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Celebrating Amrita Sher-Gil’s Women

No one celebrates like Punjabi women. I am convinced of it. The beautiful, talented, gorgeous, spirit filled women of Ottawa’s Punjabi Gidda group swept me off my feet as we gathered to sing, dance and celebrate the life and legacy of Indo-Hungarian painter, Amrita Sher-Gil. The event took place on Saturday, April 20 at the Alma Duncan Salon of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

   To say that the women emerged like birds of paradise in the splendour and colours of Punjab would still be an understatement. The glorious women – Amarjit, Anna, AJ, Masha, Nilambri, Amarjeet – led by singer, dholki player and dancer par excellence, Primal Singh, transformed the blank white canvas of the Salon into a beautifully decorated Punjabi home in the blink of an eye.

Traditional tapestries, embroideries, cushions, rugs and their own fine garb created a riot of colour that lit up the large otherwise sterile and white room. With Sher-Gil’s paintings projected on a giant screen behind them, they seemed to bring to life a world Sher-Gil only alluded to.

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The visual richness was just an enticement to the exuberant performance of songs and dances that were to follow. The group sang a brilliant medley of Punjabi favourites full of good natured teasing, soulful narratives and a longing for home. The singing and dancing was interspersed with interviews of some elder women from the community who shared their stories of travel from Punjab to Canada and read from their own poetry. These sensitive conversations led by Paramjit gave us a moment to pause and think about what home really means.

But what do all these women of different ages and experience have to do with the often sombre, sometimes lonely paintings of Sher-Gil? I think Sher-Gil loved the Punjab and was greatly taken with the women of rural Punjab, but also by tribal women, hill women and people deeply connected to their own environment. Women of all ages populate her paintings… elderly women, young women, brides, mothers and daughters, workers, aristocrats. Her paintings seem to be embedded with narratives of the hidden lives of her subjects.

The celebration of women’s dancing, traditional women’s songs and poetry brought to life the world that many of Sher-Gil’s subjects would have inhabited. We celebrated the power, emotional resonance and camaraderie that women can create and share together. I feel certain that these things were important Sher-Gil and she would have smiled broadly at our mischievous yet sensual performance.