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Vivan Sundaram's Aunt And Muse Amrita Sher-Gil Was Also His Social Laboratory

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

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An institution that exists between the private and the public, family becomes an important marker in the analysis of a society or a nation. Artists and writers have always watched family curiously as it holds many elements that feed their creativity and ideologies. Vivan Sundaram’s digital photomontages dealing with the Sher-Gils re/constructed some real/fictional modern Indian families.

In his 2001/2 series of photomontages titled Re-take of Amrita Sundaram attempted to create a spectacle (which assumes a life of its own) by collecting and re-arranging the myriad images of his aunt Amrita Sher-Gil and the Sher-Gil family in the form of photographs and paintings.

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One's Own Family As A Spectacle

Guy Debord’s statement about the spectacles holds true in this case, “all life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

In this sense, the photomontage titled ‘Dancing in the Life-Class’ stands for the entire series. Here, Amrita’s paintings, her social life and her apartment—everything moves away into a representation. The various aspects of the artist’s life are brought together and presented as a spectacle.

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

‘Dancing in the Life-Class’ by Vivan Sundaram 

NGMA Archives 

Debord further states, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Sundaram attempted precisely this through his re-workings of the images of the Sher-Gil family: realisation of social relations.

The paintings and the photographs by the Sher-Gil father and daughter provided Sundaram with a starting point, which is a must according to Ernst Gombrich “to begin that process of making and matching and remaking.”

The reality that presents itself through Sundaram’s series is not only often disturbing, but it also makes the beholder reconsider her notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

That Sundaram chose to make his aunt the subject of this series and some of his other works makes Re-take an interesting case while examining the modern Indian family.

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Sundaram's Ideas On Family And Oppression

Barrett and McIntosh observe that family is “a central institution for the suppression of the women and the maintenance of gender inequality; it is ‘anti-social’, encouraging a narrow focus on a small set of inter-personal relationships at the expense of wider commitments to citizenship or to the public sphere; it is a major institution in the reproduction of class inequalities.”

The Sher-Gil family is shown as providing conducive environment to Amrita’s art. Sundaram’s Retake can be seen as a celebration of multiculturalism. The European influence on the Sher-Gil family and their ‘Indian-ness’ are frequently called to attention.

Amrita is shown as a perfect product of her twin heritage: Sikh father and Hungarian mother. As her art is seen as a fusion of the best elements of the East and the West, her personality too, as it comes out in Sundaram’s photomontages, represents this hybridity. Multiple cultural influences become an advantage for Amrita and she puts them to good use just like her contemporary Frida Kahlo.

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

'Doppelganger' by Vivan Sundaram 

NGMA Archives 

Sundaram’s ‘Doppelganger’ best captures Amrita’s twin heritage and her ease with her mixed identity. In this photomontage we see Amrita looking into a mirror and finding two reflections of herself.

Of the two Amritas in the mirror, one is dressed as a traditional Indian woman in a saree and the other in a European outfit. There is no hint of discomfort in her expressions which suggests her ease.

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Sundaram's Gaze On Fathers And Lovers

In Sundaram’s photomontage titled ‘Lovers,’ we come across three persons- Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita Sher-Gil and Boris Tazlitsky. The title may shock the beholder as she observes Umrao Singh in the pose of a lover: languorously standing in an almost naked state.

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

'Lovers' by Vivan Sundaram

NGMA Archives 

Umrao Singh appears in the similar semi-naked state alongside his wife in another photomontage titled ‘Preening’. Sundaram has managed to sensationalise the father-daughter relationship through his re-workings.

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

'Preening' by Vivan Sundaram 

NGMA Archives 

In Amrita’s photographs taken by her father, there is unmistakable sexual energy. The gaze of the photographer appears far from being that of the father. The person behind the lens captures the posed womanliness and stylised sexuality of Amrita. Laura Mulvey states, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.”

On one hand Sundaram’s series appears as a collection of stories that the family members tell about each other, while on the other both Umrao Singh Sher-Gil and Sundaram make Amrita an object of their gaze and see her not as a daughter or aunt but as a woman.

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Vivan Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil, And the Question of Marriage

Sundaram treated marriage as an arbitrary event in Re-take. While the marriage of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil and Marie Antoinette is shown as facilitating Amrita’s biological birth and her birth as a modern artist, Amrita and Victor Egan’s marriage does not have any such strings attached. Talking about marriages DHJ Morgan states, “To treat marriage as an institution implies that the main points of reference for what constitutes appropriate marital statuses and roles comes from outside and “above”; to call it a ‘relationship’ implies that the main points of reference come from within, from the parties themselves.”

Sundaram's decision to treat marriage as such allows him to defend Amrita’s unabashed promiscuity and bisexuality. In the photomontages he focuses mainly on Amrita’s art, the father-daughter relationship, often problematised, and the issues of identity.

In Amrita’s case, marriage hardly has a bearing upon her identity; if any it is only in the sense that she refuses to consider it as a paradigmatic form of relationship.

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Sexual Values And Family

Sundaram successfully captured this narcissism, which appears to have been gifted to her by her father. Umrao Singh’s penchant for photography and his keen interest in taking Amrita’s pictures is likely to have trained her in exhibiting herself. It is quite likely that the photographs taken by her father led her to perceive herself as an object of desire which made her confident. David Knox and Caroline Schacht acknowledge high self esteem as an important psychological condition for the development of love and sex relationship. “Feeling good about yourself allows you to believe that others are capable of loving you. Individuals with low self-esteem doubt that someone else can love and accept them”.

Family is often seen as the first set-up where an individual imbibes sexual values like absolutism or relativism. Sundaram managed to present Sher-Gil as a polyamorous artist who believed in relativism. Her sexual values were likely an outcome of the bohemian nature of the Sher-Gil family.

Sundaram’s Amrita Sher-Gil is an icon who is beyond moral and social censure. Thus, in the series, there is no allusion to her sexually transmitted diseases and the tragic death allegedly owing to her promiscuity. Sundaram consciously distanced himself from Sher-Gil physical problems. Despite his seemingly perfect ease with Sher-Gil bohemian lifestyle, one can discern a slight discomfort when it comes to these issues as he passes over them silently.

Re-take of Amrita Sher-Gil makes us revisit notions about the Sher-Gil family in particular and families in general.

'Self as Tahitian' by Vivan Sundaram 

NGMA Archives 

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When Amrita paints herself naked as a Tahitian, it can be called the artistic narcissism but when Sundaram creates ‘Self as Tahitian,’ he, like a voyeur, probes into her personal life and foregrounds it. In this photomontage, Amrita’s painting is used as a background to a semi-naked photo of hers taken by her husband. Re-take of Amrita is voyeurism at its most creative.

Sundaram not only followed and exposed the ‘images’ of the Sher-Gil family, but he also conjured the stories behind these images.

Hobbes declares in Leviathan, “And from hence it is manifest that there neither is nor can bee any Image made of a thing invisible.” Therefore, no matter how shocking certain elements in the works of some writers and artists appear to be, it is judicious to acknowledge that the works are rooted in the ideas that exist, even if lying dormant or unacknowledged.

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Topics:  Amrita Sher-Gil   Art   Artist 

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