India Belongs Only to Me: Amrita Sher-Gil

A story authored by art historian Dr Beth Citron as a part of the MAP Academy’s Online Course ‘Modern & Contemporary Indian Art’.


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Unknown, Amrita Sher-Gil in 1936, Wikimedia Commons.
Umrao Sher-Gil, Amrita Sher-Gil with 3 paintings, 1930s, Wikimedia Commons.

Known for her evocative paintings, half-Indian, half-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil (1913—1941) explored complexities surrounding cultural heritage, identity, gender and social inequality, across her practice.

Amrita Sher Gil, Self Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934, 90 x 56 cm, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Public Domain.

Her oil painting, Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934), marks a critical turning point in her artistic career.

Depicting herself in the nude, Sher-Gil’s pensive self-portrait looks beyond the frame of the picture. Her long black hair is tied loosely, flowing down the length of her back.

Standing upright with her arms crossed over her body, her posture conveys a firm and measured stance.

Paul Gaughin, Two Tahitian Women, 1899, Oil on Canvas, 94 x 72.4 cm, 49.58.1, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of William Church Osborn, 1949.

Inserting herself within the western canon of modern art history, she seems to be directly responding to paintings by the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), known for exoticising nude Tahitian women. Gauguin’s works have been critiqued for imposing an objectifying and subjugating lens on the non-western female body.

Amrita Sher Gil, Self Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934, 90 x 56 cm, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. Public Domain.

In contrast, Sher-Gil reverts the gaze of the male European artist by self-consciously playing up her own exoticism as an Indian woman. Exploring the tensions within her identity, being half-European and half-Indian, she uses her naked torso, brown skin and long, straight hair to evoke Gauguin’s portraits, but stands with a sense of pride and assuredness not granted to his subjects.

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita Sher-Gil sketching, May 1927, Silver gelatin print with selenium toning, 35.5 x 27.9 cms, The Sher-Gil Archives.

Sher-Gil was born in 1913, to an aristocratic family, and spent her childhood in Hungary before relocating to her family’s home in Shimla, India in 1919. At the age of sixteen, she was admitted to the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she studied for the next five years.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait with Easel, c. 1930, Oil on Canvas, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi. The Estate of Amrita Sher-Gil.

We see her academic training reflected in the under-studied painting, Self-Portrait with Easel (1930), which she painted in her second year in Paris. With this work, she succeeds in fashioning herself as a serious artist, even though she is depicted without any artist’s tools and her draped red clothing seems too elegant for the messy work of painting.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Nude, 1933, Oil on Canvas, 82cm x 116cm, Acc. No. 40, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Public Domain.

In spite of her European education and upbringing, she longed for the memories of her childhood in India and sought to trace her lineage in the Indian past. By 1932, she began to experiment with representations of the non-western brown body, as we can see in her painting, Nude (1933).

While much of her work that examines corporeality and the body is grounded in self-portraiture, in this painting the artist represents her younger sister Indira in the nude. She appears vulnerable in a way that Sher-Gil’s representations of herself often are not.

Next to her is a pink cloth or blanket that seems to feature a representation of a dragon on it, echoing Indira’s beautiful hair but also notable as a stereotypical symbol of Asia (mostly East Asia). In this way, in addition to locating her work back to her roots, she also references diverse cultures.

Victor Egan, Amrita Sher-Gil at a beach, c.1933, Silver gelatin print with selenium toning, 35.5 × 27.9 cm, The Sher-Gil Archives.

This period of reflection upon her own identity and Indian heritage marked an important point in her artistic career. As she once stated, ‘Towards the end of 1933, I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India, feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter’.

Amrita at her easel, Simla, India, 1937, Photograph by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Silver gelatin print with selenium toning, 14 × 11 in (35.5 × 27.9 cm), The Sher-Gil Archives

Sher-Gil returned to India at the end of 1934 when the country was still under British colonial rule. Although she had previously distinguished herself as an Indian artist in Europe, her affluence, aristocratic family background and European upbringing set her apart from other colonial subjects at the time.

Resting, Amrita Sher-Gil, 1940, Oil on Canvas, 102cm X 76.8cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

Over the next few years, she would integrate different dimensions of Indian visual culture and daily life into her work, and began to imbue her paintings with what could be considered a typically Indian sensibility. 


Cultivating a space for herself in the art world as an ‘Indian’ modernist, she once famously remarked, Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, and many others, India belongs only to me‘.

She would go on to draw inspiration from art forms such as the murals at the Ajanta Caves, Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings, as well as medieval sculptures and frescoes from palaces and temples. Her paintings from this time reflect her ambition to create a style that was at once quintessentially Indian yet entirely her own. Centering Indian figures, particularly women, she began to simplify the forms of her subjects and eliminate extra details. Broadly, her paintings of rural life also took on a warmer, earthier tone than her earlier oils that had reflected a Western palette.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride's Toilet, 1937, Oil on Canvas, 146cm x 88.8cm, Acc. No. 69, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

In her letters, Sher-Gil expressed her disdain for contemporary representations of India which often depicted beautiful landscapes while acknowledging the suffering of the poor only as a sentimental picturesque detail. In contrast, her own paintings focussed on people rather than their surroundings, particularly examining the domestic lives of women.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Woman on Charpai, 1937/38, Oil on Canvas, 724 x 850cm, Acc. No. 129, National Gallery of Modern Art.

Sher-Gil would go on to produce a number of works exploring the lives of women — touching upon themes of leisure, rest, household work and community — representing their inner world as had never been considered before in Indian painting.

Umrao Sher-Gil, Amrita seated in sari on couch, 1941. Courtesy of the Umrao Sher Gil Estate.

Sher-Gil passed away on December 5, 1941, at the age of 28, after a brief illness. Her untimely death prevented her from witnessing the independence of India in 1947. 

Within a short span of time, she had catalysed a modernist revolution in Indian art. Unapologetically reclaiming her subjectivity as an Indian woman artist, she also carved a space for generations of women artists to come.

This Journey is part of the MAP Academy’s free online Short Course: ‘Modern & Contemporary Indian Art’. Sign up here.


Click here to learn more about Amrita Sher-Gil’s life and practice on the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art.


‘Amrita, in Her Own Words’. Livemint, March 19, 2020.

Dalmia, Yashodhara. Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006.  

Mathur, Saloni. ‘A Retake of Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as Tahitian’. Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 515–44.

Mitter, Partha. ‘The Indian Discourse of Primitivism,’ in The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde 1922-47. New York: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Orin, Zahra. ‘Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as a Tahitian’. Smarthistory, September 8, 2022. 

Rana, Subir. ‘Framing the Political, Rebellious and “Desiring” Body: Amrita Sher-Gil and “Modern” in Painting’. India International Centre Quarterly 44, no. 2 (2017): 35–53.

Sher Gil, Amrita. ‘Evolution of My Art,’ in Amrita Sher-Gil: A Reader, ed. Yashodhara Dalmia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Sundaram, Vivan. ‘Amrita Sher-Gil – Life and Work’. Amrita Sher-Gil: Essays. Mumbai: Marg Publishing, 1972.