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A Savage Garden: The Paris Photographs of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil.

The photographs taken by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil in Paris during the 1930s do not depict the city's bustling streets or its everyday life. Unlike the photographs by Hungarian contemporaries Brassai or Andre Kertesz, or the enigmatic ones of Jacques-Andre Boiffard, which accompanied Andre Breton's Nadja (1928), Haussmann's Paris reveals itself only in the everyday life of the Sher-Gil rented apartment at 11 Rue de Bassano. Sher-Gil, an amateur photographer, focused on the intimate domestic routine and rituals of the family home, all of which he dutifully recorded. His subjects were the members of his family and their surrounding spaces. These included the furniture, lights, fixtures, wallpapers, ornaments, mirrors and plants of their home. At other times, in tandem with the changing role of photography in the 1920s, his work takes a more "artistic" dimension through self-conscious image-making. (1) Sher-Gil did not venture into the streets with his camera, but the multiplicity of mirrors, hallways, and doors echoes the city's emblematic arcades. (2) In this way, the city of Paris and its corresponding spaces come to haunt the interiors of the apartment photographs.

Sher-Gil's photographs primarily served a documentary role informing of the growth and progress of his daughters, his wife and himself for family and friends around the world. (3) He also staged many of the photographs, either with people or only with furniture. Some of his earlier photographs at times slip into the performative register of zenana photographs, in the 19th-century style of Raja Deen Dayal. The figure of Marie-Antoinette in an oriental-style dress reclining on the divan, taken early in their marriage, has now transformed into his wife wearing a slip and sitting hunched over on a bed in their Paris apartment. Those of his daughters, meanwhile, show them in full bloom. The young women are glamorously dressed and languorously look into the camera, in imitation of photographs of the sitara, or early cinema star. These images contrast with more mundane ones of the girls occupied in their everyday activities. Sher-Gil's aristocratic lifestyle, his daily rituals, his reading, writings and many letters subtend the pictures that he made. While in France, Sher-Gil dedicated himself to the rigorous study of languages, literature, religions and philosophies. His restricted routine and self-imposed diet seem to have found momentary freedom in exploring the imaginative and playful possibilities of making images of his wife, his two daughters and his home.

"Picture-making" as a craft was practised by daughter Amrita and father as shared acts of mimesis. One used paint, the other, the camera, to study subjects and create portraits of the people and world around them. This symmetry is made visible in Sher-Gil's act of photographing his daughter's progress at art school. Here Amrita poses proudly in front of her latest painted portraits of herself and her friend and lover Boris Taslitsky (figure 1). A mis-en-abyme is enacted through the many images encompassed in this photograph: Umrao's photographic portrait of Amrita, Amrita's painted self-portrait, and the photograph's ability to capture Amrita and her painted self-portrait thereby creating a simulacrum of his daughter and her representation(s). (Umrao's position as father and photographer and/or artist is also highlighted as his own image appears as a reflection in the mirror between the vases of flowers and next to the putto on the mantel--a wish fulfilment for the male child?--as he takes the photograph.) At other times, however, Amrita's painted portraits steal unconsciously into the frame. In a haunting image of Marie-Antoinette writing at her desk, a smaller portrait of Amrita's head creeps up from behind her mother's pen (figure 2). Amrita seems to dominate the Paris period. Her numerous self-portraits during this period echo the ones that Umrao Singh Sher-Gil continued to make of himself since his early experiments with the camera dating back to (at least) 1892. (4)

Intense gazes, smiles, and uneasy and sometimes restless figures in the Paris photographs, are at home, and not at home, or strangely displaced, which signal the un-homely, or unheimlich. (5) A composed self-portrait with Sher-Gil at a table shows him seated and holding a magnifying glass, with another desk facing him (figure 3). The second desk has a typewriter and an open drawer situated at the lower half of the frame. The photograph's focus on the visible aspects, or the "seen" simultaneously evokes the "unseen" both in terms of the magnified image (apparent only to himself) and the contents of the drawer. This constructed image reveals a subtle interplay between photography and self-representation: what is and what is not available to the viewer's gaze. The open drawer suggests what might have escaped the controlled staging of Sher-Gil's photographs, since the mysterious contents only partially appear to the viewer. The strange disjunction reveals another layer of the composition which heightens the overall sense of repression in the atmosphere where a divide is apparent between conscious and unconscious realms of experience. The pensive head of Sher-Gil is surrounded by books, papers and notes while a typewriter cover with his inverted name lies on the bed next to a strewn blanket and what appears to be a standing pen in the open drawer acts as a phallic substitute that hints at release.

While in Paris Umrao Singh was haunted by his dreams. After reading British psychologist Havelock Ellis's World of Dreams (1911), and searching unsuccessfully for the meaning of his nightmares in the index, Sher-Gil wrote to him stating:
   For many years as far as I can remember, I have often dreamt, that
   I was asleep in my bed, when an uncanny presence, not visible, but
   felt to be something supernatural, was close, and generally towards
   the head. Associated with [the] presence is always the feeling that
   something like subtle fluid is passing out from my head through the
   hair, which is unpleasant and terrifying. I then seem to wake up,
   and sometimes while still lying in bed and sometime [s] sitting up
   in the bed, I am trying to wave off and strike off this presence
   from my vicinity, and generally feeling this presence to be of a
   ghostly or vampiry charcter [sic], I try to pronounce the sacred
   word in Sanskrit namely OM [...]. (6)

Sher-Gil continues that, in spite of his evocation of the word "om", he is powerless to defeat the ghostly presence that troubles him. The vision is one that recurs and he mentions that it often took place when he had "eaten something that does not suit me". (7) Sher-Gil's fasts, in this light, could be seen also to repress and control the nightmares that continued to plague him. His use of the term "uncanny" in his letter to Ellis suggests that he may have possibly had some level of knowledge of Freudian theory. (8) Although, likely more influential is Ellis's interpretation of the dream as a "picture" (not static, always moving) which could then be read as subtly informing the photographs of Sher-Gil and the layers and complexity of objects, spaces, figures and the use of nature/plant-life in the interiors, which come to define them. (9)

Sher-Gil rarely photographed outdoors during this period. A unique photograph of Amrita painting in La Baule, a seaside town in Western France, is an exception. More characteristic are the cluttered and cramped spaces of the Sher-Gils' apartment. Nature, however, intrudes and permeates the boundaries of exterior and interior, public and private life. Sher-Gil's photographs show an obsession with flowers. They are present in the dresses, textiles, decorative backdrops of various wallpapers, and in vases, pots and baskets. The cramped and enclosed space is momentarily liberated by a seeming anthomania in the photographs of his Paris period. The layered and textured murals of figures framed by flowers, a pictorial device Sher-Gil might have seen in Punjab, come to mind. (10) However, flowers are more symbolic of the spaces of desire, sexuality and fertility located in the interior and revealed through dresses and decor. Michael Hatt in his reading of sexuality and Victorian interiors makes a connection between objects and desire and extends value to the space as well as the ornaments found in rooms by making the claim that the interior is "not just four walls, furniture, paper, fabric and so on; it is a locus of experience". (11) Sher-Gil, too, was acutely sensitive to the animal and vegetal world. (12) In the Paris photographs, bodies, objects and furniture are often circumscribed by flowers and plants, whether real or artificial, or allegorized in the growth of his two adolescent daughters.

The stylized wallpaper of the various rooms of the Paris apartment and its plants evoke the feeling of a hothouse, of the natural world and the outdoors. As such, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil retreats from the cold urban environment of Paris to the memories of flowers and warmer climates. Indira sensually parades in a dress with a floral print in front of a mirror (figure 4), Amrita in a bathing suit toys with the branch of a palm tree (figure 5), Amrita and Indira sit in bed against a backdrop of flowered wallpaper (figure 6), Marie-Antoinette appears withered and tired at her desk surrounded by flowers. Amrita juxtaposes cultures and climates by sitting in front of a Christmas tree while wearing a floral-print sari with a book by the Hungarian poet, Ady. Even tasks of everyday labour allegorize the flower as in the remarkable image of Amrita bent over, wearing a white slip and ironing her dress which fans around her like petals (figure 7).

Large palm plants as in figure 5 are signs of warmer, often colonial climates, and peek through corners of photographs such as that of a portrait of family and friends and another of the apartment interior marked by its savage leaves. The palm tree was enjoying recent popularity in visual culture with Paul Colin's posters from the mid to late 1920s in Paris. This includes an illustration of Josephine Baker in a skirt of palm leaves while other depictions by Colin present a nude under a palm tree embodying Western representations of exoticism and desire. This same exoticization, I argue, is used self-reflexively by Sher-Gil. In one photograph, he is seen posing sensually with the dark cat (one thinks of the erotic black cat in Manet's Olympia) (figure 8); in another, his stark white turban is set against a backdrop of stylized European tulip wallpaper (the flowers drooping with the weight of their blossom). In two other photographs he poses nude but for a loincloth, showing his vital physique, standing close to an indoor palm tree in one of them (figures 9 and 10).

The cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Sher-Gil family allowed for cross-cultural encounters in their life and art. In this way, Umrao Sher-Gil's photographs celebrate, to use another metaphor from plant biology, a hybridity of cultures (for example, sari-clad Amrita with a Christmas tree) as much as Amrita's painting, Self-Portrait as Tahitian (see Devika Singh's essay in this issue, figure 1), did in Paris in 1934. The Chinese screen, Polynesian-style sarong and the Indo-European female body distil and fragment civilizational binaries of East and West through more complex triangulations.

While Sher-Gil's brother-in-law, Ervin Baktay, took a number of ethnographic photographs of people in the mountains, plains and remote regions of India, he also focused on the figure of the Native American as imagined by the West in a number of photos in Hungary from the 1930s. (13) This fascination with the Native American was one shared by the French in the mid-19th century. The French became seduced by the figure of the "noble savage", whose alleged threat of disappearance in society has been equated by critics to the havoc created by the urban changes of Haussmann in Paris. (14) Baktay's experience in Hungary may have also reflected this reality. The cultural and political dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire with the end of the Hapsburg rule in 1919 uprooted the country from its own past.

This deterritorialization was relevant to Sher-Gil as well, who had been moving between continents for the last few decades and whose own self-portraits could speak to both a cultural displacement and a defiant assertion of an identity. This is seen in his romantic self-portraits that appear to consciously resemble 19th-century miniatures of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the founder of the modern Sikh dynasty.

Such spaces of cultural pride and contestation were important in Paris in 1931. Even outside of India, the Sher-Gils, particularly Umrao Singh, would have been aware of their status as British colonial subjects even while enjoying an elite and privileged lifestyle. Gandhi, who Sher-Gil admired, had made his Dandi March in 1930 which made headlines around the world. Sher-Gil was aware of Gandhi's message and the passive resistance movement. (15) Although Indians were British subjects, and not French ones, the Sher-Gil family nonetheless would have been aware of European colonial rule. During the Sher-Gils' stay in Paris, the Exposition coloniale internationale opened in May 1931 amidst the park and trees of the Bois de Vincennes. The agricultural sense of "to colonize", which in Latin derives from "to cultivate" cannot be lost here. Although it is unclear if the Sher-Gils visited the exhibition, they certainly would have known about it. The millions of visitors it drew over its six-month duration, the attention it received in newspapers and journals, and the resulting protests from intellectuals were significant. This included those of Amrita's colleague and friend at Lucien Simon's studio, painter Boris Taslitsky. (16) The backdrop of the exhibition and the French nationalist pride it spawned during this time, as evidenced in the popular press, as well as other museum exhibitions dedicated to social awareness in the city, gave a context to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's growing spiritual fervour. In a letter titled "Weekly Jottings" of July 16, 1931, Sher-Gil writes:
   Yesterday I went to get something done to my spectacles and passed
   by a Museum of Social hygien (sic) put up temporarily on the squre
   (sic) of the Place Republic. I wnt (sic) in and was disgusted with
   human life to see what loathsome diseases man suffers from through
   his ignorance. It nealrly (sic) turned my stomach inside out, but
   every one should know what can happen to man and woman, though it
   is not the whole picture of life. (17)

Sher-Gil continued to fast during his time in France. It could be said that, like Gandhi, he used vegetarianism as a site of resistance in order to not fully conform to European culture. He was aware also of the Western literature defending meat-free diets and had a copy of the 1811 tract A Return to Nature: In Defense of Vegetarianism in his personal library. (18) Even the photograph could have been potentially problematic for Sher-Gil's ethics. The albumin surfaces of late 19th- and early 20th-century photographs were made of egg, a food that Sher-Gil vehemently rejected during his time in France. (19)

A series of photographic self-portraits in Paris shows Sher-Gil taking portraits before and after his fasts (figures 9 and 10). A homophonic relationship, I claim, is established between faim (hunger) and famille (family), or in English, a pairing of the more extreme hunger, famine, and family. The body of the photographer became implicated in each of the photographs he took. Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's desire for withdrawal and renunciation charts a fear of the disappearance of his body and a simultaneous desire for permanent embodiment in his photographic self-portraits. Sher-Gil shaped and fashioned his image as much as his daughter did through her self-portraits during this time. (20) In tandem with Gandhi, whose own fasts against British subjugation were well known, Sher-Gil's numerous photographic self-portraits echo the Indian leader and externalize his spiritual will. At once, the photographs show Sher-Gil's narcissism and abnegation and his need to reify the self.

Family, for Sher-Gil, was fragile. The photographer had already lost his eldest son, Balram, when the troubled young man shot himself in 1922. (21) Scientific objectivity provided by the mechanical camera gave Sher-Gil an occupation that recreated the family. Working as a scientist, Sher-Gil charted growth: capturing the age of the girls, Amrita's accomplishment in painting, Indira at the piano, his wife's growing fatigue, his own success in transforming his noble body through fasting. If the camera through the cold mechanical function evokes a violence in the production of the image through the click of the camera in the creation of aesthetics, (22) Sher-Gil simultaneously withdraws and asserts himself in the act of photographing as much as he does with his diet in the violent experiments of body and self-image-making.

Walter Benjamin famously declared Eugene Atget's lonely and cryptic photos of Paris as "crime scenes". (23) Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's photographs in Paris, however, for the most part, do not refer to murders or robbery, but prefigure early deaths. (Sher-Gil's daughter, Amrita, and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, would both die in the 1940s.) In later years, blissfully happy moments shared by family become memento mori. At once archival documents of a famous artist and ordinary family snapshots, the dual function served by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's photographs complicates the register in which viewers are meant to receive them. (24) The glossy veneer of a cosmopolitan and bohemian family in Paris is scratched by truth: the grip of European colonial rule which enveloped them, past family tragedy and the urgency of nationalism growing in the figure of the famished photographer.

The nature and plant-life that overrun the Paris photographs give material presence to Sher-Gil's unconscious beliefs. A life force attempts to overshadow the death that the photograph, too, tries to ward off. The uncanny entity that appears to haunt his dreams, his interest in diet and vegetarianism, the flora of hotter climates, his interest in picture-making, his ethical stance towards living creatures, and the use of flowers and plants, all point to life. Together they suggest the re-creation of a garden, one which could be shared, controlled and represented; to some degree a protection, defence and a promise for a fragile ego in acutely uncertain times.


All images courtesy The Estate of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil.


(1) Light-weight and portable cameras, such as the Leica, which made its debut in 1925, allowed for a relative ease in the creation of images which further allowed for a freedom of interpretation and flexibility in representation. This sustained the possibility for more subjective portrayals in photography during this period.

(2) Sher-Gil would have been familiar with "street photography" and the abundance of available images of Paris as a city. The cheaper cost of reproducing half-tone photographs in French newspapers and magazines during this time meant a wide dissemination of views of the city offered by the medium. Julian Stallabrass contends that this availability led to the way in which "photography contributed to the formation of the city, as Parisians saw first their buildings and then themselves reflected in the many photographic portraits constructed in magazines and books". See his "Paris Pictured: Street Photography 1900-1968", in Paris Pictured, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2002, pp. 1-4.

(3) Earlier letters of Sher-Gil speak about sending photographs "of the girls" so that relations and friends in Lahore, Budapest and elsewhere could keep track of their growth. "I shall send a few photos of the girls and perhaps ours too if I can get them ready before closing this letter and posting it in a few hours by this day's outgoing foreign mail." Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Letter from Simla, India, to Madame Mari Jaszai in Budapest, November 1, 1923. National Szechenyi Library, Budapest. I thank Agnes Pap for her aid in accessing these letters in Budapest. For further reading of this correspondence see Pap's "Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's Hungarian contacts and scholarly activities--in particular respects to the correspondence between the Sher-Gils and Mari Jaszai". http://www.delhi. The%20correspondance%2obetween%20 Umra0%20Singh%20Sher%20by%20 Agnes %20Pap%20_with%20pictures%20-%20F~.pdf

(4) Deepak Ananth, "The Gaze of the Amateur", in Umrao Singh Sher-Gil: His Misery and His Manuscript, New Delhi: PhotoInk, 2008, p. 225.

(5) Though scholars like Ranjana Khanna trouble the use of Freudian psychoanalysis in a colonial context, the importance of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's time in the Budapest and Paris cultural milieux become important for their possible influence. Budapest, in particular, during the interwar years and figures such as Sandor Ferenczi were important for the dissemination of the practice. See Arnold W.M. Rachman, The Budapest School of Psychoanalysis: The Origin of Two-Person Psychology and Emphatic Perspective, New York: Routledge, 2016; Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

(6) Letter from Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, in Paris, to Dr Havelock Ellis, in London, October 18, 1934. Archives Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi. The letter was written from his Paris apartment, 11 Rue de Bassano.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny/Das Unheimlich (1919), reproduced in James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII, London: Hogarth Press, 1955. German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch was already employing the term as early as 1906.

(9) "Sight is for most of us the chief sensory activity of sleeping as it is of waking life: the commonest kind of dream is mainly a picture, but it is always a living and moving picture, however inanimate the objects which appear in vision before us would be in real life." Havelock Ellis, The World of Dreams, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916, p. 20.

(10) Musarrat Hasan, Painting in the Punjab Plains: 1849-1949, Lahore: Ferozsons, 1998.

(11) Michael Hatt, "Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and the Aesthetic Interior", Visual Culture in Britain, 8, 1 (Summer 2007), pp. 105-28, p. 106.

(12) 'And the higher spiritual powers accept our sacrifice as we accept that of the animal and vegetable life below ours. I could not agree to the whole of this as I know for certain that some of the animals like the oxen for example fear the smell of blood in a slaughterhouse, as has been recorded by careful observers, and the pig cries out and squeels (sic) like a child when being killed." Budapest, December 24, 1930. Archives Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.

(13) See Az indologus indian: Baktay Ervin Emlekezete, Budapest: Hopp Ferenc Kelet-Azsiai Muveszeti Muzeum, 2014.

(14) Shelley Rice, Parisian Views, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997, p. 75. "The Mohican represented the hero about to be vanquished by outside forces' unstoppable incursions into the world of which he had formerly been master. To the artists of the Second Empire, therefore, he was a brother, an alter-ego--and they had little trouble transposing his territory onto their own." Rice credits, amongst other sources, the importance of American James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Alexandre Dumas's serialized novel Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-59) for popularizing the figure of the "noble savage" in France.

(15) Though direct references to Gandhi are few during Sher-Gil's correspondence during the Paris period, in a letter a few years later to Henri Bergson, Sher-Gil urges him to read the Bhagavad Gita: "[...] today the Indian thinkers are emphasizing the same thing which the Bhagawad Gita taught, as the published works of reformers and scholars like Mr. Tilak and Gandhi and others evidence." March 8, 1933. Archives Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.

(16) Vivan Sundaram (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings, New Delhi: Tulika, 2010, p. 66, note 1. Sundaram further remarks that Amrita "would certainly have known about" the exhibition and controversy surrounding it. A year later, in May 1932, she mentions painting "plein air portraits" in the forest of Vincennes in a letter to her mother.

(17) Archives Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.

(18) Umrao Singh Sher-Gil archives of personal library. Courtesy Vivan Sundaram.

(19) Sher-Gil stopped eating eggs while in Paris claiming he hated the smell and that they cut short the life of the animal which had to produce them. "A Little Abstention Saves from Much", Paris, May 18, 1932. Archives Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.

(20) See Rakhee Balaram, "Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self in Portraits", in Roobina Karode (ed.), Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self in Making, New Delhi: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 2013.

(21) See letter of January 5, 1922 from Umrao Singh Sher-Gil in Simla, India to Madame Mari Jaszai in Budapest. National Szechenyi Library, Budapest.

(22) Zahid R. Chaudhary, Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012, p. 102.

(23) Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Harry Zohn (trans.), New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 217-51, p. 226.

(24) See for example, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil's photographs in Sundaram, Amrita Sher-Gil.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Caption: 1. Amrita with her paintings (Umrao Singh Sher-Gil is reflected in the mirror behind), c. 1930, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption: 2. Marie-Antoinette, early 1930s, 11 Ruede Bassano, Paris.

Caption: 3. At his study table: A self-portrait, c. 1933, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption 4.

Indira looking into a mirror, c. 1933, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption 5. Amrita in swimsuit, c. 1930, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption 6. Sisters in bed, Amrita and Indira, c. 1932, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption 7. Amrita ironing her dress, c. 1930, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption: 8. Umrao Singh in the Sher-Gil flat: A self-portait, early 1930s.

Caption: 9. 'Before the fast of fifteen days': A self-portrait, July 1930, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.

Caption: 10. 'After fifteen days of fasting 11': A self-portrait, August 11, 1930, 11 Rue de Bassano, Paris.
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Author:Balaram, Rakhee
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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