Author and Illustrator team up to take young Mumbai readers on colourful journey
Through these illustrations of some of the important milestones of Sher-Gil's life, the author-illustrator duo gives us a peek into the artist's mind
Artists, writers and actors — women in particular — often run the risk of their work being overshadowed by their personality traits the world finds amusing. Or, so vast and significant is their oeuvre that it gets gradually reduced to a simplistic "great". Amrita Sher-Gil is a victim of both. And plucking the artist, who was one of the pioneers of the modern movement in Indian art, out of these peripheral concerns and situating her in the context of her work is what Mumbai-based writer Anita Vachharajani's new book does.
Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush (HarperCollins Children's Books) is a biography, which takes a novel approach to introducing young readers to the artist through beautiful illustrations by Kalyani Ganapathy, a vast selection of Sher-Gil's paintings, accompanying boxes that contextualise her work in the art movements and world events that shaped it, and vivid, thoroughly researched writing by Vachharajani.
"When you think of biographies for young readers, industrialists, sportspersons or musicians are often the first choices. There is limited writing for children on art. Amrita Sher-Gil was the first professional modern woman artist of India. The idea was to show young readers the trajectory of her works, so they could see for themselves why she is called great," says Vachharajani.
She adds that illustrations are the first layer of text that children explore. "It took us a lot of time to find the right illustrator, who would create work for a book about an artist. We wanted the illustrator's input to sparkle without overpowering Sher-Gil's paintings. When I came across Kalyani's work, I knew my search had ended," she says. Ganapathy shares that she was keen on Sher-Gil's works — the copyrights for which were laboriously secured — being given ample space. "I have felt cheated browsing through several art books with really small images. I didn't want that to happen in this book," she says.
Through these illustrations of some of the important milestones of Sher-Gil's life, the author-illustrator duo gives us a peek into the artist's mind.
After a brief backstory on her Sikh-Hungarian parents, the book shows readers how by the age of six, Sher-Gil was already illustrating stories she would write and detested it when grown-ups would draw objects for her to colour in. "She was a radically independent person, who was determined to have her own sense of expression right from childhood. And her family nurtured that determination," shares Vachharajani. Ganapathy, whose illustrations are a delightful entry into the world of young Sher-Gil, adds, "Based on the extensive inputs I got from Anita's text, I kept the details imaginative and story-book like."
With each passing year, Sher-Gil's artistic prowess was becoming evident. To ensure that she got the right opportunity to hone her talent, the family decided to move to Paris, leaving behind a settled life in Simla. "She was the first Indian student to make it to the prestigious L'École des Beaux-Arts. The exposure she had back then is the kind we have access to only today, thanks to the Internet. There was a global sweep to her gaze," reveals Vachharajani. The illustration depicting her days in Paris is also on the book's cover. "Amrita and her friends would often climb to the top of the Notre Dame Church to paint, and she sometimes felt the wind would carry her away. The painting tries to capture that," says Ganapathy.
Passage to India
Despite her fulfilling years in Paris, by 1934, Sher-Gil had begun to long for India. "Her visits to The Guimet Museum of Asian Art left a lasting impression on her and the Buddha in the illustration is inspired by one of the exhibits there," reveals Ganapathy. Vachharajani adds, "Amrita's desire for colour was strong. Her move to India was in search of colours."
The pain of a bright girl, making waves in the world of art and going through personal turmoil at the same time, comes through in the final chapters of the book, leading up to her tragic, untimely death. "This scene from Mashobra depicts the phases of blocked and unblocked creativity that artists go through, and that even great artists have a vulnerable side," Ganapathy sums up.
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