A look into the Iconic Self Portraits of Amrita Sher-Gil and Maharaja Ram Singh
The works of both Maharaja Ram Singh and Amrita Sher-Gil create a discourse on indigenous responses to the effects of colonialism during different periods of British rule. Ram Singh responds to colonial photography during the consolidation of British power in the 1870s, and Amrita Sher-Gil responds to western perceptions of the exotic ‘other’ at the height of the independence movement in 1934.
The most notable difference is the choice of medium used by these individuals. Maharaja Ram Singh indulged in photography, a relatively new arrival in India while Sher-Gil, an academically trained artist, used her painting skill to critique her European contemporaries’ fascination with the exotic. Despite this obvious difference of medium, period and gender, their works are similar in that both Ram Singh and Sher-Gil assumed the role of both the subject and author, in a self-orientalising fashion that counters the British colonial gaze through which works such as these were usually realised.
Ram Singh’s plays with themes of conflicting identity at a time when the British were consolidating power. In this particular self-portrait, he portrays himself in a traditional manner as a Rajput, Hindu devotee yet all the while being part of the Indian elite. Though it is known that he was fascinated with photography, this playful and somewhat performative piece plays with the idea of a fixed identity. This was an idea that the ethnographic portraits, such as those in ‘The people of India’ enforced. The photograph shows him dressed in a traditional manner performing a ceremony in a studio setting. Moreover, the playful nature of this photo was unheard of in the Victorian photographic tradition. His negotiation between modernity and tradition creates a self-conscious hybrid representation of Indian identity at a time when ethnographic photography was actively used as a means of conveying a sense of differentiation.
Amrita Sher-Gil also plays on the perceptions of ‘otherness’ created through colonisation. However, unlike Ram Singh who appears to mock and bring perspective with his portraits, Sher-Gil takes this critique a step further in Self-Portrait as a Tahitian. She creates a discourse on the masculine paradigm within Western art history and its obsession with sexualising the exotic. She complicates the idea that primitivism is an exclusive trope of the white male imagination. By presenting herself (half Hungarian and half Indian) as the central figure, she is emphasising and reinforcing the idea of a hybridised identity, an identity that colonial perception of primitivism tries to eliminate. On the surface, it would seem that Sher-Gil is referencing Gauguin stylistically and Van Gogh compositionally by incorporating the interest in Japonisme, but beyond that, it is evident that she is making a broader statement of her bicultural nature.
Visual differentiation between Sher-Gil’s painting and Ram Singh’s photograph suggests the extent to which both artists have realised themselves as the ‘exotic’ subject. Ram Singh has embraced tradition through the use of body paint, traditional clothing and ritualistic props, while Sher-Gil, has deliberately conveyed herself in the half-nude with minimal clothing. Although this is a clear visual differentiation, to the extent they have self-orientalised, the artists’ stylistic choices provide a clear message of the nature of Indian identity and how cross cultures and modernity blurs the lines of identity portrayal. Self Portrait as a Tahitian offers a perspective on modernism on a global scale, but it also acts as a conduit for a new Indian Avant-Garde. By not presenting herself as a traditional self, as Ram Singh did, she abolishes the emphasis on historicism created by the Bengal School, to create something authentically Indian. While Ram Singh articulates his hybrid identity through his lived experience as a traditional Maharaja and as a westernised individual, Sher-Gil as the product of a global diaspora, instead creates an interesting dialogue on an Indian identity far removed from both her attributed societies.
Both Ram Singh and Sher-Gil critically play with the idea of identity with their respective works. They use Western traditions of artmaking and mediums to create new narratives on Indian identity as a fluid entity, through the process on self-orientalising, resisting the colonial effects of categorisation created by ethnography and primitivism.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in