Umrao Singh Sher-Gil
A key early figure in the history of photography in India, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil practised at the turn of the twentieth century, producing a vast corpus of photographs consisting of self-portraits and portraits of family members. His surviving known archive consists of 1,536 prints, 308 glass plate negatives, 245 film negatives and 16 autochromes. He was also a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian languages and literature. Largely remembered as the father of the Modernist painter Amrita Sher-Gil, his work as a photographer gained renown only in the early 2000s.
Sher-Gil was born in Majithia, Punjab, to an aristocratic family. He received his early education in Amritsar, after which he attended the Aitchison College, Lahore. In 1912, Sher-Gil married Marie Antoinette Gottesmann-Erdöbaktay in Lahore and moved to Budapest, Hungary, her home country, where their daughters Amrita and Indira were born in 1913 and 1914, respectively. In Budapest, Sher-Gil continued his Sanskrit studies independently, engaging with acclaimed Hungarian Indologists, primary among them his brother-in-law, Ervin Baktay, who would go on to write extensively on Indian art and culture. Sher-Gil sympathised with the anti-colonial mission in India and in 1915, entered into correspondence with Har Dayal, then-leader of the Ghadar Party in Berlin. Even though he never joined the party, his political sympathies strained his relationship with the Crown and he was refused re-entry to India, only being allowed to return in 1921 following a request for clemency by his younger brother, a member of the Viceroy’s Imperial Legislative Council. In 1929, the family moved to Paris and returned to India in 1934.
Sher-Gil’s photographic practice began as early as 1892, with self-portraiture that was significantly shaped by his cosmopolitan outlook; he is understood to be as influenced by the writings of Tolstoy as he was by the Mandukya Upanishad. Sher-Gil’s images are considered as placing and nourishing the self in photography by pushing the conventions of self-portraiture as a largely performative form. Instead of staging himself as an oriental subject, he photographed himself in varying states and garbs – as a meditative yogi dressed in a loincloth or as an austere scholar-aristocrat – casting a tentative glance at himself.
In a practice that was largely private, documentary and meditative, he staged the body — his own and that of his family — against the backdrop of his aristocratic bourgeois household. The domestic scenes are stylised tableaus, combining conscious posing, with the household interiors — Victorian furniture, elaborate drapery and embellished wares — serving as framing devices. Sher-Gil also extensively experimented with the various photographic techniques, especially double exposures, and between 1923–24, produced what are considered to be the first colour glass plate positives in India.
Despite his extensive body of work, Sher-Gil never exhibited his work or presented himself as an artist. On occasion, his grandson Vivan Sundaram used Sher-Gil’s photographs in his work, most notably in an installation called The Sher-Gil Archive (1995) and a series of fifty-six digital photomontages titled Re-Take of Amrita (2001–02), where he orchestrated and digitally manipulated Sher-Gil’s photographs to stage a family history.
Sher-Gil’s life and legacy recieved scholarly attention in 2001, through Stuart Hall and Mark Sealy’s work on the self-representational practices of non-white artists. Subsequently, the Umrao Singh Sher-Gil estate was established in 2007, which holds Sher-Gil’s photographic work as well as his diaries and letters. In 2016, Sundaram co-established the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation, which instituted the Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Grant for Photography to commemorate his legacy. Sher-Gil stopped practising photography in 1948 and passed away in 1954.
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