that she was an atheist. In India, she studied under Erin Backlay for two years, but didn’t like the way he used live models. So she left.

In 1929, she was sent to Paris for a degree in Fine Arts. At sixteen, she studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, learnt to read and write French, and also painted vigorously. She was exposed to the best Art Galleries and Museums in the city. Amrita was greatly influenced by the work of Cezanne and to a lesser extent Gauguin. The use of colour, techniques to represent depth of models, the intimate relationship between form and colour, was what she learnt from the work of the great masters. Amrita was the youngest and only Asian to be honoured as Associate of the Grand salon in Paris, for her painting of young girls.

Amrita returned to India in 1934. Human forms were her forte. Her keen powers of observation and deep compassion for people, was evident through her paintings. She combined her knowledge of western art with her Indian sensibilities, to produce her most outstanding work. There was something intrinsically melancholy in the people she portrayed. “They are like moving silhouettes on a landscape,” she said, “No amount of colour can change that melancholy.”
She captured on canvas sad child brides, powerless submissive women, beggars, vagrants and scenes from village life.
“Her art moves from melancholy to tragic,” says Salman Rushdie.

Between 1934 and 1938, Amrita travelled around India, visiting Ajantha and Ellora, Travancore, Cochin and other places. She was critical of Indian Art and dismissed it as “putrid specimens of western academic painting.” However, she had a great admiration for the Ajantha frescoes, and called them ‘inspirational.’

Amrita had a Bohemian lifestyle, was fun loving, glamourous, and like her mother an inveterate flirt. It was said that she even had a crush on Nehru.
“I fall in and out of love or rather I fall in love with someone else before damage is done.”
Flirting was her way of reaching people’s minds through their bodies.

In 1938, she went back to Hungary and married her cousin Dr. Victor Egan, much against her family’s wishes. They thought he was lazy, idle and irresponsible. A year later, she returned to Simla with her husband, who found a job as physician in her uncle’s sugar factory there.

In 1941, this happy wanderer and her husband moved to Lahore, as she had fallen out with her family. But she died prematurely at the age of 29, on December 3rd, 1941. Some said it was due to bacillary dysentery, but many were not convinced. She didn’t live to see the exhibition of her painting which opened at Lahore, two days later.

Amrita Shergill will be remembered for her prodigious collection of paintings and unique style. There are about 147 of them. This young woman paved the way for a contemporary style and freedom of expression in Indian painting.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


In the good old days when Calcutta was the capital of British India, foreigners thought it was a nice place to work, live or visit. Whether civilians or military officers, missionaries or infidels, traders or gamblers of English, Scottish, French or Greek descent, they overran the city, until British India was firmly and permanently edged out by Bharat Mata.

A stroll through the numerous graveyards with their ornate tombs that dot the city, transports us back through the archives of Time, conjuring up lives that were sometimes extraordinary.

In the St. John’s Churchyard on Council Street very close to the Hooghly, lie the remains of Begum Frances Johnson, the Grand Dame of 18th century Calcutta – a woman who was born and brought up in India, and chose to die in the country of her adoption. Neither the heat, dust nor noise of the city could drive her out of her beloved Bengal.
However, there was no compromise on her style of living, and like a true English lady she had dinner at 4 p.m, and then entertained till the wee hours of the morning. Always dressed in lace, truffles, buttons or bows, she was extremely popular as a hostess. Only the high and the influential dined at her table. The likes of Warren Hastings and his wife, Lord Cornwallis, Lord Morrington and Arthur Wellesley Duke of Wellington were her regular invitees. Frances lived in style with nine slave girls (Bengali or African) to do her bidding.

But Begum? Where did the English lady acquire such a title? Was she married to an Indian? Her story unfolds like a fairy tale – sometimes amusing, sometimes sad. Her life was an intriguing chiaroscuro of sunlight and shadows.

Frances was a popular socialite with a wide circle of influential friends. The Nawab of Bengal admired and treated her with great respect. His mother Amina Begum became a very dear friend. It was because of this close association that Frances came to be known as Begum Frances Johnson.

Francis was born at Fort St. David on the Coromandel Coast, on April 10th 1728. Her father Edward Croke was the governor of the fort, under the East India Company. Her mother Isabella Beizor was of Portuguese descent.

Frances’ foray into marriage was jinxed from the start. At the age of 13, she was married to Perry Peupler Templar in Calcutta. The marriage ended with his death five years later. She bore him two children who died in infancy.
Her second marriage to a merchant James Altham was cut short in ten days, when he succumbed to small pox.

Two years later, she married William Watts a company agent at Cossimbazaar. It was a long lasting and happy marriage. She bore him three children and was pregnant with the fourth, when the Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-daula attacked the fort in 1756. Watts offered no resistance but meekly surrendered. Because of Frances’ close association with his mother, Frances and children were allowed to stay on at the fort. They were then moved to Murshidabad and later to Chandernagore, when Calcutta was seized by the Nawab.

Calcutta was soon reclaimed by Clive, and Frances was able to join her husband. Because the Nawab regarded her so highly, she was sent by the British to negotiate with him after his defeat at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
Two years later, Walter and his family went back to England. But after his death in 1764, Frances who didn’t like the English weather returned to Calcutta in 1769, and settled down at 12, Clive Street where she stayed till her death. At 36, having outlived three husbands, she was a wealthy woman.

But in 1774, she blundered into a fourth marriage with the Reverend William Johnson, Chaplain of St. John’s Church. He was 16 years her junior who preened himself like a peacock, and was extremely unkind to her. This ill-conceived folly can only be attributed to her midlife insecurities. In spite of her wealth and social life she was lonely. But the man chipped at her self confidence. So in 1787, she had the marriage annulled and he was sent back to England with a handsome annuity from her.

Begum now 59 years old, and was happy and at peace. Of her five grandchildren, four returned to serve in India. One of them was the Earl of Liverpool. Frances lived till the ripe old age of 83. She died on 3rd February 1812, after a series of mini strokes and multiple abscesses. She was buried on the site she had chosen, opposite the ornate mausoleum of Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, in St. John’s Churchyard. Her funeral was well attended by the bigwigs in town, which included the Governor General and Chief Justice of Calcutta. On her impressive tomb is a lengthy inscription summing up the life of this beloved ‘Grand Dame of Calcutta.’